The James Bond film series is a bit of a contradiction. After more than five decades, 007 has maintained a healthy fan base, yet despite all the glitz and the glamour associated with the character, he hasn’t always been a massive moneymaker for studios. For all of Bond’s tailored suits, fancy cocktail parties, gadgets and garages (he puts Christian Grey to shame), it’s difficult to gauge how much profit the super spy has really generated.
The Bond franchise is incredibly valuable as a familiar title—a brand that audiences can consistently put their trust in. Today’s successful movie marketplace is mostly made up of the MCU, The Fast and the Furious, DC Films, Fox’s X-Men and reinvented classics such as Jurassic World and Star Wars. While smaller franchises such as the Cloverfield series, John Wick and Fifty Shades of Grey can be profitable in a different income bracket, James Bond remains one of the few long-running box office biggies (as opposed to Star Trek, which has been struggling recently). There’s a reason it was such a sought-after free agent when its distribution rights hit the open market following 2015’s Spectre. Over 24 films, the series has grossed more than $7 billion worldwide.
That’s why it was such a curiosity to see MGM partner with the relatively untested Annapurna Pictures in May for domestic release rights on the upcoming 007 adventure (Universal Pictures scored the international rights). It’s certainly a coup for Annapurna, a fledgling studio that now boasts one of the most popular series in cinematic history, but a precarious arrangement for all involved as a one-film test run. The Bond producers have everything to lose, while Annapurna has everything to gain. The deal, surprising at the time, looks even more questionable now after studio head Megan Ellison began “reevaluating” the film division amid financial woes in October. Dig deeper into the history of the franchise, and it seems unlikely that it’ll emerge as the studio’s savior.
Overall, 007 has really meant more to a studio’s reputation than it has to its bottom line. Sony’s four-picture deal with Eon Productions for the Daniel Craig–era Bond movies helped bolster the studio’s image, but it didn’t yield huge profits. Per Forbes, Sony covered half the budget for those movies but reaped just 25 percent of the profits. So even though Skyfall (which grossed $1.1 billion) and Spectre (which grossed $880 million) are the two highest-grossing films in the franchise, the studio didn’t exactly make out like a bandit.
But the MI6 spy is still one of the most lucrative movie star names in the world. The last James Bond film not to land among the 10 highest worldwide grossers in its release year was 1989’s License to Kill. And 007 is the fourth-highest-grossing film series in history behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe ($17.3 billion), Star Wars ($9.2 billion), and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter ($8.5 billion). But due to the complicated ownership structure, studios that handle domestic distribution don’t always see that success translated fully in their profit-and-losses reports. Disney likely makes more from one Avengers film than any distributing studio does from a couple of Bond flicks (Thanos would totally disapprove of that imbalance).
Given the increasing box office success of Craig’s recent outings and Annapurna’s lack of a track record as a distributor, it would hardly be surprising to learn that Eon played hardball at the negotiating table when it agreed to partner with the studio for North American distribution on Bond 25. It’s quite possible that Eon squeezed out an even better deal than it had with Sony.
The real hidden gem of the Bond series’ financials lies in the marketing sponsorships it generates. Every major brand—Omega watches, Gillette shavers, Belvedere vodka, Heineken beer—wants to be associated with 007’s prestige. Jacques de Cock, a marketing consultant and lecturer at the London School of Marketing, estimates that the franchise has earned between $4 billion and $5 billion in marketing sponsorships since 1962’s Dr. No. If we’re working from the high end of that projection, that amounts to roughly $208 million per film. For perspective, Skyfall‘s entire production budget was $200 million. But that sponsorship money is going to the production companies, not the distributor.
Still, that means the cost of each film is practically covered, and then some, long before the actual movie arrives in theaters. For that reason, the James Bond series may never end (there was even talk about a small-screen spin-off when Apple and Amazon were vying for the rights). These days, Hollywood is built on repetitive cash flow (i.e., sequels), but unlike the Star Wars or Harry Potter films—which earn more on average picture by picture, but only run for eight or nine installments—Bond is set up to live on ad infinitum.