Could James Bond really DIE at home?

We break down why it's more likely than you might think in today's Friday Free-For-All

It’s Friday, October 23, so let’s have a Free-For-All!

One of the reasons I got frustrated with conventional entertainment reporting is because so much of it plays like a lousy game of telephone. One person says something, someone else adds something to it, and by the time news gets widely shared, it is usually filtered through dozens of people who have no real idea how filmmaking even works.

For example, let’s talk about The Snyder Cut for a moment. That term has become incredibly political in the film world, and that’s largely because people have applied it to mean several different things. Ultimately, all of the energy and debate are centered on Zack Snyder’s replacement as director on Justice League. He left the film because of a family tragedy, and I agree with everyone who felt like it was a shabby situation all the way around. His fans were heartbroken with the final product and almost immediately started demanding to see “his cut.”

The thing is, there were already issues with the film. Before Zack left, they were already working with Joss Whedon on writing material for the reshoots the studio wanted, reshoots he was set to be part of, and once he left the film, it changed dramatically, and there was quite a bit of material that was reworked completely, and the film that Whedon eventually released with his own name on it was not the film that Zack Snyder would have eventually finished. That’s clear.

What I find confounding is the way fandom now feels they are going to get what they were originally promised when HBO Max releases whatever Snyder’s working on now. That’s simply not the case. The “Release The Snyder Cut” movement largely pushed the idea that there was a finished version of the film or even a coherent finished rough cut of the film that was somehow being held back from them. Now we live in a world where there is casting news every few weeks for the footage that Snyder is going to shoot, and I’m curious how that reconciles in any way with the idea that Snyder’s just putting things back the way they originally were supposed to be.

It is mind-boggling to me that Warner Bros is willing to spend another $70 million on any version of Justice League. I can’t blame Snyder at all. If you were given the chance to go back and take a second shot at something that was such a personal and professional sore spot, I totally understand why you’d do it. But for the studio, this seems like a weird bet. It’s also sending a strange message to a fandom that is only going to get its heart broken again when they realize this is not the relaunch of a franchise but rather a band-aid on a wound that won’t go away. Warner’s approach to their DC properties remains scattershot and unfocused, and that’s fine. They’re taking some big swings in the next couple of years and they’ll see what happens. Then they’ll adjust again and take a few more big swings. It’s a cautious approach overall, which makes sense after the way the Zack Snyder masterplan quickly painted them into a dead end. Simply put, the studio was unhappy after the release of Batman v Superman, and they spent much of Justice League worried about the film they were making. This new Snyder version is not something that already existed, no matter what the fanbase angrily insists, and that game of Internet telephone just keeps making the entire issue fuzzier and fuzzier as people throw around all kinds of confusing language. This is a new product. It is something that Snyder has been thinking about since he left the film the first time, and it is a whole new take. It’s not even a debate. This is not the same thing he would have released had he stayed on the film, and it’s not the thing he was even talking about when the Snyder Cut campaign began.

The real dead end here, though, has nothing to do with Snyder. I’m not particularly fond of his take on the DC properties, but that’s fine. I don’t have to watch them, and there are plenty of other DC films and television properties being made, with a fairly wide variety of tones. The problem I see is that the studio itself is simply an IP management company at this point, and the Warner Bros management that built the studio into the icon it is has long since abandoned the company to people who are, in the bluntest possible terms, unfit for the job. It will always be the great cognitive dissonance of this industry that we ask people who are trained to sell widgets or to manage theme parks to be in charge of an art form that requires you to treat each product as special. Movies and TV shows are not widgets, no matter how much executives wish they were, and when they are treated as such, it degrades the entire industry. The rise of the near-total dependence on existing IP has crippled the “creative” team at Warner Bros and now we’re getting a $70 million version of “Zack Snyder’s What If Zack Snyder Never Left The Justice League” and a Space Jam 2 that will largely just be an excuse for Warner Bros. IP assets to stand around barely interacting. Instead of treating anything as special, it is all part of this big grey soup now. Even the moves they make that seem interesting, like last year’s Joker with Joaquin Phoenix, they seem perfectly willing to dilute by pouring endless variations on the same character into the pool. If they can get a sequel to that film, they will, and that will also be a massive mistake, a further watering down of something that was fairly singular. They literally can’t stop themselves.

It’s as basic as this: if you don’t treat the things you own as special, what makes you think the consumers you’re selling them to will, either?

FOR WHOSE EYES ONLY?

I am out of the clickbait habit. If I were better at it, I would not mention things on Twitter that could instead drive people to read my newsletter. But I’m not, so I do.

In this case, I mentioned idly yesterday how strange it is to live in a world where it is increasingly likely that we’re going to see the new James Bond film on Netflix or Apple TV+ in the very near future. In the last ten days or so, at least six people have reached out to talk to me about what they’re hearing, and it sounds like those two streamers are currently the most actively engaged in conversations with MGM and, I presume, EON and Universal to pick up No Time To Die. I have no idea if other conversations have occurred or not, but I can’t imagine they’re the only two interested parties.

It’ll be tricky. After all, this film was set to come out and all the distribution deals for the world had already been struck and that includes, I’m sure, all post-theatrical streaming rights. But the deals that existed before COVID-19 landed on the world are all subject to some serious scrutiny in a world where they may not be able to be in theaters safely until this time next year, and there’s no guarantee that will even happen. Richard Rushfield commented on these rumors in his latest issue of The Ankler, saying that Barbra Broccoli says there isn’t a check big enough for her to consider streaming, but I don’t think that’s true on her part. If you’re MGM, you’re feeling the pressure every minute of every day right now because your cash flow depends largely on what happens with Bond. When Apple TV+ comes to the table with a $600 million check (one of the numbers I’ve heard is actually higher than that) for a one-year exclusive window on a film, that’s a number that you have to pay attention to, no matter what your history and no matter how much you cherish the theatrical experience. When your last film in the franchise made just over $800 million worldwide, and someone’s offering you almost that much for a single streaming window? That’s a conversation you have.

Do I want to watch James Bond at home? No. Not really. But the longer things continue to unfold the way they are in terms of the US theatrical market and America’s ongoing inability to get a handle on this goddamn virus, the less sense anything makes. When you’re releasing a Bond film, you sign on a ton of promotional partners, everything from wristwatches to cars to booze, and No Time To Die was no exception. The problem is, all of that marketing muscle was timed around the spring release. You can’t remarket the film later because that ad money is gone. That promotional money is gone. All the muscle that would normally be in place won’t be, and it’s not just Bond that is grappling with that, but it’s Bond that is most desperately dependent on it at the moment. This is the big one for MGM. This movie is make or break for a studio that has basically been playing a financial shell game for years. It’s amazing that MGM has the legacy it does considering how long it has been limping along as a barely-functioning production entity. This is their “sure thing,” and the foundation they built to make sure it rolled out with tons of advertising partnership has crumbled through no fault of their own.

I have no idea if the deal is for the overall Bond library (which would make sense) during that time or if this is just for the one film, but I suspect that’s all part of the conversation. Look, maybe the negotiations get hung up on the way the international rights work. Maybe MGM finds some kind of cash influx that will allow them to hold off until next year. Maybe April will be just fine and everything will work the way we all want it to.

But what does this year so far tell you about that possibility?

Just don’t pretend that there’s any precursor to any of this because there’s not. We’re in uncharted waters here, all of us, and even if this does happen, it doesn’t mean it’s any kind of permanent shift in the landscape. That’s what makes it all so strange right now… none of this is business as usual, and that’s exactly when we see truly crazy things occur.

NOTHING BUT QUESTIONS

I am left with bags of questions after watching the new Robert Zemeckis film The Witches.

First and foremost… why?

I get the overall appeal of Roald Dahl’s work. I grew up reading it, and I think he lays out really tempting material for filmmakers. I also think he’s one of those authors whose work is very much of its time, and his at-times-abhorrent personal views color some of that work in ways that make new adaptations trickier. As I understand it, this started life as a stop-motion adaptation by Guillermo Del Toro, who still retains a co-screenplay credit on the film, and I can see how a stop-motion version of this might have staked out some brand-new visual ground, particularly with Del Toro at the helm.

But as a live-action film? We’ve already got a genuinely great adaptation thanks to Nicolas Roeg, and Anjelica Huston’s work as The Grand High Witch is one of her finest performances. I love that she played that role and Morticia Addams almost back-to-back, making each of them wildly distinct and unforgettable. The Henson Company also did some remarkable work on that film, and overall, it’s great at capturing the spirit of Dahl’s original work if not every single event.

I am doubly confused after actually seeing the film. I can’t imagine what got Robert Zemeckis to say yes to this. I say that as someone who remains completely fascinated by the choices he makes even if I don’t love the films he’s making. Normally, I can at least understand why he got interested, whether it’s some technical challenge or some narrative trick, but there’s nothing here that distinguishes this as his. If you told me this was a Tim Hill film or that it was directed by someone who cut their teeth making a lot of live-action Disney sitcoms, I would not be remotely surprised. It’s lit in that same garish overbright family comedy style that makes so many studio movies so ugly, which surprises me because it’s Don Burgess behind the camera. Alan Silvestri’s score is as forgettable as the direction, and there was a point where it just felt like the person who made this movie was defeated by it.

One of the things that distinguishes the best of his work is the way Zemeckis not only builds his elaborate mousetraps, but the way he springs them. There’s a reason Back To The Future was the film that finally gave him his freedom. It’s a beautifully-constructed film, and it spotlights the way he loves to build sequences and films with these beautiful set-ups and pay-offs. There’s something mechanical to him, but not in a bad way. He seems to be driven as much by the tools as by what he’s doing with them, and you get the feeling in much of his work that he’s invested deeply in at least some part of what you’re watching.

Anne Hathaway gives a Nic Cage performance here, taking permission from the role to simply pretend like there is no top for her to go over. She is as big as big performances get, and that’s clearly what Zemeckis asked her to do. It feels more like a reaction to Huston’s work than an organic choice, though, like they looked at what she did and realized how iconic it was and decided they had to go bigger to compete. I can’t fault them for the choice, but it doesn’t work for me at all. Hathaway is that talented girl you had drama with, and you know she’s got real chops but there is always something that feels like she’s got the gas pedal pushed all the way down, like she can JUST BARELY CONTAIN ALL OF HER FEELINGS, and when she’s given this much leash, it doesn’t do her any favors at all. It’s like watching Lea Michele do highlights from Wicked on Glee. It’s just so much camp all at once that it feels like you’re swimming in chocolate and trying to breathe fudge at the same time. Even if you like the flavor, you’re going to drown in it.

But aside from Hathaway, there’s nothing else to say about the film. It’s not cleverly staged. There are no great set pieces. Even the visual effects work, something that you would assume might be the hook for Zemeckis, feels completely familiar and uninspired. Honestly, the Roeg film looks better because of all the practical work they do in it. All I could think during long stretches here was how boring it must have been to shoot these elaborate scenes where the only characters are digital mice, so you’re just filming background plates with props falling over according to a carefully-timed beat chart. Stanley Tucci seems game for whatever Zemeckis might ask of him, as does Octavia Spencer, but sadly, there’s really nothing for either one of them to do. Spencer is great at giving off grandmotherly warmth, but the script never really lands any of the emotional beats, so there’s only so much she can do with it.

And, yes, I know it seems odd to point this out after arguing above that it is inevitable that James Bond is going to end up at home, but it does feel strange watching a new Robert Zemeckis film premiere on HBO Max. It feels strange because I’m as guilty as anyone of having a real hard line in my head between films that premiere theatrically and films that only ever play at home, and the world right now is erasing those lines. The truth is that I’ve started seeing more and more things at home for the first time anyway because of any number of issues, and the average American has already moved largely to consuming everything at home anyway.

Even so, The Witches feels small and inconsequential, a strange speed bump after such an interesting career.

AND FINALLY…

Yesterday, Tom Holland released a photo of himself in costume as Nathan Drake in Uncharted. That’s not earth-shattering news, but it does seem significant that there is an actual photo of the production considering how long it has been in development and how many different filmmakers have been attached to it over the years.

There are certain projects that limp along for decades before they happen, like they exist as an ongoing dare to whoever’s looking for some development money, and I can’t say I have any great faith Universal is going to actually pull the trigger on Battlestar Galactica now that Simon Kinberg has signed on to be the man in charge. Honestly, I’m not sure what they think they’re going to get out of a Galactica reboot. They won the lottery the first time they rebooted it, and they are really tempting fate to try to pull it off again. What urgent storytelling need is there to bring the property back? What did they not explore through the filter of Galactica on Ron Moore’s show?

I won’t get too worked up. Like I said, I don’t believe they’ll ever actually get this one in front of the camera. It seems even less likely that they’ll mount a giant SF film any time soon with the way studio economics are shifting, even one that has some brand recognition. There have to be far more interesting properties for them to try to adapt, and I’m curious… if you were given the chance to take any television show and try it as a big-screen event, what would you choose?

It’s also on my mind because my next appearance on the Screen Drafts podcast will be opposite the great Alan Sepinwall, and we’re going to be talking about TV-to-movie adaptations. Personally, I still think there’s something really potent in McGoohan’s The Prisoner that the right filmmaker could turn into a real pop culture phenomenon all over again. I’m curious what you would choose, though.

As always, today’s Friday Free-For-All is free to read for anyone, and I encourage you to jump into the comments as well. All I ask is that you be decent to one another.

You don’t just have to answer the question I asked, either. Anything else is fair game. I’m curious to see what you’ve been watching and where you’ve been watching it and what you think about the shifting entertainment landscape. If you like today’s piece, be sure to share it!

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Image courtesy of Warner Bros
Image courtesy of MGM/EON
Image courtesy of HBO Max