Making a killing: why James Bond is forever

Daniel Craig As James Bond

He is the star of one of the world’s longest running and most successful film series, with 23 movies and more than $6bn amassed at the global box office, but James Bond shows no signs of slowing down.

In fact, the Bond brand is stronger than ever, after the record-breaking performance of his most recent outing, Skyfall, which became the biggest ever film at the UK box office on its release in 2012, and, with its total earnings of $1.1bn, currently stands in ninth place of all-time largest earners.

Hence the intense interest that surrounded the announcement on Thursday of a few more details of the film hitherto known as Bond 24 – not the least its official title, Spectre. The number one question is this: can Spectre, and its producers, repeat the Skyfall trick? Will Skyfall remain a high-water mark for the Bond movie, or can Spectre extend this winning run?

Charles Gant, film editor for Heat magazine, says the indications are it is heading in the right direction. “Skyfall was a brilliant strategic move,” he says. “It was cleverly positioned as simultaneously modern and retro. It appealed as much to the Daniel Craig era fans, who are relative newcomers to the franchise, and by trading on the Bond is 50 moment, it managed to engage the older, more nostalgic elements of the audience, who may have lost interest over the previous few films.

“With the new title,” he says, “they are already on to a winner. My feeling is that Spectre announces from the get-go that they want to hang on to the nostalgic, more age-diverse Bond fan, as well as retaining the younger audience.”

The initial signs are that Eon Productions, the company originally founded in 1961 to make Dr No and which is behind all the “official” Bonds, is doing its utmost to ensure lightning strikes twice by installing the key creative talent behind Skyfall on Spectre. Daniel Craig has been tied down at least until Bond 25, while the same writers – John Logan and the team of Neil Purvis and Robert Wade – have produced the script.

But it’s the recapture of director Sam Mendes after originally turning it down, that gives Bondwatchers the most hope. Originally a leftfield pick for Skyfall, as a director principally known for character studies such as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, as well as stage hits like Cabaret, The Blue Room and the Oliver! revival, Mendes has taken the Bond series to new heights. Gant says: “Mendes managed to engage with both the modern and the traditional Bond audience, and he also pulled in high-calibre actors like Ralph Fiennes, who have turned out pivotal for the future of the franchise. To get the likes of Fiennes in, they have to be happy with the director.”

Among other achievements, Skyfall virtually doubled the box office of its predecessor, Quantum of Solace, which managed a worldwide figure of $586m on its release in 2008. No one is expecting anything like that this time, but Eon – led by Barbara Broccoli, daughter of the company’s co-founder Albert Broccoli, and Michael G Wilson, Albert’s stepson – will be anything but complacent.

Though the Bond series was in anything but trouble before Mendes’ arrival – and Craig’s – there was the sense of a certain amount of staleness towards the end of Pierce Brosnan’s run. The series had survived the drying up of actual Bond stories to adapt, the movies having long since departed from any resemblance to the Fleming originals, but a certain dynamism had leached away.

This cycle, however, was nothing new: the history of the Bond series has been one of ebb and flow, stasis and renewal, revolving most obviously around the lead actor: first Sean Connery, then successively George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Brosnan and now Craig. Each appointment has been a response to the state of the series, and some have worked out better than others.

Lazenby only lasted a single film, while Dalton’s two efforts, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill coincided with a period in the late 80s when the 007 movie had been thoroughly eclipsed by more aggressive, slickly produced Hollywood action movies. According to Gant “the period of Roger Moore’s last ones, going into Dalton, didn’t really excite audiences. Brosnan saw a bit of an uptick commercially, while Craig has taken it to new levels. On the other hand the early Bonds were incredibly commercial films, sexy and exciting, and very little around like them”.

It’s a point worth underlining that although Skyfall’s actual receipts dwarf all the other Bond films, the performance of some of the 1960s entries in the series was almost as brilliant by comparison. With figures adjusted for inflation, the 1965 release Thunderball is only a hair’s-breadth below Skyfall, while Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice both outperformed the other Craig films (as did the 70s Bonds, The Spy Who Loved Me and Live and Let Die). By this reckoning, Licence to Kill is the worst-performing of all Bonds, with Moore’s final effort A View to a Kill in second to last place.

Nevertheless, the Bond brand has remained immensely powerful over the decades, with Eon being forced to fend off attempts by rival outfits to capitalise on the series’ popularity. Through a quirk of rights ownership, adaptations of Casino Royale (in 1967) and Thunderball (as Never Say Never Again, in 1983) were released in competition with Eon productions. Although subject to legal disputes over several decades, Eon now has full control of both books.

Casino Royale, whose rights had been individually sold off by Fleming in 1955, eventually passed to Eon in 1999 as a result of an agreement between Eon’s backers MGM and rival Hollywood studio Sony – thereby clearing the way for the 2006 version. Thunderball, on the other hand, owed its disputed status to maverick writer-producer Kevin McClory, who helped Fleming outline the original story, and who claimed ownership of the novel over subsequent decades, and produced Never Say Never Again as a result. After McClory’s death in 2006, his family eventually settled with MGM and Eon’s parent company, Danjaq in November 2013.

If the initial surge of enthusiasm for Bond movies lasted through the 60s and into the 1970s, it’s fair to say that the series almost ground to a halt after Licence to Kill’s poor figures. Goldeneye, the first of Brosnan’s efforts, heralded a dramatic renewal: not simply because of a new actor, but more significantly who was behind the camera. The first 16 Bond films had been shared between five directors, all competent but hardly dazzling.

However, after a six-year break, Eon installed Martin Campbell in the chair: another experienced British director, but one who was able to orchestrate one of the most elaborate stunts in Bond history. The justly renowned opening scene of Goldeneye – during which Bond freefalls into a pilotless light aeroplane’s cockpit – did much to reinvigorate and modernise the series on its own.

Moreover, a whole new generation was reached through a hugely successful Goldeneye video game spinoff, making a significant contribution to perceptions that the Bond film was no longer stale and old-fashioned.

More recent directorial experiments have even gone overseas, including New Zealand’s Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day) and German-Swiss director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace). However, it’s clear that Eon does its best to use British directors, reinforcing the national brand identity that is part of the Bond selling point. As much as it is popular at home in the UK, the Bond movie acts as a cultural spearhead across the world.

This has its dangers: film-maker Paul Greengrass, who directed two of the Bourne spy movies, accused Bond of being “a misogynist, an old-fashioned imperialist” – a view that has wide currency, and one that the Bond franchise itself has tried to redress by reconfiguring the Craig-era 007 as a damaged, emotionally troubled individual. However, as Gant points out, Bond’s strength relies on the fact that there is “a place for a character who is essentially aspirational. The perfect clothes, cars, technology”.

It’s this last aspect of Bond that has really allowed it to take off in recent years, and given it the muscle to soar so high. Always a byword for product placement and brand promotion – something built into the fabric of the original novels, with their reverence for Patek Philippe watches, Aston Martin cars and the like – the Bond movies are past masters at the art of making cross-promotion work. “So much of the heavy lifting is done by the brand partners,” says Gant. “When the film is released, it will be absolutely everywhere – and Heineken and Aston Martin will pay for a large proportion of it.”

“As a money-making machine, there’s nothing quite like it.”

Powered by article was written by Andrew Pulver, for The Guardian on Friday 5th December 2014 19.23 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010