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Sequel opportunities

What does Amazon’s purchase of MGM mean for cinema?

Artillery Row

It was recently announced, with much ballyhoo and excitement, that Amazon has added to their apparently infinite number of assets by paying $8.45 billion for MGM Studios. One strange quirk of their purchase is that they have not bought the rights to such MGM classics as The Wizard of Oz or Singin’ in the Rain, as they belong to Warner Brothers, along with many of MGM’s pre-1986 pictures. Yet what they have obtained are a rich variety of Hollywood classics, including everything from The Silence of the Lambs and Thelma and Louise to the less obviously distinguished likes of Legally Blonde and Poltergeist. And in the current intellectual property universe, for “rights’, read “remake opportunities’.

Amazon has struggled to distinguish itself in the streaming market

Compared to Netflix, or even Disney Plus, Amazon has struggled to distinguish itself in the streaming market. The ludicrously expensive and probably doomed new Lord of the Rings TV series reportedly came about because Jeff Bezos insisted on the company having its very own version of Game of Thrones. If it could come about from a famous existing brand, then all the better. But there have been a relative paucity of shows and films that have cut through to a general audience, which has in turn led to many — including this writer — regarding the entire Amazon Prime service as being predominantly a means of obtaining expedited delivery of products, with the films and television series available being little more than a pleasant but inessential bonus. 

The purchase of MGM (at an amount that most commentators believed overvalued the company) demonstrates that Amazon wishes to compete at a far higher level than it has previously operated at. But it also suggests that it believes that there is very little need for originality in a market currently saturated with content. One can see executives’ eyes gleaming with rapacious excitement at the prospect of remaking well-known films or – even better – turning them into episodic programming. While the dismal failure of the recent television adaptation Four Weddings and a Funeral suggested that keeping the title but moving away from original characters and storylines may be a vain endeavour, the thought of adapting something like Legally Blonde into a potentially never-ending series is one that comes laden with dollar signs. It is, in the parlance of these people, a no-brainer. 

What it is not is artistically exciting. Hollywood has been full of remakes and “re-imaginings” since it began. The relatively low number of reinventions of films that have been better than the originals are only equalled by the dauntless desire with which executives seek to bring yet another new version of a classic story to the screen. It is no coincidence that the commercial jewel in the MGM crown is none other than the James Bond series, which, although it is still half-owned by the producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, represents vast untapped potential as far as innovative or greedy producers are concerned. 

Some of us may have no particular desire to watch Miss Moneypenny’s further adventures, or to find out exactly how Ernst Stavro Blofeld became the criminal mastermind that he is presented as. But many others will be at least vaguely interested by such an idea, and, should Broccoli and Wilson give their consent – something that is by no means a given, so assiduous have they been in the curation and protection of the all-important brand – it seems an inevitability that the James Bond Extended Universe will become just as much a feature of our home entertainment as the ever-growing Star Wars and Marvel series of programming. (Broccoli and Wilson have pointedly commented “We are committed to continuing to make James Bond films for the worldwide theatrical audience”, which suggests that the likes of the forthcoming, endlessly postponed No Time To Die will not be appearing on Amazon Prime any time soon.)

I shall be intrigued to see if something even more insidious can be smuggled through the usual corporate channels

Should this not happen, then Amazon will have grossly overpaid for MGM, and one imagines that it will subsequently be quietly offloaded to another media company in due course. Yet amidst the dross and flotsam of the endless cycle of reinventions and remakes, there is potential for bright and innovative filmmakers to succeed. By far the most enjoyable film I’ve seen this year is Craig Gillespie’s Cruella, a Disney-produced prequel to their 101 Dalmatians animated and live-action films. It sounded like the most cynical and empty kind of dross: who on earth needs to delve into the motivations of Cruella de Vil, a woman whose raison d’etre is usually that she wants to kidnap Dalmatian puppies. Yet thanks to a sublime script co-written by Tony McNamara, the genius behind The Great and The Favourite, and superb performances by Emma Stone (as the young Cruella) and Emma Thompson (as her fashion designer nemesis), it is one of the most purely entertaining examples of high-class escapism there has been for aeons. Certainly, it could have been darker and more disturbing if it had not been produced under Disney’s auspices, but it may also have been rather less fun as a result. 

There is no reason why similar examples of reinvention and re-imagination should not occur with many of the crown jewels within the MGM catalogue. RoboCop was poorly remade in 2014, for instance, but the central satirical thrust that the original possessed, of cities all but wholly owned by unscrupulous corporations, only becomes more potent with every passing year. A talented writer and director might appreciate the added irony of being able to make a new version of the story with the financial clout of the world’s most powerful company behind it. With a little luck, they could even smuggle their own commentary on the rapacious forces that have bankrolled their new vision. 

It is easy to despair at the lack of imagination that seems commensurate with Amazon’s purchase, and probably rightly so. But I shall be intrigued to see if something even more insidious can be smuggled through the usual corporate channels. If so, we shall all be the richer for it.

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