To no one’s surprise -- not even jinx-fearing Sony executives -- “Skyfall” cleaned up at the U.S. box office this weekend. With $87.8 million in receipts, the Daniel Craig-led James Bond picture had the highest domestic opening in the franchise’s history, and put itself in a strong position to land in the live-action top five when all is said and done for 2012.
The result was a stark turnaround from just two years ago, when MGM’s bankruptcy had so frozen the 007 project that director Sam Mendes had to be retained off the books.
So what does the blowout performance tell us about the Bond franchise and moviegoing at large? We break it down, M style.
Delays don’t always doom. When legal wrangling over the MGM bankruptcy waylaid the project, there was unquestionably frustration on the part of principals. “Waiting is good, but it doesn’t need to be four years. Two would be okay. Or a good six months,” Craig told me when I interviewed him last month. The lag also claimed a screenwriter, Peter Morgan, who, when the dust cleared, had exited the project. But even though setbacks of this kind are generally thought poisonous for big Hollywood movies, “Skyfall” shows they don’t always kill off a film’s quality -- or prospects.
Fresh blood is good. More than any other franchise, Bond is a long-running family business, with siblings Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson keeping a tight rein on Bond’s creative direction for several decades now (as father “Cubby” Broccoli did before them). But continuity in this case was delicately balanced with fresh elements. “Skyfall” saw the inclusion of decidedly non-tent pole-y film figures such as Javier Bardem, Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins (shooting some of the most gorgeous scenes ever put on screen in a 007 movie). Far from seeming like a desperate attempt at novelty, these additions provided a jolt the franchise needed. Yet at the same time ...
Don’t ignore the touchstones. Sure, Q, Moneypenny and several Bond characters/tropes were given modern spins in “Skyfall.” But the classic items weren’t forgotten either -- at screenings around Los Angeles, for instance, the shot of Bond’s Aston Martin at a key moment late in the film earned show-stopping applause.
The children don’t need to lead. Bond’s core audience is one old enough to remember when the Cold War was really a threat. And that’s not a bad thing. Though Hollywood these days frequently chases the under-25 set -- to wit: this coming weekend’s “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II” -- it turns out you can set your sights at an audience more than a few years removed from college. “Skyfall” is turning into one of the year’s biggest hits despite ticket-buyers over the age of 25 outnumbering their younger counterparts by a margin of 3-1.
CG and 3-D don’t need to rule. Another shibboleth of contemporary Hollywood: An ample amount of visual effects -- usually presented in 3-D -- are needed for a blockbuster. But with its throwback motorcycles-on-an-actual-ledge moments, “Skyfall” proves you don’t need to go that way. “We want to do things that are stunts, but real stunts, not the kind of thing that takes you out of the movie,” Wilson said. (More on this in a separate post.)
Rebounds are possible. Movie franchises tend to follow a jump-the-shark model -- namely, once a series loses steam, it’s hard to get it back. Fans and critics were cool to 2008’s “Quantum of Solace,” which told a muddled plot and seemed to set the franchise off course. “We really screwed this up,” Wilson said a few weeks ago of his mindset at the time. But what applies to superheroes and romcoms doesn’t hold with Bond -- a bad outing can be followed by a spectacular one.