How one family secured a multi-million-dollar cut of the James Bond franchise


August 29, 2021

The Hustle Issue #173
The Hustle, Sunday, August 29, 2021
Sunday, August 29, 2021

The family business that owns a share of the $7B James Bond franchise

Cubby Broccoli managed to secure a cut of the Bond rights in 1961. Since then, his family has made hundreds of millions from the franchise.

BY Mark Dent

In June 1961, inside a tower on Manhattan’s 7th Avenue, independent producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman walked into a room with 10 executives from the film studio, United Artists.

They were confident, if slightly anxious. Their option on a series of spy novels by author Ian Fleming expired in a month, and Columbia Pictures had already turned them down.

This time, after 45 minutes and a handshake, they secured $1m to produce a movie.

In the 60 years since that handshake, James Bond has become one of the most enduring franchises in Hollywood. The films have grossed ~$7B at the global box office (~$18B accounting for inflation).

Through all 25 movies, the Broccoli family has maintained creative control of the franchise, weathering lawsuits, a rotating cast of studio executives, and the threat of bankruptcy.

The latest in the series, “No Time To Die,” opens in October in the US. If the deal is similar to past movies, the Broccolis will net ~10% of global box office revenue. In the past, that amounted to ~$100m off a single Bond film.

In a world where massive corporations gobble up successful players in the entertainment industry, James Bond remains a family business.

The deal of a lifetime

In late spring 1961, Ian Fleming was growing increasingly disenchanted with the entertainment industry.

He had been writing a Bond novel every year since 1952 to great commercial and critical acclaim. Filled with eccentric villains, pithy dialogue, and endless sexcapades, the books seemed destined for the silver screen.

Ian Fleming (1908-1964), the creator of James Bond, smoking a cigarette in 1960. (Horst Tappe/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But Fleming’s prolific output wasn’t initially rewarded.

According to Cubby Broccoli’s autobiography, When The Snow Melts, all Fleming received for his 1st novel, Casino Royale, was $1k from CBS to turn it into a forgettable live TV special. (A producer later bought the film rights to Casino Royale for $6k, but nothing ever came of it.)

“The film and television world in America,” Fleming wrote to his friend Henry Morgenthau III, “is a hell of a jungle.”

His last hope seemed to be producer Harry Saltzman, who in 1960 purchased the rights to all Bond novels (except for Casino Royale) for $50k and pledged an additional $100k for every book that became a film, according to Nobody Does It Better, an oral history of the Bond franchise.

Saltzman’s problem was he lacked connections at the premier studios. Fortunately, he knew somebody who knew somebody who did. And that somebody had been eyeballing the rights to Fleming’s novels for a while.

Cubby Broccoli (born 1909) was a Long Island native who descended from an Italian family renowned for farming — you guessed it — broccoli.

After moving to Hollywood in his 20s, he befriended Howard Hughes at a bar. The film tycoon liked Broccoli and gave him a break as an agent. He went on to represent megastars like Lana Turner and Ava Gardner before eventually striking out as an independent producer.

Broccoli convinced Saltzman to give him a 50% cut of the Bond rights in exchange for using connections to seal a major film deal.

And that’s exactly what he did in the summer of 1961 when United Artists pledged $1m for the 1st Bond movie.

Cubby Broccoli on the set of ‘Octopussy’, with a stuffed tiger, in 1982. (United Artists/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

According to Broccoli’s autobiography, the deal was a 60-40 split of profits, with Saltzman and Broccoli sharing the 60%.

Financiers regularly shared profits evenly with producers. But the $1m budget was somewhat of a gamble. Out of the ~2.5k movies released in 1960, fewer than 30 made $1m at the box office, according to IMDB.

“It was in many ways for UA another movie deal,” Steven Jay Rubin, a Bond historian and author of The James Bond Movie Encyclopedia, tells The Hustle. “I don’t think anybody knew what the future would hold. They didn’t even know if they would make a 2nd movie, let alone make a series like this.”

At first, it looked like United Artists would regret the decision.

Immediate profits

When the lights came up on the 1st test screening for the 1st Bond film, “Dr. No,” nearly every UA executive was silent. Saltzman later recalled that the one exec who spoke said, “The only good thing about the picture is that we can only lose $840k.”

“Dr. No” felt campy. But soon UA discovered campy was good.

With its psychedelic tone apparent from the opening sequence, the film fit right in with the new cultural shift of the ‘60s.

Though “Dr. No” grossed $41m at the international box office after its October 1962 release, UA was still skeptical about the film’s appeal for US audiences. So, before entering the expensive New York and Chicago markets, the studio tested whether Americans would embrace a European hero by premiering it in small Oklahoma towns.

Audiences in Muskogee, Ada, Ponca City, and beyond loved it. “Dr. No.” went on to gross $16mthe 7th best showing for any North American film in 1963.

An ad in the Muskogee Times-Democrat for a May 1963 showing of “Dr. No” at the local Ritz. (Muskogee Times-Democrat via Newspapers.com)

After the theaters took their half of the box office proceeds, Broccoli and Saltzman likely earned ~$5m-$10m each — far more than many independent producers would make in a full career.

They structured their partnership in a way that maximized profits and, controversially, limited their British tax burden.

  • Their Britain-based production company, Eon (short for “everything or nothing”), made the films.
  • Another business, Danjaq, acted as the holding company for the Bond rights. Danjaq was first incorporated in Switzerland and later in Delaware. Most profits flowed to Danjaq.

Broccoli also negotiated for creative control.

With Saltzman, he determined the settings, the director, the actors who played Bond, the product placements, and just about every detail that went into the movies.

“Cubby probably sensed he was on to something. So he probably tried to strike the best possible deal,” Rubin says. “And because he had such a good relationship with UA, I think he was able to do that.”

For the sequels, Broccoli and Saltzman pushed for increasing budgets, countering the Hollywood tendency at the time to be cheap and formulaic for the 2nd go-round. Audiences knew the films would be spectacles and hew to certain Bond rules while still evolving with the culture.

In 1979, UA reported it had made $163m (~$600m today) off Bond movies in North America alone, suggesting Broccoli would have earned roughly half that amount — and that figure didn’t take into account international revenues.

The Hustle

The secret to Bond’s success, Broccoli believed, was that the movies were fun.

“We’re not out to capture the Academy Awards,” he told The New York Times after “Moonraker” premiered in ‘79. “We’re out to make an entertainment.”

Hanging on through turmoil

Cubby Broccoli’s original partner didn’t last.

Saltzman made a series of bad investments, particularly in Technicolor Inc., and used his share of Danjaq as collateral. The creditors came calling, and Danjaq was at risk of going into receivership until Saltzman sold his stake to UA.

At 66, Broccoli became sole producer and pushed on through obstacles that could sink any business:

  • UA cratered in 1981 after financing Heaven’s Gate” — one of the worst financial flops of all time — and was purchased by MGM, which became the new studio partner for the Bond films.
  • Sean Connery sued Danjaq and MGM for $225m in 1984 for allegedly failing to pay him the correct amount of backend profits for his work as Bond.
  • Infamous Hollywood crook Giancarlo Parretti took control of MGM in the early ‘90s, and no Bond movie was released for 6 years as Danjaq waged litigation.

Broccoli stayed laser-focused on Bond throughout the ordeals. Unlike Saltzman, he didn’t care about side projects and becoming a mogul.

“He just loved being on the set,” his daughter Barbara Broccoli said on a 2009 show commemorating Cubby’s life. “It was a real family atmosphere and the people on the crew were his friends. So he didn’t see the work as arduous. He found it really stimulating and exciting.”

The Hustle

Broccoli died in 1996. In one of his last published notes, he emphasized that he and his wife, Dana Broccoli, who died in 2004, always measured their success by something other than Bond.

“It exists in the bright intelligence and mutual devotion of our children,” he wrote.

And the Broccoli children have been just as successful as Cubby.

The kids are alright, but Amazon might not be

Michael Wilson, Cubby’s stepson, and Barbara Broccoli took over the franchise starting with the 1995 film, “GoldenEye.”

They have followed a similar playbook to their father, controlling the most important creative details and insisting on keeping Bond as a bespoke, limited-edition product.

This clashes with the norm in an era when top Hollywood intellectual property — like Disney-owned Marvel and Star Wars — is packaged by massive studios into infinite spinoffs and streaming shows.

“Business textbooks are filled with the stories of incredibly successful businesses that were passed on to the disinterested next generation and seemed like they could not fail and failed,” says John Cork, a Bond historian and author of James Bond: The Legacy.

“That has not been the case with Bond. [Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson] have stepped up to the plate creatively over and over again.”

Because of the various shake-ups with UA and MGM — and Hollywood’s penchant for being more guarded about finances than in the ‘60s — the particulars of the profit-sharing arrangement are closely guarded.

The Hustle

What’s clear is Broccoli and Wilson reap a windfall from every film, while MGM and distributors like Sony and Universal cover the lion’s share of the costs:

  • In 2004, the Los Angeles Times pegged Danjaq’s take for every film at 20%-35% of profits. (Danjaq reportedly also gets “first-dollar gross,” meaning Broccoli and Wilson start collecting before the costs are covered.)
  • A document from the infamous Sony hack showed MGM made ~$179m for the $1.1B-grossing “Skyfall.” Danjaq, according to a hacked memo discovered by the WSJ, picked up around $109m. Despite covering half the cost, Sony made just $57m.

But even for a family business that’s operated amid studio turmoil since the 1980s, a new challenge awaits. Amazon acquired MGM in May for ~$8.5B.

“Skyfall” co-writer John Logan fears the Bezos machine will “want more, not better.” So will there be a Moneypenny Amazon Prime series? An origin story about the Christophe Waltz-played villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld?

The pressure to produce and the temptation to sell could be greater than ever.

But Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who declined an interview request through their publicist, know how to fight for the franchise. Broccoli summed up their motivation in an interview featured in the “Diamonds Are Forever” DVD.

“I remember one time [Cubby] said to me, ‘You know, the most important thing is don’t let ‘em screw it up.’”

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