As both a tentpole and an artifact, the new James Bond movie now belongs to the increasingly voracious Jeff Bezos. Most of it, anyway.
In acquiring MGM for $8.45 billion, Amazon can claim proprietorship of No Time to Die, which opens October 8, but some insiders argue it’s a mixed blessing. A $300 million theatrical release, the latest Bond represents a tangle of rights agreements dating back 60 years that reflect the legalistic compromises of the past rather than the slick streamer dealmaking of the present. Sequel prospects also lack a pre-geriatric star (Daniel Craig, 53, has signed off). Some ticket buyers may also see its plot as a creaky reminder of white-bread misogyny.
Nonetheless, the Bond franchise has accounted for many hundreds of millions of dollars in box office muscle, and Bezos, as the world’s richest man, covets muscle. Amazon’s meek presence in Hollywood has always annoyed its boss, as Brad Stone’s excellent new book Amazon Unbound reminds us.
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Viewing early cuts of his dystopian series Man in the High Castle, Bezos sternly instructed his executives, “Either stop it or reshoot it.”
To this empire builder, starting from scratch is never an issue. ”I want my Game of Thrones,” he’s repeatedly demanded of his staff. Instead he got Woody Allen’s first TV series, Crisis in Six Scenes — a flop.
Kirk Kerkorian, who owned Las Vegas casinos as well as the MGM studio, once told me, “A good gambler knows when to leave the table.” He left the James Bond table when he sold his studio to Ted Turner, who soon also left the table.
Could Bezos learn from Kerkorian’s dicta? I was personally introduced to the Bond bonanza in 1983 when a cadre of business affairs executives invaded my office with packets of documents. “When you sign the top document, you’ll be greenlighting the next Bond movie,” instructed the first executive. “The film is titled Octopussy.”
“Is the script as bad as the title?” I asked.
“Probably,” came the reply. “But you’re signing as president of United Artists and we need your signature, not your opinion. A Bond deal is a special deal.”
I promptly signed. I’d heard the legend of how Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, heirs to the Bond dynasty, had constructed a web of contracts that tightly controlled every creative and marketing element of their franchise, and also kept half of the action. I had no stake in intruding in this cozy arrangement.. The movie starred the genial Roger Moore who, at 55, came across more as a stylish maître d’ than as a master spy.
Lacking the lethal danger of Sean Connery, Octopussy performed torpidly at the worldwide box office, but later along came Skyfall starring a gritty young Craig. The film grossed $1.1 billion, ensuring the sanctity of the brand.
But will it survive in a post-pandemic world of binge-ers? The Bond franchise lacks the multi-character panache of the Marvel universe. It never fostered a continuing chain of bestselling books, like Harry Potter. Even the Bond video games have semi-expired.
Bond movies have never established a unique visual style. Lewis Gilbert, an early Bond director, once told me that “Bond movies are manufactured, not directed.” John Logan, who has written two Bonds, still praises the “manufacturing” process as being “original, thorny and special” – and devoid of the analytics that Amazon may introduce.
The newest hired hand on No Time to Die is Cary Joji Fukunaga, whose Beasts of No Nation dealt with an African warlord who trains orphans.
Now a Hollywood warlord, Bezos has his eyes fixed on other important assets beyond Bond. MGM controls powerful television brands under the ubiquitous Mark Burnett, the man responsible not only for Survivor and Shark Tank but also for Donald Trump’s TV ascension (The Apprentice.) Its TV studio also boasts The Handmaid’s Tale, a Hulu hit, and FX’s Fargo. Adding to all this, Amazon spent $250 million to buy the rights to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and will spend $465 million to make the series.
Then there’s the fabled, if faded, MGM film library, whose titles symbolize its storied past – Singin’ in the Rain, Pink Panther, Rocky, etc. Derivative rights to these films have been picked clean, but The Bezos Scenario is to fast-track growth in the streaming business while signaling competitiveness in the face of the headline-grabbing AT&T-Discovery deal – one which created an entity controlling the biggest share of U.S. cable viewers.
Since Bezos remains a techie by instinct, his fixation on Hollywood puzzles some on his executive team, according to Stone’s book. I was invited to the first cycle of Bezos’ parties five years ago when he decided to hype Manchester By the Sea into an award winner.
Surrounded by Matt Damon, Michelle Williams and a bevy of attractive women, Bezos clearly relished his new milieu. He also was frustrated that it focused on a mere art movie. After all, here was a man who yearned for bigger bets: He’s been famously unruffled by his occasional corporate losses — $241 million in 2014 — or by the abject failure of his vaunted Fire Phone.
“I’m covered with scar tissue from my many failures, but they don’t deter me,” he told his new friends. I could read their reaction: What a perfect attitude to take on Hollywood. And James Bond!