Why the James Bond franchise was made for the modern box office

skyfall

Image Credit: Francois Duhamel

Over the past weekend, Skyfall returned to the top of the box office and became the biggest hit in Sony Pictures’ history in the process. After five weekends, the Sam Mendes-directed action film had earned a franchise-high $261.8 million domestically. (For reference, the previous high-point was 2008’s Quantum of Solace, which grossed $168.4 million.)

It’s not often that a franchise this deep into its existence — 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the British spy’s first appearance on the silver screen — peaks at the box office. And in all reality, it’s only half accurate to call Skyfall the “peak.” Its record-setting gross does not account for inflation. (The series’ all-time high point was actually 1965’s Thunderball, which, according to BoxOfficeMojo, grossed a staggering $593.9 million when adjusted for inflation.)

Still, even accounting for inflation, Skyfall is already the fourth-highest-grossing Bond film ever, and its excellent performance both domestically and around the world reveals that the franchise is experiencing a major upswing. With a running worldwide total of $918 million — by far the highest total ever for a Bond film (Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale both topped out at $594 million) — and an opening in China still slated for early 2013, prognosticators expect Skyfall to become the first-ever billion-dollar Bond film. James Bond may be getting older, but Skyfall makes it clear that he’s still a major force to be reckoned with at the box office.

Most franchises don’t enjoy such longevity. It’s much more common for film series to start with gargantuan grosses and then face diminishing returns with every subsequent release. And yet, the James Bond series suddenly seems to be hitting its stride right now. Why is that? Because since its inception in the 1960s, the Bond franchise has been primed for success in today’s modern market. It seems to have been almost preternaturally constructed to succeed in 2012. The box office just had to catch up with Bond’s ahead-of-the-curve sensibilities. Here’s what I mean:

International Appeal For the majority of box-office history, the United States has been the foremost market in the world, and, for now, it still is. But the international box office is growing at a remarkable rate, and at this point, most blockbusters rely more on international receipts than they do on domestic grosses alone. Good thing that the Bond films have always been globe-trotting adventures, then. With each film set in a whole slew of different countries, their international appeal is as strong — and lucrative — as ever. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the series specializes in special effects-driven action sequences. Stunt-heavy action has been at the center of the Bond series since its inception, and such spectacle remains consistently popular both in the States and around the world, since it’s easily translated and marketed.

Sequels? Pssh. Reboot! How do you maintain a franchise in the long run? Eventually, you’re going to need to reboot it. And, boy, does Hollywood love a reboot these days! Sony pulled the reboot card on the Spider-Man franchise just 10 years after they launched it. Many people were frustrated, and although The Amazing Spider-Man performed well, it earned substantially less than its predecessors. The same is true of Universal’s kinda-sorta reboot of the Bourne franchise. Of course, Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman saga was received exceptionally well both critically and financially, but it seems like a foregone conclusion that when Warner Bros. decides to reboot the thing, fans will cry out in anger. Fortunately for Bond, reboots built into its very structure, and they don’t attract any vitriol for that fact — it’s just part of the fun of the series. Though some recent entries have gotten a bit sequel-y, at it’s core, the Bond films are a series of one-off adventures. This means that Bond films have total flexibility in terms of cast, setting, and style. In other words, they’re adaptable.

Keep The Cast Cheap You know the best way to prevent rising cast salary demands? Don’t have a consistent cast! Obviously, the Bond franchise has a few principal players who appear from movie to movie (namely, Bond himself), but most of the faces on screen are brand new in each new sequel. That means lower salaries, which leaves more budget for those aforementioned action sequences. Even Bond is replaceable — and I’d bet that whoever eventually replaces Daniel Craig will almost certainly make less for his first Bond movie than Craig will make for his last.

Multimedia (read: musical) Exposure In today’s scattered market, movies don’t just rely on traditional advertising. They need exposure across a myriad of platforms to fully raise awareness. Fortunately for the Bond franchise, the series has a built-in marketing tradition that gives it huge exposure in the music industry: the Bond song. Though much has been made about the decline of the great movie song in recent years, the Bond themes have maintained a sense of prestige. This year’s title track, co-written and recorded by Adele, debuted at No. 8 on the Hot 100 and is still sitting within iTunes’ Top 10. But music isn’t the only multimedia format giving Bond a boost…

High Class Product Placement Criticism of product placement in Bond movies has increased in recent years (Daniel Craig has controversially sipped Heineken in the last two films), but it’s nothing new. Advertisers have always been eager to be associated with such a high class brand — what with all the spy’s dapper suits and expensive taste. Bond has worn an Omega watch for the past seven movies, and he’s driven everything from Volkswagens to BMWs to Aston Martins, depending on which auto company is footing the bill. Recently, the character donned Tom Ford suits, while MI6 used Sony products. The benefit of such product placement isn’t merely that it offsets production costs. (Skyfall earned a reported $45 million from its Heineken deal alone.) These high-end companies’ synergistic advertising campaigns raise Bond’s public profile without Sony having to shell out more marketing dollars itself. It’s a win-win for all businesses involved.

So that’s my theory. But now I want to hear from you. What’s making Bond hit right now? Is this a one-time thing for Skyfall, or is the whole series firing on all cylinders? How much do you think Skyfall will earn when all is said and done?

For more box office musing:

More on EW.com:
Box office report: ‘Skyfall’ has the biggest Bond opening ever with $88.4 million
Audiences gobble up ‘Breaking Dawn,’ ‘Skyfall,’ and ‘Lincoln’ over record Thanksgiving weekend

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