Ask anyone in the hunt for the next batch of James Bond films that are now up for grabs, and this is what you’ll hear, as voiced by one exec whose studio is among those in the chase: “They might not say they’re actively shopping it, but they are certainly making it known their deal is up and they will be.”
The James Bond distribution deal with Sony is done after Spectre bows in the U.S. on November 6. It could stay at Sony or it could head to Warner Bros., or Fox (which handles MGM’s home video), or Universal, and Paramount. Or even Disney, where Bob Iger has shown the wisdom of making big bets can work out in buying out whole companies like Marvel and Lucasfilm for cash and stock.
At a time when studios are hungrier than ever for proven global franchises, James Bond is Hollywood’s longest-running success story. Consider that 50 years after Sean Connery launched the character in 1962’s Dr No, 007’s last outing Skyfall became the series’ biggest grossing film, topping out at $1.1 billion globally. With Daniel Craig and that film’s director Sam Mendes a week away from the U.S. launch of what might be their last Bond film together, there is every expectation that Spectre will chase that high-water gross mark. It already opened briskly overseas.
So it’s not surprising that a hit-starved studio like Warner Bros, or any other major, would covet the franchise. Indeed, sources sighted Warner Bros chief Kevin Tsujihara at the Montage Hotel recently with Gary Barber, the point person at MGM whose job it is to figure out the distribution future of 007 for MGM and Danjaq producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. According to our source, the chatter seemed more intense than a meet and greet. It looked like they were throwing around numbers. Not surprisingly, Warner Bros has been oft mentioned as the most aggressive in this hunt.
What’s odd about this is that nobody is saying that Sony hasn’t done a fine job in marketing and releasing the Bond films. But the last deal was made by Amy Pascal, and she is no longer in charge. The new guy in the seat, Tom Rothman, is known from his days running Fox as a tough, bottom-line-minded executive who most feel would walk away from a deal that gave the studio market share at the expense of profit. Indeed, some say that at Pascal’s urging, Sony gave up too much the last time around to keep 007 in the fold.
The Wall Street Journal rifled through those hacked Sony documents and pried out a memo that underscores the troubling risk-reward disparity. According to WSJ, co-financing and marketing and releasing Skyfall brought Sony $57 million on a film that grossed $1.1 billion globally. MGM, in turn, made $175 million, while Danjaq made $109 million. And that doesn’t factor in all the other things Sony gave up and the movies like the 21 Jump Street franchise that MGM was kissed into when the last re-up deal was made. Some would consider the math on this to be on par with the old first-dollar gross deal scenarios which became toxic to studios when owners like Sumner Redstone realized that a star like Tom Cruise had earned way more than $50 million on a Mission: Impossible movie through first-dollar gross participation before Paramount — which financed the whole film –had even recouped its outlay. His generous portion on video pushed that payday to an estimated $80 million.
So much is up in the air right now on 007. First off, the odds are against Craig and Mendes returning for another go, which would mean starting again with a new actor even though reports indicate Craig might owe one more film to fulfill his contract. When Craig recently observed that he would rather “slash his wrists” than do another Bond movie, it certainly echoed loudly around Hollywood, even if those close to him attributed it mostly to the bad idea of putting Craig in front of a journalist right after he completed a time-press and arduous Spectre shoot in which he seriously injured his knee. It would be similar, they said, to asking a woman just out of childbirth how eager she was to have another.
Here’s what we hear. 007 rights gatekeepers Barber, and Wilson and Broccoli, will wait until Spectre plays around the world and accumulates an ungodly global gross that will only strengthen their leverage. And then, early next year, they will make the best deal. If that means bidding farewell to Sony, so be it.
Sony had initially gotten rights to Casino Royale years ago in a deal orchestrated deftly behind the scenes by former Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO John Calley, who revived James Bond while head of United Artists. Because of that, Sony released Casino Royale with a new Bond — Craig — and grossed about $600M worldwide.
When it came time to re-up, Pascal was running the studio and people are still debating whether her zeal to keep Bond led Sony to give up too much. On the plus side, Pascal was invited to have a creative voice in the process over the last few films. Sony co-financed movies that were big hits, and received a distribution fee that some say was capped.
But it was the other concessions granted by Sony that still has tongues wagging. Sony offered up some of its plum projects to be co-financed by MGM. At the time, the sexiest one the studio had was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. That film, which starred Craig, went into the pot and while the movie didn’t come close to meeting everyone’s out-sized expectations, 21 Jump Street — another film offered up for co-financing — certainly did. MGM got to be part of that hit and its sequel and presumably will be part of the next film that is rumored to meld that series with Men In Black. Sony, in turn, got to co-finance and release some MGM films, including the Robocop remake. Sony is now gearing up for another Dragon Tattoo installment with The Girl In The Spider’s Web, the book written by David Lagercrantz, who was installed by the rights-holder relatives of the late author Stieg Larsson. Pascal is a producer on that movie, and MGM is expected to be in the mix if the studio wants to be.
The proceeds from these co-fi deals went into into a split pot, but the unsung coup for MGM was that it got to broker almost all of the international TV deals. That studio was still getting back on its feet after being frozen in a bankruptcy, and it’s believed they didn’t have the kind of clout to get as high a price as Sony would have. It also left Sony’s loyal global customers on the outside looking in because MGM was making the deals and had its own list of customers. The prospect of all that led to widespread internal disagreements within Sony divisions over whether the studio should make such a deal, but Pascal won the day.
Two blockbusters and Spectre later, and Pascal is now off producing movies. And the studio will have some serious decisions to make as it formulates how crucial it is to keep James Bond. Many believe that no studio will replicate the horse trading that took place in the last Sony 007 deal. It is an open question whether another studio will find some ground on which they can get the market share bragging rights that come with 007, while not feeling they made a loss leader deal.
If ever MGM was going to get back into the distribution business — it disbanded distribution when it emerged from bankruptcy and has placed big movies like the Ben-Hur and The Magnificent Seven remakes all over town — the 007 franchise would be the one to relaunch. That’s always an option, but more of a long shot than the notion of Craig returning to His Majesty’s Secret Service.
The betting here is that if Sony’s brain trust led by Michael Lynton and Rothman won’t do it, another big studio like Warner Bros — which successfully partnered with MGM on the billion-dollar The Hobbit trilogy — will swallow hard and make the deal. Tsujihara and Barber are tight, and you can bet that Warner Bros will move heaven and earth to make a hit out of MGM’s upcoming Rocky film Creed, the Ryan Coogler-directed film that opens Thanksgiving with Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan starring. Is it too much to imagine that soon, the most important entries on Tsujihara’s call sheet will be Barber, along with Harry Potter author JK Rowling and James Packer?