An advertisement in cinema magazine Screen International launches James Bond rights holders on path of shadowy agent.
Not only is James Bond up against an old adversary he thought he had killed off, he is also facing a mysterious agent from Amsterdam, who communicates with the world through the press. What the Dutchman is selling would make any self-respecting secret agent twitchy - he is offering James Bond to the highest bidder.
It sounds like the plot for the latest 007 movie, but this storyline is real. The new film Die Another Day will be in cinemas in November, but production has been overshadowed by an advert headed "Sale of James Bond film rights", including script material from Bond novelist Ian Fleming and the original and greatest film 007, Sir Sean Connery.
"It’s obviously a very, very sensitive situation," says Katherine McCormack, spokeswoman for Eon Productions, the company that has made the Bond films since Dr No, 40 years ago. "It’s potentially going to explode into a legal situation."
Eon, associate company Danjaq and studio MGM are famously litigious when it comes to protecting their top agent, recently dispatching their operatives after it was announced the new Austin Powers film would be called Goldmember. It will now be called Austin Powers in Goldmember, and the settlement gives MGM approval of future titles.
The latest conflict began a few weeks ago with a brief and enigmatic advert in the trade paper Screen International announcing a forthcoming sale of Bond rights. A week later there were two full-page adverts, one carrying details of the sale, and a second warning potential buyers of dire consequences should they get mixed up in such a diabolical plot.
The first advert announced an auction of rights, "unless sold beforehand". On offer was the use of the name James Bond and number 007, and exclusive rights to the name SPECTRE, the international crime organisation, and that of its chairman Ernst Stavro Blofeld, previously brought to the screen by the likes of Donald Pleasence and Telly Savalas.
Buyers do not even need to think up their own stories. "Included are film and literary rights to various James Bond outlines, treatments and screenplays, co-authored by Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Len Deighton and Sean Connery," says the ad.
It included a contact name, Marian van de Veen-van Rijk, an address in Amsterdam, and a fax number, but no phone number or email. I sent a fax, without reply. There are only a handful of mentions of van de Veen-Van Rijk on the Internet, in Dutch. And, no, I don’t.
Eon knows nothing about the mysterious Dutch contact, but suspect the identity of the real mastermind behind this plot. "We believe he’s an agency working on behalf of Kevin McClory," says McCormack.
The expat Irishman was one of the brains behind Thunderball. McClory developed the plot of Thunderball, as an original film idea, along with Fleming and Whittingham, in the late Fifties. Fleming later worked the story up into a novel. After the first in a long series of court actions, McClory won the right to be credited in the book for his contribution.
Thunderball might have been the first Bond film had it not been for the legal complications. With McClory’s renewed involvement, it became the fourth in the series and, as the Screen International advert helpfully points out, the most successful. McClory also won remake rights, which he exercised by making Never Say Never Again with Connery and Warner Bros in 1982.
Connery, who had fallen out with the producers of the "official" Bond films, had previously developed a Bond script with novelist Len Deighton called Warhead. The plot revolved around Blofeld kidnapping vessels in the Bermuda Triangle, stealing nuclear warheads and holding the world to ransom.
In 1996 McClory announced he was going ahead with the film, now entitled Warhead 2000 AD. The industry was sceptical, but the following year Columbia Pictures revealed it was teaming up with him on a rival series of Bond films, with the first one due in cinemas by 1999 and the possibility of Connery returning as the new, mature Bond.
MGM and Danjaq’s top legal agents were dispatched with a licence to kill, Columbia backed down and McClory was left to carry the fight alone.
In the meantime MGM, Danjaq and Eon were tightening their grip on Bond, finally acquiring rights to Casino Royale, which had been adapted for American TV in 1954, with Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. A 1967 spoof version starred David Niven, Woody Allen and Orson Welles, and more recently Quentin Tarantino had been linked with a possible remake. Eon is, after all, an acronym for "Everything or nothing".
Over the last couple of years McClory has lost several court cases, culminating at the US Court of Appeals last August, although much of the argument hinged on the timescale.
"Anybody on this planet who is stupid enough to believe that he’s got any rights to do anything other than make a remake of Thunderball, forget it," says Graham Rye, creative director of the James Bond International Fan Club.
In their advert in Screen, MGM and Danjaq claim ownership of "the James Bond character as depicted in the Bond films". But that is not quite the same as claiming exclusive screen rights.
Rye remains sceptical. "I don’t think that you’ll ever see another James Bond film outside of the Eon stable," he says.
And yet McClory’s previous title may still prove prescient - Never Say Never Again.