The name of the franchise is Bond. James Bond. It is up for sale. And, in the contest to distribute 007’s cinematic adventures, $2bn is just table stakes.
MGM has been looking for a new partner to make the Bond films since its two-picture deal with Sony expired with the 2015 release of Spectre. The talks have become more urgent since Daniel Craig confirmed that he would return for the 25th movie in the series, which is due to be released in October 2019.
The as yet untitled feature will be Craig’s fifth – and probably final – outing as 007, given that he told Time Out in 2015 that he would rather “slash my wrists” than don the most famous tuxedo in movie history again.
The stakes in the contest to secure the rights to the most enduring movie megafranchise are higher than ever as the traditional bidders – favourites Warner Bros and Sony – are being challenged by the likes of Amazon, Apple and several Chinese entertainment groups.
The negotiations to make and market Bond movies can include more plot twists than the films themselves. Bond’s big screen debut Dr No (1962) was made by EON Productions (EON stands for the suitably Bondian Everything Or Nothing) which, for legal reasons, is owned by holding company Danjaq, originally a joint venture between producers Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who had originally bought the screen and broadcast rights from Bond’s creator Ian Fleming. In 1975, nearly broke, Saltzman sold his half of Danjaq to United Artists but, 13 years later, the studio (by then part of MGM) sold its share to the Broccoli family.
Since the deaths of Harry (in 1996) and his wife Dana (2004), the Bond movies have effectively been co-produced by their daughter Barbara Broccoli and Dana’s son Michael G. Wilson (who runs EON) in partnership with MGM.
The talks preceding the making of Spectre were particularly complex. Craig’s first adventures as the suave superspy – Casino Royale (2006) and A Quantum Of Solace (2008) – had rebooted the franchise and made a decent profit for MGM and Sony, which co-financed them. When it came to striking a deal for Skyfall and Spectre, MGM CEO Gary Barber was keen to play hardball, especially with Paramount determined to oust Sony.
Yet Barber’s insistence that it would only offer 8% of the box office revenue to its distribution partners left Paramount more shaken than stirred. Sony eventually prevailed, winning a two-picture deal by allowing MGM to co-finance other movies, notably The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. In return, Sony capped its financial exposure on the Bond films to 25% of negative cost – the amount spent producing and shooting a film before such expenses as promotion are incurred – and negotiated a fee for distributing the movie.
Spectre generated box-office revenue of $881m. Good, but less than the $1.1bn achieved in 2012 by Skyfall, the most lucrative release in the history of the 55-year-old movie franchise. Even so, $881m sounds like a lot of money but in the weird world of Hollywood economics, all is seldom as it seems.
In an email leaked when Sony was hacked, Andrew Gumpert, the company’s former head of business affairs, estimated that if Spectre’s negative cost did not exceed $275m, and the film was as successful as Skyfall, under the terms of its deal Sony would only make a $35m profit. As it fell $200m short of Skyfall’s take, it probably made a loss.
That will not deter Sony, Warner, Fox, Universal, Amazon or Apple from bidding to partner MGM for the next Bonds. Apple has asked Sony veterans Zack van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht to lead its negotiations. The entrance of new players should raise the value of the franchise, currently estimated at $2-5bn.
The other complication is the stance of Wilson and Broccoli who are traditionalists, concerned primarily with the movie franchise. Yet many Hollywood insiders say this focus has left the franchise underdeveloped in an age when companies are making billions of dollars from exploiting intellectual property across all mediums, merchandising, spin-offs and creating the kind of cinematic universes that have proved so lucrative for Disney’s Marvel superhero films, which effectively cross-promote other characters and stories.
After Fleming’s death in 1964, his estate opened up the literary franchise to keep it going, commissioning new Bond novels from a stable of writers. More recently, it hired Charlie Higson to write a series of Young Bond novels and persuaded such authors as Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd to pen new Bond fiction. At some point, they could be joined by Martin Amis – when his father Kingsley struck a deal with Fleming’s heirs to write his underrated Bond adventure, Colonel Sun, he insisted that the contract give his son the right to follow suit.
The irony is that in the 1960s, the Bond movies pioneered the brand extension business. The franchise’s most iconic theme tunes – 13 of which have reached the UK top ten with one, Sam Smith’s Writing’s On The Wall, topping the charts – worked as movie plugs and commercially and artistically as classic pop songs. Monty Norman’s Bond theme has become one of the most recognised pieces of music in the world.
The merchandising operation was so successful that, by the end of the 1960s, a self-respecting young fan of 007 could be woken by their James Bond alarm clock, tuck away their James Bond pillow case, dry their face with a James Bond towel, play with their Corgi James Bond Aston Martin DB5 toy before packing their James Bond lunchbox for school where, at the gates, they could target friends with 007 rubber bands (‘Super quality! Multicoloured!’) – said to be deadly within a five-yard radius.
Such success was a proving ground for the phenomenally lucrative Star Wars spin-offs in the 1970s which are often wrongly supposed to herald the birth of movie merchandising. Yet even though Bond vies the Beatles as Britain’s greatest cultural export, the merchandising business has languished.
We know the outcome of every Bond movie before we start watching: however much the suave secret agent suffers, we know that he will avoid what his arch enemy Blofeld called “particularly unpleasant and humiliating” death.
The only certainty about the outcome of the negotiations between MGM and its various suitors to make the next Bond movie – probably the highest stake game of poker being played at the moment in Hollywood – is that there will be one.
☛ Apart from being a consultant editor on SM, Paul Simpson is also the editor of the Rough Guide To James Bond (published in 2002)