Shaken & Stirred: Amazon’s Bond-Sized MGM Challenge

Daniel Craig with Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson.
Daniel Craig with Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
September 29, 2022

These days, for the first time in awhile, there are some obvious good things to talk about at Amazon Prime Video, right? It has a hit in Thursday Night Football, its $1 billion foray into exclusive sports, which drew 13 million viewers for its debut game. And just today, Nielsen revealed that the first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power—which, if you haven’t heard, is the Most Expensive TV Show Ever—generated 1.3 billion minutes of viewing in the U.S. during its first three days. I actually thought it would be bigger, but Rings blew past other streaming shows during its premiere week (including HBO’s House of the Dragon), and became Prime Video’s most-watched debut ever.

Yet it’s funny, Hollywood people don’t want to talk about that. With Amazon, they only seem to discuss what’s going on at MGM, who might be getting the long-vacant film studio job, what’s taking so long, and whether, given the $8.5 billion that Amazon paid for the company and the investment required to compete in Hollywood, C.E.O. Andy Jassy might be looking at the new asset and saying to his senior V.P. Mike Hopkins, Wait, why again did you buy this?

Amazon closed the MGM deal in March, after having 10 months to plan for it during the approval process. And, shortly thereafter, Hopkins announced that Mike De Luca and Pam Abdy, who had run the studio since early 2020, would exit. Yet now here we are, nearing October: De Luca and Abdy have long since started at Warner Bros, and the MGM film job is still open. MGM staff hasn’t even been fully assimilated into the Amazon Borg yet, though that’s finally happening this month, I’m told. In the interim, several lower-level people have started to leave, with many wondering about the actual strategy for MGM.  

Some of the delay is just Amazon digesting the MGM financials, which are said to be more concerning than they realized, pre-close. Plus there’s Amazon’s infamous “leveling” process, where new employees are evaluated and assigned a number from 4 to 12 to determine salary and reporting structure (there’s no 9, for some reason known only to Jeff Bezos). That takes time, especially since Amazon is still primarily filled with tech people, and all these MGM employees are definitely not tech people. The 4s are lower-level employees, like administrative assistants, for instance, and Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke is a 10. Everyone at Amazon is an at-will employee—no contracts, no sparkly golden parachutes—another contrast from MGM.

But a big reason for the delay in finding a film studio leader is the sheer difficulty of the hire. Amazon wants 10-12 movies a year from MGM, most of them headed for theaters before Prime, so it needs a seasoned executive who can actually put together greenlight-able theatrical projects, has good taste as well as filmmaker relationships—and, most importantly, can work within Amazon’s insular, data-driven, no-frills culture. They want experience, but, oh yeah, the person has to be willing to report to Salke, who has very little film experience of her own. She has mostly taken over the search process, while her deputy, movies head Julie Rapaport, helps run MGM day-to-day. The Salke reporting structure has eliminated a host of the usual-suspect candidates.

So, who will it be? Not Emma Watts, late of Paramount, who went through the process and either dropped out or was told she should drop out. And Scott Stuber is staying at Netflix (for now). A couple others have engaged, the latest being Courtenay Valenti, who is leaving Warner Bros. as president of production and development. It would be funny, if not a little depressing (and very Hollywood), if Warners and MGM just swapped executives—and even funnier since De Luca formerly ran Warners’ New Line division in his pre-MGM days. Is there really no star exec out there in their 30s on whom Salke could take a chance? Of all the studios, Amazon seems like it could do this because its other businesses give its content group such a cushion. But that would require actual risk-taking, once a hallmark of the film business. These days in Hollywood, we usually just see an executive version of musical chairs.

Whoever gets the MGM job, restarting the James Bond franchise will be the top priority. The weirdness of the current situation was on full display at the Will Rogers Pioneer Dinner last week when Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson were honored at the charity event. I was out of town, but a couple Amazon/MGM attendees I talked to noted the awkwardness. MGM, which shares Bond with the Broccolis (though the family retains full creative control), sponsored the event with its releasing division and Amazon Studios. Yet seated directly to Broccoli’s left was Kevin Ulrich, the Anchorage Capital hedge fund dude who offloaded the studio to Amazon and now has nothing to do with it. Daniel Craig was on her right, and Amy Pascal, the former co-chair of Sony Pictures, who distributed several of Craig’s Bond pics yet also has nothing to do with the franchise now, was deemed worthy of Broccoli’s table, too. Jon Glickman and Gary Barber, who both previously ran MGM before being abruptly fired by Ulrich, were seated with Wilson, alongside Bond alums Christoph Waltz and Michelle Yeoh.  

Not with the Broccolis: Anyone from Amazon. Hopkins was seated with his executives at the table in front of Barbara (Salke was on vacation and not there), while executive chairman Bezos, who okayed the MGM acquisition in the first place, appeared only in a tribute video—holding a martini glass, of course.

It might seem trivial, but these are highly choreographed and telling decisions. The Broccolis are relationship-driven producers, they alone decide when and how to make Bond movies, and the Amazon people just don’t have that relationship. “I’ve never spoken to Jeff Bezos,” Broccoli said bluntly in December, though I’m told that has since changed. Glickman’s speech at the event drove that point home; if the Broccolis like you, they will engage, he told the crowd. And at this point, Hopkins—and, importantly, whoever takes that MGM film job—kinda needs them to engage.

After all, a key justification for Hopkins paying all those billions for MGM was a pipeline of new Bond movies, and, at this point, the Broccolis are looking at 2025 as the earliest for the next installment. Anytime Barbara or Michael do press, as they did for the Will Rogers honor, there’s a new round of dumb speculation about the timeline and the next 007. But everyone at MGM knows they aren’t even close to a new film. Starting next year, the Broccolis will map out a plan, according to multiple sources. They’ll commission a script, decide on a filmmaker, and start meeting with actors, likely younger than even Craig was when he took over the role at 37. The Broccolis want the next Bond to similarly commit to multiple movies and play the role for 10 to 15 years in success. By the end of his run, Craig was 50 years old and had injured himself on set in Jamaica, forcing costly delays.

That said, the Broccolis know that this is the family business. New Bond movies drive Eon, their production company, and allow it to do smaller movies like Till, about Emmet Till’s mother Mamie-Till Mobley, which Amazon will release next month. Plus, Wilson is now 80, so Broccoli will soon be fully in charge, to the extent she isn’t already. 

Amazon, which isn’t used to the lack of control over a major asset like this, would love to alter the relationship, to expand the franchise and better incorporate it into Prime Video, and there have been rumors that the company is prepared to write Barbara and Michael a massive check to make that happen. I’ll believe it when I see it. To that end, Amazon has also shifted into full courtship mode, plugging the hell out of Bond movies on the Prime Video interface and launching a 60th Anniversary activation, which seems to be aimed at an audience of two.

The MGM film hire is key to that courtship, as well as helping make the next Bond movie good. To put it bluntly: Barbara needs to like this person. Amazon has smartly pivoted from its initial years as a bespoke prestige platform to a broad-as-possible offering with content like Jack Ryan, Coming to America 2, and, now, Rings of Power. Bond fits squarely in that wheelhouse. This week, Amazon announced that Epix, the MGM-owned movie channel, will be rebranded MGM+ and continue as a separate service offered through Prime Video—the Hollywood version of a You May Also Like button. 

Sure, fine, whatever. Despite the recent revamp of its interface, the whole platform still feels like a video shopping experience rather than a curated streaming service. Ten to 12 decent MGM movies a year, and one blockbuster Bond movie every few years, could pair very nicely with the NFL and Lord of the Rings. And that would be a very good talking point for Amazon.