In an era when studios are increasingly relying on franchises to boost their bottom lines, it’s no small feat to be the gatekeeper of the longest-running film series in Hollywood history.
For nearly two decades, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, the daughter and stepson of the late James Bond producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, have managed to keep the suave Agent 007 relevant to modern-day audiences in the face of significant competition from other high-octane action franchises — and studio turmoil that put Bond on hiatus more than once. The two have survived numerous regime changes at Bond’s home base, MGM, as they’ve fought to keep the Broccoli family business intact.
Broccoli, 53, and Wilson, 71, who reside in London and are being honored Jan. 19 by the Producers Guild of America with the David O. Selznick Award for lifetime achievement, have protectively watched over Bond as a team since 1995, and guarded the legacy of their Long Island-born father, who went from being a one-time hawker of jewelry and caskets to a larger-than-life impresario and producer of big action films. The pair have produced the last seven Bond films including 2012’s $1 billion-grosser “Skyfall.”
They seamlessly stepped into the role that Cubby Broccoli initiated in the early 1960s when he and partner Harry Saltzman brought the British spy series based on Ian Fleming’s books to the silver screen, and built the fictional sexy secret agent man into a global star and pop icon. Over the past half-century, 23 Bond films have amassed close to $5 billion in domestic ticket sales (adjusted for inflation), and the next installment will go into production this fall. Since the release of the first Bond movie, “Dr. No,” in 1962, six different actors have played the character: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and, currently, Daniel Craig.
The producers, who have unprecedented creative control over the franchise and a sizable ownership stake, admit that the challenge is to satisfy traditionalists while keeping Bond fresh. Nine years ago, they were engulfed in a media firestorm over the selection of the younger Craig to succeed Brosnan in 2006’s “Casino Royale”; skeptics said Craig was too short (he’s 5-foot-11) or too blonde. But audiences around the world ultimately embraced the actor as the new Bond.
“The whole Internet thing kind of exploded,” Barbara Broccoli recalls. “Thank goodness, Daniel didn’t get rattled. We didn’t get rattled, and we just continued making the film. And it turned out to be a bloody good film, so everybody kind of shut up after that.”
The three latest Bonds with Craig have been by far the most successful, combining for $2.2 billion worldwide. Broccoli says Craig has brought a new dimension to the character with his humanity and sense of emotional conflict. Over the years, Bond has evolved from a suave, vodka-martini-sipping ladies’ man with a cheeky sense of humor to a complicated assassin with a darker psychological profile.
“It’s made it much more like the books and made the character of the books come to life,” says Broccoli. “In the books, Bond is very much an internal thinker, and it’s very hard to translate that to films, because he doesn’t verbalize the way he’s feeling. But with Daniel and the complexity of the character he’s reinvented, you have a lot more ability to go into the emotional part of the character.”
There was a four-year gap between 2008’s “Quantum of Solace” and “Skyfall,” due to MGM’s financial instability. The studio reorganized via bankruptcy in late 2010, brought in new management led by co-chairmen Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum (who has since resigned), and production on “Skyfall” began a year later.
“There’s no one more hands-on from a producing standpoint than Barbara and Michael in every aspect of the process from cradle to grave,” says Barber. “‘Skyfall’ ranks up there with the highlights of my career. When I saw the first assembled cut, there was a great sense of ‘We’ve got it.’”
For Broccoli and Wilson, though, there’s always the bigger picture that’s been drawn over more than 50 years — underlined when Craig participated in the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London.
“All you saw was Daniel’s ankle as he got out of the taxi, and the whole place erupted,” Broccoli recalls. “They knew it was James Bond. It was just an extraordinary feeling, that Bond is so much of the current culture that he could be so instantly recognized. Then when (the cameras) went into Buckingham Palace, I’m sure they were expecting Helen Mirren but when it was the real queen, the roof went off.”
As for the films themselves, with their potent combination of guns and glamour, the Bond franchise has set the standard for inventiveness in action pictures, with such famous sequences as the Istanbul roof chase and the digitally created Komodo dragons in “Skyfall.”
“We like to have a couple of those moments where we say, ‘Only in a Bond movie would this happen,’ and the Komodo dragon scene was one of them,” Broccoli notes. “It always is a challenge, particularly when you’re starting with a new director or writer and brainstorming. They say, ‘What about this?’ and we say, ‘We did that in ‘Live and Let Die.’ There is a whole catalog of stuff you have to kind of avoid because it’s already been done.”
Broccoli and Wilson have approval over every script, director and star as well as marketing materials including trailers, TV spots and one-sheets. Steven Jay Rubin, author of “The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia,” says it’s remarkable that a single family has managed a movie brand so long — far longer than any other in cinema history.
“They’ve had to be innovative,” Rubin notes. “They’ve been challenged by ‘Lethal Weapon,’ ‘Indiana Jones,’ ‘Bourne,’ ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ‘Oceans,’ and they have to keep topping themselves. It always has to have a hipness to it.” The producers also broke with Bond tradition in 1995 when they agreed to hire Judi Dench to play Bond’s boss, “M,” previously a prickly, authoritative character always played by a man.
Michael Apted, who directed 1999’s “The World Is Not Enough,” says the duo never rest on their laurels. “They’re heavily involved in every aspect,” he recalls. “At one point, I said, ‘Bond would not do that,’ and they said, ‘Yes he would,’ and I thought, ‘Well, they’ve done 19, so they know better.’ ”
Apted lauded the producers’ choice to reinvent M as a female. “It turned out that they wanted performances from women that would bring in female moviegoers. So there was a female villain in a larger role, and Judi Dench’s M was much more active.”
Wilson began working for Eon Prods., a subsidiary of Danjaq (the Bond holding company named for the wives of Cubby and Saltzman) in 1972, a decade after “Dr. No”; Broccoli joined Eon in its publicity department in 1977 for “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Wilson began producing the films in 1984 with his stepfather until 1995, when Cubby Broccoli was replaced by his daughter Barbara for “GoldenEye.” (Cubby died in 1996).
Barbara Broccoli and Wilson have remained assiduously low-key, granting few interviews. “There’s a lot to live up to,” Wilson muses. “You are always competing with yourself. And it’s a public property in the way people feel about him — they’re very faithful to their Bonds.”
It’s also a year after “Skyfall” became one of only 17 films to gross more than $1 billion. Broccoli is quick to give the credit to her father and those who have worked on every Bond film. “Way back with ‘Dr. No,’ Cubby, Saltzman and (director) Terence Young created a whole new genre of films, and this was an extraordinary thing,” she notes. “So it’s always a challenge for us to keep with the tradition of Bond but continually refresh it and make it feel cutting edge.”
Cubby Broccoli was an American and Saltzman a Canadian who brought to life a quintessentially British character, first portrayed by Connery.
“Cubby and Harry were Anglophiles,” Wilson notes. “So they brought a sort of American sensibility to it, but they loved the British. The thing is, from the Second World War on, the Americans kind of made caricatures of the British (and portray them) humorously. I think that’s a danger you can get into if you’re not careful, because Bond can be tough and ruthless.”
Barbara Broccoli believes her father and Saltzman understood the international marketplace long before the rest of the industry.
“They were the first to make pictures for the entire world as opposed to just the domestic (audience),” she adds. “If it had been British producers, I think they may have been more strict in the portrayal of a British hero for example. They might not have cast a Scottish actor (Connery), but with Cubby and Harry’s sensibility, they were much more open-minded about how to translate the books onto film and make it more appealing to an international audience.”
Broccoli and Wilson are also thankful that longtime studio partner MGM is on solid footing, saying, “We certainly have seen a number of management changes over the years, but Gary Barber’s business acumen has turned MGM around.”
The 24th Bond film goes into production in the fall. Will there be a 25th?
“Oh God,” Broccoli says with a laugh. “We hope that there will be a Bond 25. When you see that Bond has become part of popular culture, that’s very rewarding, because it’s something our dad created. He always believed it would go beyond him, and I believe it will go beyond us.”