Apple, Amazon Join Race for James Bond Film Rights (Exclusive)

Daniel Craig James Bond - Illustration - H 2017
Illustration by Guy Shield
The franchise, and its future, are up for grabs as Agent 007 is being viewed as one of the last untapped brands that could be a game changer.

The James Bond sweepstakes has taken an unexpected turn. While Warner Bros. remains in the lead to land film distribution rights to the megafranchise — whose deal with Sony expired after 2015’s Spectre — a couple of unlikely suitors have emerged that also are in hot pursuit: Apple and Amazon.

The tech giants are willing to spend in the same ballpark as Warners, if not much more, for the rights, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter. MGM has been looking for a deal for more than two years, and Sony, Universal and Fox also had been pursuing the property, with Warners and Sony the most aggressive.

But the emergence of Apple — which is considered such a viable competitor that Warners is now pressing MGM hard to close a deal — and Amazon shows that the digital giants consider Bond one of the last untapped brands (like a Marvel, Pixar or Lucasfilm) that could act as a game-changer in the content space. Apple’s and Amazon’s inclusion in the chase would indicate that more is on the table than film rights, including the future of the franchise if MGM will sell or license out for the right price.

Sources say newly arrived executives Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht are spearheading the effort on Apple’s behalf. Given their background (the pair served as co-presidents of Sony Pictures Television and shocked the industry when they announced in June that they were leaving for Apple), this would suggest that Apple is interested in cutting a larger rights deal or acquiring full ownership to exploit Bond’s largely unmined TV potential. Valuation of the franchise may be anywhere between $2?billion and $5?billion, says an insider.

“In the world of Lucasfilm and Marvel, Bond feels really underdeveloped,” says someone familiar with the bidding process. Sources say that, along with the tech giants, Chinese companies could come in from the cold to pursue not just movie rights but massive licensing rights that could push deals into the billions of dollars.

Very few movie or pop-culture properties quite rival the splashiness of the Bond franchise, which remains one of the most iconic brands with worldwide appeal. And unlike Star Wars, which was not owned by a major corporation until Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, it is still somewhat independently owned. Some observers feel that the franchise, by only limiting itself to theatrical movies, remains vastly under-utilized by 21st century standards, where expectations are to exploit IP across all mediums, push out merchandising for all age brackets and have spin-offs and cinematic universes.

Other sources insist that, at this stage, Eon producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson remain traditional in their outlook and that theatrical movies are their main concern. The moves arrive on the heels of MGM locking in Daniel Craig to return for another Bond outing and setting a release date of Nov.?8, 2019, with Yann Demange, who helmed the 2014 movie ’71, and Blade Runner 2049’s Denis Villeneuve said to be frontrunners for the directing job.

Spectre was the last in a two-picture deal that Sony struck in 2011 with MGM, which controls the rights to Bond along with Eon. Sony released Spectre on Nov. 6, 2015, and Agent 007 didn't disappoint, with the film earning $881 million worldwide. Still, the film fell short of 2012's Skyfall, which grossed $1.1 billion worldwide to become the biggest film in the series' 55-year history that started with 1962's Dr. No.

Sony, which also released 2006's Casino Royale and 2008's Quantum of Solace, has reinvigorated the property with Craig in the lead. In 2011, Paramount nearly landed Bond when its rights were available but walked away from MGM's demands and the modest 8 percent distribution fee MGM was willing to pay. At the time, Sony prevailed by striking a deal that allowed MGM to co-finance The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the Total Recall remake.

Even if Apple and Amazon walk away from Bond empty-handed, both are already disrupting the tentpole movie business paradigm. In July, Amazon closed a deal to self-distribute its first film: Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel. Amazon and Warner Bros. also recently teamed to co-finance a film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which previously had been a Warners-only project. Apple has been expected to make a similar move in the content space. It’s conceivable that Warner Bros. could be involved theatrically with Bond in either scenario.

The Bond movies, while hits, are minimal sources of profit for any studio that makes them, at least under the most recent terms. In an email leaked during the Sony hack, Andrew Gumpert, former head of Sony’s business affairs, predicted that if Spectre grossed $1.1?billion, with a budget of $250?million to $275?million, the studio would earn just $35?million. Spectre grossed $200?million-plus shy of that estimate. 

Speaking generally of Apple’s film ambitions and not specifically to Bond, UTA’s Yale Chasin says: “Apple is the biggest digital outlet for movies, so I think they are always present in the conversation whether they’re upfront or behind any other distributor out there that’s turning to them for real control in the digital market.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.