James Bond Is a Planet Unto Himself. Can He Survive in the Era of Cinematic Universes?

What does the future hold for the James Bond franchise?

No Time To Die James Bond Box Office Amazon MGM
Daniel Craig’s No Time To Die marks the end of an era for 007 and the beginning of a new future for James Bond. MGM

No Time To Die, Daniel Craig’s fifth and final outing as James Bond, arrives in U.S. theaters this weekend after nearly two full years of delays. The swan song caps a 15-year run for Craig, making him the longest-tenured 007 after slipping on the tuxedo with 2006’s devastatingly good Casino Royale. But in that time, the entertainment world surrounding the iconic spy has changed dramatically. Just as Craig’s brooding bulldozer of a Bond is virtually unrecognizable from Roger Moore’s campy iteration, the Hollywood of today is an entirely new economic, cultural, and technological playground.

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The cosmic shake of fate’s martini sees No Time To Die‘s arrival coincide with Amazon’s acquisition of MGM Studios, a partial owner of the Bond franchise. As such, Craig’s conclusion thrusts the property’s future into a unique unknown. To plot a course forward, we need to understand what James Bond represents to Hollywood, how the franchise has evolved, and what the future may hold for the suave assassin.

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James Bond Franchise Gross Comscore

James Bond at the Box Office

The economics of Bond are both key to its staying power and clue into the staying power of the old-school Hollywood model. No Time To Die marks the 25th theatrical Bond film since 1962 and is set to push the franchise’s worldwide box office gross over the $7 billion mark. Between car chases and shootouts, 007 has become the fourth highest-grossing film series in history behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

“The biggest takeaway when looking over Bond’s box office history is its unrivaled longevity,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, told Observer. “There is no other continuous franchise that has remained as viable and relevant over a 60-year period in all of Hollywood. It’s remarkably consistent.”

Adjusted for inflation, just one of the previous 24 Bond films has failed to crack $100 million domestic. In unadjusted gross, eight straight 007 pictures have surpassed that mark, beginning with Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut Goldeneye (1995). Worldwide, the franchise has surpassed $500 million in each of its last four outings (including its first ever $1 billion hit with Skyfall), and the last Bond movie that failed to rank amongst the 10 highest worldwide grossers in its release year was 1989’s License to Kill. So, yes, James Bond makes money. Lots of it.

In typical 007 fashion, the franchise’s success is partially due to its way with gadgets. “The simple fact is that, without [product placement], we couldn’t do it,” Craig said while making Skyfall. Omega watches, Gillette shavers, Belvedere vodka, Heineken beer, BMW, Aston Martin and an avalanche of other brands have all clawed over one another to be front and center in the spy’s adventures. Heineken reportedly paid $45 million to appear in Skyfall. Jacques de Cock, a marketing consultant and lecturer at the London School of Marketing, estimates that the franchise has earned between $4 billion and $5 billion in marketing sponsorships since 1962’s Dr. No. Bond as a pitchman is an asset other series don’t possess.

“When done correctly, the product placement lends an air of realism while offsetting marketing and production costs,” Dergarabedian said. “It’s genius.”

And Bond isn’t just Don Draper with a British accent. He’s beholden to no one but himself, which allows the franchise to pivot and reinvent itself unencumbered. “Many Marvel entries still feel like Comic-Con trade ads for business plans, rather than movie creativity,” Mark O’Connell, author of Catching Bullets: Memoirs of a Bond Fan, told Observer. “Also, the Marvel mind cannot have its movies operating independently of each other as constant linkage is more pressing than making a good cinematic caper. Bond has yet to trip in that way.”

And Bond’s complicated ownership structure hasn’t yet tripped up the franchise, either. As a film property, Bond is jointly owned by the Broccoli family’s Eon Productions and MGM. These two companies reap most of the rewards by licensing the IP to distributors, who are getting more of a reputation booster than a straight-forward moneymaker. Sony distributed Craig’s first four Bond films and, according to Forbes, covered half of the production budgets for those movies but collected just 25% of the profits.

Now that Amazon (AMZN) will own MGM, the financial situation is actually poised to improve on multiple fronts. “It’s huge for Bond,” Dergarabedian said of the tech giant’s MGM acquisition. “It’s great to have the deep financial pockets of Amazon. Eon Productions and the Broccolis will be the custodians of the content, but the marketers and distributors will need, and receive, significant resources. And for Amazon, they now take a bigger piece of the pie than previous distributors because they own MGM.”

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Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas in No Time To Die. Nicola Dove/MGM

Is James Bond Still Relevant in Today’s Franchise Ecosystem?

Bond once reigned supreme as the aspirational franchise model in Hollywood. Then the MCU expanded the franchise concept from a single character into an entire cross-pollinating universe that now includes TV. With Disney applying the same logic to Star Wars, the whole notion of a movie franchise has shifted to interconnected multimedia narratives. Craig’s Bond poked at the ways in which 007—a figure born out of a white male colonial mindset—was something of a cultural relic. (And even those involved with the franchise, such as Q actor Ben Whishaw, recognize the need for “radical” change if Bond “is not going to become a kind of museum piece.”) But is Bond a business relic in the age of modern franchise building?

“In keeping with the current tricks and structures of his rival franchise films like Marvel and Star Wars, the Craig era has endeavored to not get left behind in a binging age of box-sets and multi-series viewing,” O’Connell said. “When the Craig films lose that one-off mission template that marked the Bonds before, they are mindful of the audience’s ability to invest in the wider stories in a Game of Thrones and Avengers era. All our epic TV shows and domestic dramas are intertwined and connected. Bond can do the same.”

In fact, he may already have. Craig’s iteration of the super spy introduced serialized storytelling that creates film-to-film through lines, for better and worse. So perhaps what Bond represents to Hollywood is a franchise-building template that is just malleable enough to exist alongside juggernauts such as the MCU. After all, the greatest trick 007 ever pulled, according to Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, has been convincing audiences they’re seeing something new, when, in actuality, the creators are just remixing.

“Nothing in Hollywood is a cultural relic unless executives and creatives can no longer find a way to squeeze money out of it,” Bock said. “And with IP these days, that’s just not part of the playbook.”

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No Time To Die MGM

The Future of James Bond

Bond remains a franchise, not a universe as of yet. Star Wars has been revitalized by its transition to television, while the MCU has expanded to the small screen without diminishing its brand. When it comes to multimedia franchise-building, it’s about delineating between the two mediums. Should Bond eventually go that route under Amazon, it will need to define the theatrical components of the franchise and the streaming components. M, Moneypenny, Q—the world is overflowing with great characters that a talented writer could riff on for a small-screen strategy. But it has to be distinct from theatrical films as the inherent value of Bond over the years is derived from the prestige and exclusivity of theaters. Still, Amazon didn’t spend $8.45 billion on MGM for nothing.

“The exciting thing about Bond’s new future, is that there can be multiple spin-offs—whether theatrical or streaming—going on simultaneously,” Bock said. “The risk of that, obviously, is overkill, but fans will gravitate towards what they prefer, like they always do.”

It’s not as if a franchise expansion hasn’t previously been on the docket. One pitch that producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson shot down was a TV series following a young Bond as he attends Eton College. Halle Berry’s Jinx, introduced in 2002’s Die Another Day, was set to lead a spinoff film until MGM balked at the budget. Apple reportedly wanted to expand the Bond universe to the small screen when it was bidding on the franchise rights back in 2017. Yet such ambitions still appear to be of little interest to those with final say.

“You got it,” Broccoli recently told Total Film when asked if she remained uninterested in a James Bond TV series. “We make films. We make films for the cinema. That’s what we do.” Added Wilson: We’ve resisted that call for 60 years.”

Does the Bond franchise need to move away from the outmoded archetype it’s so desperately clung to for 60 years? Does it need to empower a greater cast of characters that better reflect modern sensibilities? If it wants to maintain its momentum, the answer seems obvious. As part of the continued evolution of the franchise, Bond needs a new actor to replace Daniel Craig who possesses the charisma and durability to sustain an action film franchise for more than a decade. The series needs a star that appeals to younger audiences to keep 007 fresh and vital as its core demographic of ticket buyers continues to age. And while Amazon is surely eager to leverage its shiny new toy with ambitious franchise expansion, the series can never lose its luster as a cinematic event and not just a bridge to future chapters yet to come.

“The Craig era made great strides to straddle the past and the now,” O’Connell said. “Perhaps a new Bond and a new Bond film will navigate forwards in a different way—with less reverence to the 1960s and a golden era that younger generations are less attuned to.”

Movie Math is an armchair analysis of Hollywood’s strategies for big new releases.

James Bond Is a Planet Unto Himself. Can He Survive in the Era of Cinematic Universes?