I wrote Bond movies; Amazon, MGM deal gives me chills

I wrote Bond movies; Amazon, MGM deal gives me chills

The current deal with Amazon gives Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson ironclad assurances of continued artistic control

Amazon has agreed to buy the storied MGM studios for $8.45 billion. Credit: AFP Photo

By John Logan,

So, Amazon now owns 50 per cent of 007.

With the acquisition of MGM and its movie catalogue, the online retail giant bought into the James Bond franchise. When I heard this news, a chill went through me. Having worked as a writer on “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” I know that Bond isn’t just another franchise, not Marvel or a DC — it is a family business that has been carefully nurtured and shepherded through the changing times by the Broccoli/Wilson family. Work sessions on “Skyfall” and “Spectre” were like hearty discussions around the dinner table, with Barbara Broccoli and her half brother Michael Wilson letting all the unruly children talk. Every crazy aunt or eccentric uncle was given a voice. We discussed and debated and came to a resolution, as families must, with no outside voices in the room. When you work on Bond movies, you’re not just an employee. You’re part of that family.

The reason we’re still watching Bond movies after more than 50 years is that the family has done an extraordinary job of protecting the character through the thickets of moviemaking and changing public tastes. Corporate partners come and go, but James Bond endures. He endures precisely because he is being protected by people who love him.

The current deal with Amazon gives Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, who owns 50 per cent of the Bond empire, ironclad assurances of continued artistic control. But will this always be the case? What happens if a bruising corporation like Amazon begins to demand a voice in the process? What happens to the comradeship and quality control if there’s an Amazonian overlord with analytics parsing every decision? What happens when a focus group reports they don’t like Bond drinking martinis? Or killing quite so many people? And that English accent’s a bit alienating, so could we have more Americans in the story for marketability?

If you think I’m exaggerating, consider some internal polling data that decreed that the movie adaptation of “Sweeney Todd” — for which I wrote the screenplay — would be much more popular without all those annoying songs.

From my experience, here’s what happens to movies when such concerns start invading the creative process: Everything gets watered down to the most anodyne and easily consumable version of itself. The movie becomes an inoffensive shadow of a thing, not the thing itself. There are no more rough edges or flights of cinematic madness. The fire and passion are gradually drained away as original ideas and voices are subsumed by commercial concerns, corporate oversight and polling data. I wonder whether such an outré studio movie as “Vertigo” would have survived if such pressures existed then. Not to mention radical films like “Citizen Kane,” “The Red Shoes,” “Cabin in the Sky” and “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Why worry about Amazon? It’s not that it’s a bad-faith company. It’s that it’s a global technology company with a more than $1.6 trillion market capitalization that produces on a mass scale and is obsessed with the “customer experience.” It’s not necessarily a champion or guardian of artistic creativity or original entertainment. In the context of the larger company, Amazon Prime Video is not chiefly about artists. It’s about attracting and retaining customers. And when bigger companies start having a say in iconic characters or franchises, the companies tend to want more, not better, and the quality differential can vary wildly, project to project (see: the rapidly expanding “Star Wars” franchise at Disney and the DC Comics franchises of Superman, Batman and others at Warner Bros.)

As a screenwriter, I’ve had the opportunity to work on several big studio movies. Those that emerge with meaning, with art and uniqueness intact, are always those that are protected from undue corporate influence — those occasions when the moviemakers can work in a protected environment.

In my case, films like “Gladiator,” “The Aviator,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Rango” and “Hugo” were all made from passion and without ever worrying about synergy or spinoffs or cross-platform marketing. Artistic control and stewardship are especially vital to big movies, where the voices are many and the stakes huge.

When we were making “Gladiator,” it took a giant like the director Ridley Scott to fend off the countless naysayers who predicted disaster would befall our “sword-and-sandal epic.” They questioned everything, especially the ending: Isn’t it a bummer? How can we have a sequel if you kill the hero? And is there any way we could avoid an R rating? But Ridley believed in the story we were telling and how we were telling it, so he resolutely kept the commercial concerns and noisy corporate voices outside the door.

So too Martin Scorsese with our Howard Hughes biopic, “The Aviator.” A subject like Mr. Hughes naturally invites controversy and high emotion. The push from outside the creative circle was for the lurid and sensational, but Marty stared down every challenge that threatened our more humane version of the story. He sometimes said, “Yes, that would make an interesting Howard Hughes movie, but it’s not our Howard Hughes movie.” Significantly, in the case of both “Gladiator” and “The Aviator,” we were working with brave producers who defended our choices. They cared more about the art than about the bottom line.

When you’re making a movie, you need a champion to fight battles like these. Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson are the champions of James Bond. They keep the corporate and commercial pressures outside the door. Nor are they motivated by them. That’s why we don’t have a mammoth Bond Cinematic Universe, with endless anemic variations of 007 sprouting up on TV or streaming or in spinoff movies. The Bond movies are truly the most bespoke and handmade films I’ve ever worked on. That’s why they are original, thorny, eccentric and special. They were never created with lawyers and accountants and e-commerce mass marketing pollsters hovering in the background.

This is also why they can afford to be daring. Here’s an example from “Skyfall” — my favorite day working on the movie, in fact.

Sam Mendes, the director, and I marched into Barbara and Michael’s office, sat at the family table and pitched the first scene between Bond and the villain, Raoul Silva. Now, the moment 007 first encounters his archnemesis is often the iconic moment in a Bond movie, the scene around which you build a lot of the narrative and cinematic rhythms. (Think about Bond first meeting Dr. No or Goldfinger or Blofeld, all classic scenes in the franchise.) Well, Sam and I boldly announced we wanted to do this pivotal scene as a homoerotic seduction. Barbara and Michael didn’t need to poll a focus group. They didn’t need to vet this radical idea with any studio or corporation — they loved it instantly. They knew it was fresh and new, provocative in a way that keeps the franchise contemporary. They weren’t afraid of controversy. In my experience, not many big movies can work with such freedom and risky joy. But with the Broccoli/Wilson family at the helm, Bond is allowed to provoke, grow and be idiosyncratic. Long may that continue.

James Bond has survived the Cold War, Goldfinger, Jaws, disco and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, several times. And I can only hope that the powers-that-be at Amazon recognize the uniqueness of what they just acquired and allow and encourage this special family business to continue unobstructed.

Bond’s not “content” and he’s not a mere commodity. He has been a part of our lives for decades now. From Sean Connery to George Lazenby to Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton to Pierce Brosnan to Daniel Craig, we all grew up with our version of 007, so we care deeply about him.

Please let 007 drink his martinis in peace. Don’t shake him, don’t stir him.