As an international agent, nobody does it better than 007. In the battle of the box office, however, it has been a long, long time since James Bond played in the big leagues. Throughout the modern blockbuster era, Bond has been strictly second string. But finally, with the massive success of Skyfall, which took in $156 million worldwide this weekend, Britain’s favorite superspy is at last holding his own with the big boys.
When the series began, and all through Sean Connery’s six-film run, Bond films routinely sat near the top of each year’s box office. But through the '70s and into the '80s, they typically finished the year somewhere near the bottom of the top 10, or even a bit below that. Respectable results for a historic franchise, still staying afloat in its third and fourth decades, but rarely better than respectable. Particularly as the definition of a blockbuster inflated post–Star Wars, new generations of action films appeared — from Top Gun to Transformers — and Bond increasingly struggled to compete at this stratospheric level. On the list of all-time highest grossing films, you have to look down to #72 before you find a Bond film (Casino Royale).
And then along came Skyfall. After its first weekend playing in the U.S. and its third weekend having opened worldwide, it has already grossed $518 million, putting it on track to pass the total numbers of Casino Royale and the most recent installment, the disappointing Quantum of Solace, this week — with some industry watchers predicting it could reach $900 million. That would propel Bond to the stratospheric realms where Marvel, James Cameron, and Harry Potter play.
But getting here was far from a given. So how did Sony (which inherited the franchise from the ruins of MGM in 2011) get the quinquagenarian superspy into the big ring after 23 films? Lyndon Johnson had a saying he used in his political campaigns: “If you do everything, you’ll win.” Skyfall had the feeling, initially, of a last chance to save a teetering dinosaur, and so to build up to it, this time every button was pushed and much more.
1. Make it an event.
Obviously, every studio would like every movie they release to be an “event.” And to core fans, a new Bond installment is a date to look forward to. But for the far broader action-film-going public — people who flock to see The Avengers and The Dark Knight — keeping up with the latest Bond has not been de rigeur within their lifetimes. Nevertheless, the franchise made that case with a wall-to-wall marketing push the likes of which Bond rarely sees. The campaign began with just about the most high-profile kickoff a movie could dream of: during the Olympic opening ceremonies when Daniel Craig, in trademark tuxedo, escorted Her Majesty the Queen to her parachute drop into the festivities. The moment became the most talked about of the ceremonies, sealing the national treasure status of Craig’s Bond. From there on, Bond and Skyfall were an unceasing, relentless presence in the cultural space.
2. Celebrate nostalgia.
Anniversaries come and go, but the number 50 still packs a wallop — particularly when it signifies the still-growing number of years that the longest-running film series in history has been on the field. The Bond forces threw the kitchen sink and every weapon in Q’s lab at this anniversary. Sony declared October 5, the official half-century since the release of the first Bond film Dr. No, “Global Bond Day,” using it to debut the most anticipated item on the release calendar — the theme song by Adele. From then on, Bondmania went into overdrive: There was the MOMA retrospective, the BBC Philharmonic tribute to the series’ music, the charity auction at Christies, a Toronto Film Festival Tribute to Bond fashion, and a documentary — all of which pushed the message that the James Bond series remains something unique and special in the world culture. Anyone can do another superhero film, but there is only one Bond. It is a message that after decades of misfires had largely been taken for granted or lost completely.
3. But throw out the formula.
While wallowing in the Bond legacy, the new film largely throws most of it away. The Bond traditions exist in winking references to martini shakers and antique cars. But beyond that there is little of the gadget-driven, glib wisecracking, mind-like-an-encyclopedia secret agent who populated every incarnation of the pre-Craig films. In an era when everyone carries a high-tech arsenal on their telephones, a man with access to a bunch of gadgets no longer seems the envy of the world. Instead, Skyfall’s Bond does his superspying basically by running, punching, and shooting at things, in the manner of his more Zeitgeist-friendly box office rival Jason Bourne. Throughout the Skyfall campaign, this hard-edged, smirk-free, stripped down, nuts-and-bolts Bond was the central image.
Downton Abbey has proven that there is still a globe full of suckers with a taste for British class. Whereas the Bond of late has been distinctly upper middlebrow, with Skyfall, they took the franchise as high-end as they could go without actually making it a story about fussy butlers and uncertain dynastic succession. First they brought in the series' first Oscar-winning director — a man of the London stage, no less — in Sam Mendes, and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, John Logan, to work on the script. For the theme song they brought in the world’s most praised chanteuse, Adele. The plot was the most intimate Bond script yet, built around his maternal relationship with M (warning: spoilers!). If the message wasn’t clear enough from all that, setting a chase sequence to Judi Dench reciting a Tennyson poem may go down as the biggest upmarket pandering since "Would you have any Grey Poupon?" The result was a tidal wave of positive buzz. The critical establishment — always on the lookout for something to go beyond a mere thriller — raved that this was the best Bond film ever.
5. New audiences.
All the above would have made little difference if the franchise could not solve its demographic problems. Audiences with direct memory of Bond’s golden age are now in their forties and above. But to push this new, more contemporary installment, Sony went after new converts — taking out spots on MTV, ABC Family, BET, Telemundo, and Univision, among others, and utilizing social media through a contest on Instagram, for example.
Beyond marketing, throughout Skyfall the film attempts to bring a younger audience into its aging tent. The conversion of weapons' expert Q from a cranky geriatric to a snippy, barely twentysomething hacker is the most obvious bait for young audiences. Their sparring debate on the value of boots on the ground versus fingers on the keypad set up a generational battle likely to fill hours of screen time ahead. Further, having Q at the computer, backing up Bond by headset seems likely to re-create 24’s immensely popular collaboration between gun-toting Jack Bauer in the field and young savant hacker Chloe back at base.
The mix of nostalgia and contemporary themes, of prestige with clenched fists may seem an uncertain blend — a recipe for more chaos than success. But with all cylinders firing, the proof was at the box office. Even more hopeful for Bond’s masters must be the fact that after the success of Casino Royale and the even greater success of Skyfall, they have stumbled onto a formula that looks ready to carry Bond into a new era. After five decades in which it often seemed time to hang up the tux, Bond is not just back, but genuinely bigger than ever and ready to become a modern box office powerhouse.