A view to a killing: how Amazon will exploit Bond and other MGM classics
The pay-TV giant has the chance to turn popular films into ‘universes’ of stories – and steal a march in the content-hungry streaming wars
Amazon’s $8.5bn deal to buy MGM, the Hollywood studio behind James Bond, The Handmaid’s Tale and Gone With the Wind, has secured it the rights to a century’s worth of TV and film titles that the streaming giant intends to exploit with a wave of remakes, reimaginings and spin-offs.
The deal to buy the 97-year-old Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which has an immense library of 4,000 film titles and 17,000 hours of TV programming, is designed to supercharge Amazon’s content pipeline, which is the lifeblood of any competitor in the global battle for streaming supremacy.
As the streaming wars have intensified, new entrants – such as Disney+, Sky, Comcast’s Peacock, and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max – are increasingly refusing to license their own crown-jewel shows and films to rivals, in order to fuel their own streaming services.
Amazon has not pursued an original-content strategy in the heavyweight way that Netflix has. Just 3% of its 41,000 hours of TV shows and films are originals or owned content, compared with a fifth of the 39,000-hour library at Netflix, according to Ampere Analysis.
“It is getting harder to get library content – they’re not going to get shows like Friends now, they’re locked in elsewhere,” says Michael Pachter, a media analyst at Wedbush. “To create 4,000 movies would take them 200 years. To create 17,000 hours of TV would take an eternity. They couldn’t do it fast enough. They had to buy something. The question is how much Amazon can now exploit.”
Much of the focus has been on MGM’s flagship property: James Bond. At 59 years old, the evergreen screen spy is the world’s second-longest running film franchise after Godzilla, and some analysts have estimated he could be worth half the near-$9bn price tag of the whole library.
Bond is a treasure trove, unexploited beyond the 25 feature films focusing on its star, which Amazon would dearly love to develop into a Marvel- or Star Wars-like “universe”. The only problem is that Bond is partly owned by Eon Productions in the UK, which is run by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, who exercise strict control over how the character is used – even down to choosing the actor who plays him. Following the announcement of the deal, they reiterated that 007’s primary home would remain the big screen, saying: “We are committed to continue making James Bond films for the worldwide theatrical audience.”
Plans for one potential spin-off in 2002 – a movie based on the character Jinx, played by Halle Berry in Die Another Day – were scrapped the following year, while the highly successful Young Bond series of books for young adults has never made it beyond print.
“I think the greatest opportunity is with the Bond franchise,” says John Mass at Content Partners, a Los Angeles-based investment firm that owns the rights to content including Black Hawk Down, Olympus Has Fallen and part of the CSI television franchise. “I think that ‘universe’ is probably an overused term, but I do think that there is a huge amount of intellectual property that has not been exploited. What Bond has demonstrated is that the asset, the brand, is resilient.”
Still, beyond Bond, MGM – which made $1.5bn (£1bn) last year, mostly from licensing its properties – has an array of valuable assets ripe for further exploitation. Rocky has been given a new lease of life with the Creed series of films starring Michael B Jordan. A second Addams Family animated film is due for release this year, while a TV series is in the works at Netflix. Disney+ has an upcoming series, Willow, based on the 1988 Ron Howard film, and a hybrid animated/live-action reboot of The Pink Panther is in the works.
Meanwhile, the Russo brothers – the directors of one of the biggest-grossing film of all time, Avengers: Endgame – are on board to remake several films, starting with The Thomas Crown Affair; a third instalment of Legally Blonde is due next year; and CBS has psychological crime drama Clarice, a TV spin-off which has its roots in The Silence of the Lambs.
But unlike MGM, which was forced into bankruptcy a decade ago and currently carries about $2bn in debt, Amazon has the financial firepower to supercharge the exploitation of this library. The company, which has $73bn in cash on hand and a market value of $1.6 trillion, spent $11bn on content last year and will lay out $15.5bn this year. It has reportedly spent $465m on its first TV series set in the world of Lord of the Rings, the rights for which were secured after Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, reportedly told executives to “find a Game of Thrones” to take the fight to Netflix, the world’s leading streamer.
Observers and analysts speculate at possibilities including a remake of Thelma and Louise, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, or reviving the late-80s series Thirtysomething. Franchises including Stargate and Tomb Raider appear ripe for a major new investment, while RoboCop is ready for new audiences following 2014’s disappointing remake. TV hits The Handmaid’s Tale and Fargo are currently locked in deals with Hulu and FX, but are also viewed as ripe for future exploitation.
The only content off the table is some 2,000 classic films, including hits such as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain, which MGM sold to Warner Bros in 1986.
“In terms of production there is a lot of intellectual property that is under-exploited from a rights standpoint,” says Mass. “There are loads of potential sequels, remakes and prequels in the MGM library. I’m sure MGM have done a good job with it, but the streaming wars are going on, and a new team of people at Amazon will uncover a lot more opportunities.”
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