The April 2012 World Economic Outlook issued by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is marked by what can only be termed “very cautious optimism”.
“After suffering a major setback during 2011, global prospects are gradually strengthening,” it says, and then warns: “However, recent improvements are very fragile. Policymakers must…implement fundamental changes to achieve healthy growth in the medium term.” Now, IMF would never suggest this, but economic strategists across the world could do far worse than look at recent moves by the producers of the James Bond films.
In Skyfall, or Bond 23, to be released in November, Daniel Craig will be drinking Heineken beer instead of the vodka martini that has been the most famous quirk of the Bond persona for 60 years. “Shaken, not stirred”, that iconic phrase of the franchise, is now part of our cultural psyche. Naturally, purists are aghast, there are grim media columns and tweets about Ian Fleming spinning in his grave and there’s already a video on YouTube of Adolf Hitler in his bunker ranting about it.
Bond drinking beer. Isn’t that what Homer Simpson quaffs?
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
But look at the Bond franchise as a suffering economy. It is part of a larger tottering system called MGM, which, hit by the Hollywood equivalent of utter fiscal mismanagement (massive borrowings, shrinking revenues, underpricing of assets and so on) went bankrupt last year. Skyfall was almost shelved, till the producers decided to take some daring reformist measures. The Heineken deal, reportedly worth $45 million, is the most extreme of those—in return, Bond will swig the beer, Craig will appear on Heineken labels, and Skyfall director Sam Mendes will helm a Heineken commercial. This product placement deal will pay for as much as one-third of the film’s budget.
The producers have negotiated a bailout package, and naturally, the package comes with stringent policy stipulations.
Product placements are, of course, nothing new to Bond films. Die Another Day had so many brand tie-ups that it was sneeringly referred to as Buy Another Day in some quarters. In Casino Royale, the Virgin Airlines logo was showcased so heavily (plus a glimpse of Richard Branson at an airport) that British Airways snipped the shots off when it ran the film as onboard entertainment. But the martini—“three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet; shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel”—has been sacrosanct so far.
Well, not exactly. The last wave of drastic reforms unleashed on the Bond economy was when the makers decided to go back to drawing board and start it all from scratch. Casino Royale (2006) did not begin with the Bond theme but ended with it, the classic line “My name is Bond. James Bond” too came at the end, and when Bond orders a martini and the bartender asks whether he wants it “shaken or stirred”, he replies: “Do I look like I give a damn?” These were huge risks for a venerable franchise, as a new Bond was unveiled, tougher, grimmer, angrier. The reforms paid off—Casino Royale was the most successful Bond film ever.
But as the MGM economy sputtered, investment flows dried up, business confidence plummeted, and Bond’s sovereign ratings were put under watch, since his last outing, A Quantum of Solace (where “shaken, not stirred” returned), had not set the box-office on fire. A new round of big-bang reforms were called for. First move: Mendes, Oscar-winning critically acclaimed director, and also British. The villain’s role did not, as is usual, go to an European star unknown to the world audience, but to Javier Bardem, the Spanish uber actor with a global critical and mass fan base ever since he scared audiences witless in No Country for Old Men. Then it was leaked that Skyfall would possibly end with the death of M, Bond’s boss, played by the beloved Dame Judi Dench. In short, a flurry of tactical moves that suddenly had Skyfall bleeping loud and clear on investors’ radars.
Simultaneously, costs were cut dramatically. Though some shooting has been done in Shanghai and Turkey, parts of those “exotic-locale” sequences—another Bond staple—have been shot on the cheap in England.
And now the “fundamental reform”, the martini manoeuvre that derides all comfortable assumptions and dogmas. Opposition has been swift and strident, but the policymakers have rammed it through, signalling to the world that they are ready to take the boldest of steps and reaccelerate their economy.
As I said, they did it once before, when the franchise was looking jaded and needed pump-priming. And now, with parent economy MGM slowly coming out of life support, they have roared back with a second set of actions —leaving the world in no doubt that they mean business. It’s all about guts, the willingness to take risk and conveying clearly to both investors and public that the challenge of change will be met with bold decisions. If Bond hesitates, he’s dead. If economic policymakers can do no more than goggle at looming threats and scrabble for platitudes…well, the outcomes are pretty obvious all around us, aren’t they?
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms.
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