In the keenly-anticipated Spectre, James Bond abandons his employers to embark upon a rogue mission. Now an off-screen battle for 007’s services has begun between Hollywood studios brandishing chequebooks at a box office banker who has become a free agent.
The five-star reviews which greeted the unveiling of Spectre raised expectations that the 24th official Bond film could match the $1.1 worldwide box office gross recorded by its predecessor Skyfall, the most lucrative instalment in the series to date.
However Spectre concludes the latest two-picture deal agreed between MGM, the Bond producer which controls the rights to the franchise along with Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson of Eon and Sony Pictures, the studio which bankrolls the production and controls the films’ global cinema distribution.
Another box office triumph will strengthen MGM’s hand in what is expected to be hardball negotiations with Sony, which successfully partnered with the producer on the earlier Daniel Craig outings, Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008).
MGM, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2010, now has the whip hand over Sony. The relationship has generated $2bn at the box office over the past decade. Reliable returning franchises are the lifeblood of Hollywood studios and aside from Bond, accompanied by an extensive range of merchandise opportunities, Sony only has Spider-man.
Rivals circling Bond include Warner Bros, which teamed with MGM on the recent Hobbit blockbusters. MGM’s chief executive Gary Barber and Warner Bros CEO Kevin Tsujihara enjoy a close friendship. Paramount, which came close to snatching the rights in 2011 when the deal was last renewed, is back in the picture, along with Fox.
A leaked email from Barbara Broccoli to then Sony co-chair Amy Pascal suggested the relationship was coming to an end. “Amy, I can't bear the idea of this being our last Bond together. I don’t know why Gary (Barber) should want to make a change after all the success we have had together,” she wrote.
Tom Rothman, the new chairman of Sony Pictures, said: “The reality is that Sony’s had a fantastic run with the Bonds. Sure we’re going to compete for (the rights), but let’s be honest, so is everybody in the business.”
Rothman’s sanguine reaction may be because the Bond deal was skewed in MGM’s financial interest. Sony receives a relatively low distribution fee of 8 per cent, according to Hollywood Reporter.
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The Japanese giant had to bankroll Spectre’s spiralling budget, with Sam Mendes given whatever resources he required to secure his return as director. The final figure was pegged back to $300m with product placement deals and tax incentives but Sony has reduced a 50/50 investment in the Bond films to 25% of the costs for Spectre.
Sony estimates its revenues from Spectre could amount to a relatively modest $35m. However as a prestige franchise which attracts other talent to the studio, Bond is still a valuable property for Sony.
Studios bidding for Bond will wish to know more about Daniel Craig’s intentions. Now a firm favourite with the Bond audience, the actor said he would rather “slash my wrists” than reprise the role but colleagues believe he could be persuaded to return for one more film.
MGM, which owns Hollywood’s largest film library of around 4,000 titles, is now valued at $4.5bn and is said to be considering an IPO. A new high-value Bond deal is likely to impress potential investors. But its ability to strong-arm studios into another deal which grants the lion’s share of rewards to MGM, will depend on Spectre delivering the goods at the global box office.
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