Licence to content: Amazon’s MGM takeover gives it access to Bond and beyond

Another worrying step in the monopolisation of entertainment, the internet giant’s $8.45bn splurge is about adding reams of classic Hollywood IP for its film-making arm to feast on

Last modified on Wed 26 May 2021 11.39 EDT

Just over two years ago, the Disney takeover of most of 21st Century Fox created an even bigger monster out of the two existing monsters, and pushed the movie business further towards a de facto monopoly of two or three humongous corporate entities gradually merging together to make a great big amorphous mass, spawning endless content. Now the blobbification process has gone further, with Amazon snapping up MGM for $8.45bn (£5.97bn).

That’s a hefty price, according to some, considering the debt that MGM carries and the fact that MGM’s star property James Bond, the global cash cow that keeps on giving milk, is in fact partly owned by Eon Productions, perhaps the last boutique franchise player in the world. Eon’s right to control every aspect of 007 is fiercely defended by its owners Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson from their handsome offices in Piccadilly (rather like the old MI6 building). The suits at Amazon will have to consult Broccoli and Wilson over everything to do with 007.

There was a time of course when a classic Hollywood studio such as MGM (or Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios Inc) could be associated with a particular kind of film: in this case, the gorgeous musicals of the golden age. In the last century, they were associated with their talent – “more stars than the heavens” was Louis B Mayer’s boast, and after this era, MGM’s capital would reside in its back catalogue. That’s certainly what Amazon is buying now.

But of course, it’s about more than just getting a few bucks every time someone streams Thelma and Louise on Prime. Amazon is buying intellectual property. It has been in the business of high-profile, high-class original production, certainly – and a case in point is its lavishly cinematic, 10-episode streaming TV adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, directed by Barry Jenkins. But it wants to hit the commercial sweet spot of something excitingly new based on something reassuringly old; it is buying IP, intellectual property, the brand-name development rights to those much-loved movies and characters who can be rebooted for new generations. New Creed movies, new Legally Blonde movies and a remake (a second remake, in fact) of The Thomas Crown Affair, with Michael B Jordan following Steve McQueen and Pierce Brosnan in the role. These are not movies or talent being bought, but DNA stockpiles: the cultural HeLa cells that can be endlessly gestated in many different ways.

It’s pretty depressing, of course, and Amazon did not get to be the retail colossus it is by specialising and indulging individual creativity. Its raison d’etre is to give you everything, to deliver anything you want, something that someone else has created. And so of course the real danger is that studio movies will become even blander and more uniform than before, and that they will no longer in fact be studio movies in that sense, no longer individual films from film-makers, but iterations of content. Hollywood was always commercial though, always in love with genre, always liable to be smitten by Amazon’s “If you like this, then you’ll like this … ” nudging. The danger is that individual artistry will be squeezed further out, and the human factor will lose out to the algorithm.

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