Bond: Confronting changing media

James Bond movie companies - with SPECTRE

Right now in Hollywood a revolution is taking place that is unparalleled in its sheer scale; a revolution that most Bond fans are not fully aware of. With this revolution a lot is going on, both commercially and financially. A look at where James Bond fits in.

By Gert Waterink, Guest Writer

Another merger in Hollywood

Recently, Paramount Pictures (part of Viacom) and CBS television (which owns streaming platform CBS All Access) announced that their plans to merge had been finalized. The new company will be named ViacomCBS.

Right before this merger the existence of these two entertainment companies resulted in quite a few legal problems, especially for the famous Star Trek-franchise. Until then Paramount Pictures owned the film rights to produce Star Trek related content, whereas CBS only had the television and streaming platform rights for Star Trek.

However, now the merger ViacomCBS has taken into effect, all the Star Trek rights have fallen under one umbrella again. Good news for Trekkies. It will most definitely become easier to produce new content. The new CEO from ViacomCBS, Joe Ianniello, even mentioned expansion of the Trek universe in a more structured way. Jean-Luc Picard, who will also return this January in the new CBS All Access series Star Trek: Picard, can only be happy his universe has more certainty to it.

But it doesn’t stop there.

The many spy fans out here are very much aware that the Mission: Impossible-franchise is owned by Paramount Pictures too. With the new ViacomCBS banner it becomes less necessary to become dependent on non-American production companies like the Chinese Alibaba Pictures. Moreover, ViacomCBS will owns streaming platform CBS All Access, and with that option a relaunch of a serialized Mission: Impossible may be commercially viable.

Think about a shared universe in which other secret IMF agents need to take on villains that are hellbent on destroying Earth. The new CEO, Joe Ianniello is very much aware of what these scale advantages have to offer: “[in the age of Marvel] scale is becoming more and more important all the time”.

More ‘hostile takeovers’

On top of this recent example, we must mention Disney. Because with that brand things are getting even more serious. In the recent years The entertainment mammoth has devoured tremendous amounts of ‘meat’ on its trail. So far it has eaten Lucasfilm Ltd. (Star Wars, Indiana Jones), Marvel Entertainment (The Avengers, Iron Man) and this year it violently ripped apart 21st Century Fox (owning X-Men and the Die Hard-franchise).

This last takeover shows that financial difficulties could eventually mothball a franchise. The planned Die Hard-prequel, which was in pre-production and would be helmed by director Len Wiseman, was scrapped entirely by Disney. The premise was interesting though. It would tell the story of a younger John McClane and also Bruce Willis would be joining the Yippee ki-yay-party.

And obviously Bond fans keep a good eye on these developments. The traditionalists among us already voiced their opinions online: if the rights of James Bond will be taken over by a new movie company, then that’s the end of it….the death of it.

The recent criticism, to put it mildly, about the news that No Time To Die-character Nomi could very well (temporarily) be playing 007, indicates that currently Bond fans can not imagine that certain radical changes could take place with the Bond-franchise.

But looking at this ‘Hollywood Revolution’ it’s perhaps time to get ourselves prepared.

Apart from what this means creatively for the Bond-franchise, they should foremost be seen in the light of commercial and financial improvements, like increased turnover growth and especially better returns-on-investments.

Yes, profits! It’s an aspect we fans usually do not wish to touch, perhaps only to show how well this or that Bond-film is performing in cinemas. But let’s face it, Bond was and still is a money-maker, and that decides its fate.

A financial argument

From a financial perspective there’s a lot to say for scale increase and diversification within the Bond-franchise. It should not be a radical talking point at all actually, because financially the franchise has actually lost a lot of mojo when compared to those good old days of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Apart from the worldwide box office gross numbers (total ticket sales, so price of one ticket X number of visitors), a figure we Bond fans love to embrace as a gauge for success, big entertainment companies like Disney (Marvel), Warner, Comcast (Universal), Apple, ViacomCBS (Paramount) and Amazon prefer to look at microeconomic figures like the ROI, the Return On Investment (Return On Investment in the case of filmmaking: the ratio between total global ticket sales and all production, marketing and distribution costs/investments).

It’s exactly that ROI percentage calculation that shows the biggest weakness of the Bond-franchise in recent years.

It may seem pretty logical that diversification of a portfolio often is the prime answer to a healthy increase of the Return On Investment. Ethan Hunt and his team may draw profits from not just films, but also tv-series on its streaming platform.

Universal’s own Fast & Furious franchise has made its first spinoff,  Hobbs & Shaw. Marvel Studios makes as many as three films a year. It is now adding television series for the new Disney + streaming service.

Meanwhile, Bond films come out on an uncertain schedule. More than four years will have passed between SPECTRE in fall 2015 and No Time to Die in spring 2020.

Other financial indicators

Off course other factors need to be taken into account to develop an even better picture of where the 007-franchise stands at the moment. Think for instance about the complex legal structure of the James Bond franchise.

It’s controlled controlled by MGM and Danjaq/Eon. No Time to Die will be distributed by United Artists Releasing (co-owned by MGM and Annapurna Pictures) in the U.S. and Universal internationally. That follows four Bond films that had been distributed by Sony Pictures.

MGM, nine years after existing bankruptcy, is one of Hollywood’s weakest studios. Annapurna reportedly in financial trouble.

Bond luxury status-brand and sponsor-machine

Against all these financial arguments, which indeed do not bode well for Bond’s future, there is still the status of the brand.

Many blue chip-companies still want to be associated with the luxury and style that incorporates the Bond brand. For Sony (Columbia Pictures) association of all that style was laid out to its other brands and via tie-in’s (Sony trailers, product placement of Sony Xperia phones). There were also lucrative sponsor contracts they help defray the cost of marketing. Among those participating: Heineken, Gillette, Red Bull Racing, Aston Martin, The Olympics, Orlebar Brown, Omega Watches, Bollinger and Tom Ford.

But even this lucrative income source should not be taken for granted. Marvel in the meantime has also learned the art of sponsorships Brands like Audi, Sony (well, Bond is gone now), Coca Cola and Lego have become the prime suppliers for Marvel. But Marvel adds a little extra to the mix of lucrative sponsor contracts. They take into account the young fans more thoroughly. In the terms of these sponsor contracts it is absolutely forbidden that they convey irritation and resentment among the fans. Something that did happen when 007 took another pint of Heineken after bedding a woman in Skyfall.

Healthier finance vs. better quality

It becomes more and more clear that in the short term the Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson always have the upper hand. The complex yet unique financial structure of the brand ‘James Bond’ results in guaranteed enormous cash flows even if a newly produced Bond-films is unable to generate much healthier profits. But for how much longer?

If new Bond films aren’t generated with more ease and within a shorter period, then other movie companies, like for instance Universal Pictures, will ask questions. And then the financial profitability of the Bond-films are its biggest weakness. There is simply too little new fresh Bond material that can put happy smiles on the faces of shareholders and investors.

Back in 2017, when several more companies were bidding for that role of ‘global Bond distributor’, one representative said during these negotiations: “In the world of Lucasfilm and Marvel, the Bond-franchise feels extremely underdeveloped”, hinting at the fact that Bond as a film-franchise should be diversified much more, as a spin-off, or even on streaming platforms.

It was a representative from Apple who came up with that remark. Also Amazon was in the bidding process of becoming the global distributor of No Time To Die Both Apple and Amazon eventually bowed out of these negotiations.

Make no mistake. As a Bond fan, talk about spinoffs initially left me cold and gave me, from a creative perspective, skeptical feelings.

Too much Marvel influence can even let the best Marvel-film come across as an unoriginal marketing vehicle for the long-term. Something that the Bond-franchise also had to endure back in the 1960s and 1970s. Reinventing the wheel, like Disney is doing with The Lion King, becomes then an adage for profit. So this can be only done only to a certain extent.

James Bond films are no art house productions, how much the Bond producers try to infuse that in their Bond films. In its core Bond films are: plain action-blockbusters by the people….for the people.

Financial profit and film quality are two things that don’t need to exclude each other all the time. Films like Black Panther (2018) and Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) received more critical acclaim than SPECTRE (2015). And at the same time, by taking into account financial indicators like Return On Investment (ROI), the first two films have been way more profitable than the latter one as well.

There are other questions for Danjaq/Eon.

Does Bond adopt a more long-term plan? Are we going to produce non-Bond productions? Or are we not going to take any production breaks any more with regard to Bond? Will we give the role of Bond to an actor who’s more forthcoming with social media, decisions from higher level and more strictly defined contracts? Or do we contract a Daniel Craig 2.0 who himself indicates when he’s in the mood again to play Bond? Are we going to make the tough decision to expand the Bond-franchise with new characters in spinoffs? Or do we continue the current path of producing Bond films?

Signs of change on the horizon

With recent reports that Nomi (Lashana Lynch) could play 007 (at least temporarily) in No Time To Die, there could already be some twitching and changing going on. If sharply written, then there could be some unlit enthusiasm present among critics and fans for this new character Nomi. And if Bond can stay Bond and, with a new actor taking over the reign from Craig, can become 007, then it isn’t such a weird notion that Nomi could become a spinoff.

No Time to Die logo

Then there is the energetic American director Cary Fukunaga who is a second choice director for the 25th film, but who could become even more energetic from that prospect (he himself was removed from the horror-production It in 2016).

With his television experience, for which deadlines, improvisation and hands-on-mentality are sometimes more important than with film productions, he could proof a formidable choice for No Time To Die. Let’s not forget he finished 440 minutes of film in 100 days for HBO’s True Detective. Perhaps this athletic multitasker is what the Bond franchise needs to launch a new Bond actor after No Time To Die.

For fans, we have to ask ourselves two questions:

Do we wish a lean and streamlined management and a healthy financial future for the Bond franchise, in which besides more iterations of Bond and its characters there is also plentiful creative space for delivering a top quality Bond-film, both action-wise and story-wise ?

 Or do we keep hanging in this current conservative flow of things or in this desire to maintain traditional status quo that continues to guide our creativity, so that we raise our fingers and scream “Better no Bond film at all then!” or “A spinoff or a Fleming MI6 tv series? Never!” ?

Just to be clear, when I am writing this, I am still foremost a little kid whose enthusiasm is exponentially triggered by the prospect of another (25th) James Bond film being in production. April 2020 is nearing very fast and all the fun that will happen before that –release of trailers, another press conference a new Bond song– will not go unnoticed on me. But as a Bond-fan the long-term future of the franchise is very dear to me too.

There’s no time to waste.