The James Bond movie franchise, and its 60 years of legal and rights battles

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The James Bond movie saga has faced rights and legal battles over its 60 year life: here’s the story.

Daniel Craig’s final cinematic outing as James Bond, the long awaited No Time To Die, is due in UK cinemas this October (pandemic permitting). In the media, No Time To Die is referred to interchangeably as ‘Bond 25’, a designation which is not entirely true. No Time To Die is the 25th Bond film to be produced by Eon Productions, the company that first launched 007 to the big screen in 1962. However, it is far from James Bond’s 25th screen outing – a resume that also includes his onscreen debut in an American TV series and two further films outside of the Eon canon.

In a story worthy of its own movie adaptation, across a period of over 60 years, the rights to Bond books Casino Royale and Thunderball were bought, sold, and bitterly fought over in court; culminating in an event that almost lead to a separate, competing Bond franchise. This is the story of James Bond beyond Eon.

The Beginning of Bond and Casino Royale

In 1953, former naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming brought James Bond into the world with the publication of his first novel, Casino Royale. It was an immediate success in Britain, but struggled to take off in America. Despite this, American actor, director, and producer Gregory Ratoff, recognised the potential of it and, in 1954, paid Fleming $600 for a six-month option to adapt the book.

Ratoff took Casino Royale to the American television network CBS; when the latter was interested in developing the novel for its anthology series Climax!, he renewed his deal with Ian Fleming, this time for $1000. Penned by veteran TV writer Anthony Ellis and sometime Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, the hour-long Casino Royale episode aired live on the 21st of October, 1954.

However Bennet and Ellis had made changes to the characters for the Climax! episode: in their version of the story, Bond was American, and the normally American Felix Leiter became an English agent named Clarence. The venture was given additional star power by screen legend Peter Lorre as the villain, Le Chiffre, and Climax! proved to be the catalyst that made Casino Royale and 007 a hit in America.

Ratoff decided he could do more with Casino Royale and, in March 1955, together with producer Michael Garrison, bought the rights to the novel from Fleming in perpetuity for $6000. Ratoff and Garrison’s plan was to adapt Casino Royale into a film; the pair hired future Batman TV series and Flash Gordon writer Lorenzo Semple Jr to draft a script. According to Semple Jr, Ratoff wanted to swap James Bond for a female protagonist in their adaptation. However, before any financial backers for the film could be found, Ratoff died. In 1961, Garrison and Ratoff’s widow sold the Casino Royale rights to Ratoff’s former agent, Charles K Feldman, for $75,000.


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Feldman was working as a producer when Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, who wanted to adapt Casino Royale, approached him to buy the book rights. Feldman rejected Broccoli’s offer; he had his own plans for Fleming’s novel, and intended to collaborate with Hollywood director Howard Hawks. Broccoli was not put off by Feldman’s rejection though. Canadian Harry Saltzman, co-founder of Woodfall Film Productions, had landed the film rights to the other 007 books. Broccoli secured a partnership with Saltzman to produce their own Bond enterprise.

Receiving financial backing from production company United Artists, the pair set up two companies: Danjaq (named for the pair’s wives, Dana and Jacqueline) to hold the rights to the Bond books which they owned, and Eon Productions to produce the film adaptations of the books. Without Casino Royale (Fleming’s first Bond book), Broccoli and Saltzman had no natural starting point for their franchise, thus they opted to begin with Dr. No, Ian Fleming’s sixth Bond book as their first film, simply because it would be cheapest to produce.

Dr. No was released in 1962 and soon became an international hit, quickly spawning follow-ons in the form of 1963’s From Russia With Love and 1964’s Goldfinger. Meanwhile, Charles K. Feldman had invested $550,000 of his own money into Casino Royale, but had little to show for it. Adopting the adage ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, Feldman attempted a deal with Eon Productions to make Casino Royale but the deal quickly fell apart, when Feldman had severe creative differences with Broccoli and Saltzman.

Undeterred, Feldman tried to entice the leading man of Eon’s franchise, Sean Connery, over to his own project. However, Connery – who was already experiencing growing frustrations over his pay at Eon – demanded a fee of $1m to defect: Feldman retreated. Unable to beat or join Eon Productions, Feldman decided to mock its films instead; Casino Royale would now be a Bond satire.

To work on a script for the re-imagined Casino Royale, Feldman employed the services of six-time Oscar nominated, and two-time Oscar winning, screenwriter Ben Hecht. Tragically, two days after finishing his Casino Royale screenplay, Hecht had a heart attack and died. But when Feldman took the script to Columbia Pictures, it was enough to convince the company to finance the film, meaning production could finally begin.

In 1965, Feldman hired novelists Joseph Heller and George Mandell to rewrite Hecht’s work. Initially Feldman frustrated Heller and Mandell by withholding from them the very script they had been hired to rewrite. After eventually receiving Hecht’s version of the screenplay, the pair worked for two weeks, and submitted 100 pages of work for which they were paid $150,000. The pair quit the project when they discovered that Feldman had employed other teams of writers to work on rewrites of the Hecht script at the same time. After this, Feldman even hired Billy Wilder (legendary writer and director of Double Indemnity, The Apartment and Some Like It Hot) to further work on the screenplay.

In the end, credit for the Casino Royale screenplay was given to writers Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers. Among the writers not acknowledged on screen, Hecht, Heller, Mandell and Wilder were in esteemed company: Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, and Val Guest had all given script contributions, while writer Terry Southern had a very specific role in the evolution of the screenplay; his job had been to punch up the dialogue for Sellers’ character, as Sellers wanted to outshine cast mates Woody Allen and Orson Welles.

Sellers was one of the eight actors to play Bond in Casino Royale; alongside him were David Niven (Ian Fleming’s preferred choice to play 007), Woody Allen, and even Dr No star Ursula Andress. A staggering six directors also worked on the project; John Huston, Ken Hughes, Robert Parrish, Joseph McGrath, Val Guest and Richard Talmadge. Burt Bacharach composed the Casino Royale score, and would even win a Grammy for it, while his song for the film, The Look Of Love, would draw an Oscar nomination.

When it was finally released on April 13th, 1967, Casino Royale would be a financial success but a critical failure. Despite the best efforts of Casino Royale’s cast and crew, Feldman’s film was simply no match for the juggernaut of Eon’s Bond productions. It was outgrossed in the same year by Eon’s You Only Live Twice, the success of which paled in comparison to that of the underwater Bond adventure Thunderball, that had come out two years previously (which, adjusted for inflation, remains the highest grossing Bond film of all time).

But that itself was a movie with huge ramifications for the 007 saga.

The fight for Thunderball

There had been a time when Thunderball was planned to be the first Bond film.

In 1958, following the success of the Casino Royale Climax! adaptation, CBS asked Ian Fleming to write a 32-episode James Bond TV series. Fleming accepted and began drafting episode outlines. While this project would go nowhere (he reworked some of the unused episode outlines for his 1960 Bond short story collection For Your Eyes Only), Fleming’s books were growing ever more popular and it was clear there was an appetite for more Bond.

Together with friends Ivar Bryce, Ernest Cuneo, and a young writer and director named Kevin McClory, Fleming set up Xanadu Productions to begin work on a James Bond film. McClory did not believe the existing Bond novels would translate well to the screen, but was excited by the potential of Bond as a cinematic character. At this time McClory was preoccupied with the idea of making a film with underwater action, and so he convinced his co-writers that their film should have a fresh Bond plot with a sub-aquatic focus.

Ian Fleming had been interested in working with McClory because of the hype surrounding McClory’s film, The Boy And The Bridge. This film was to be the official British entry to the 1959 Venice Film Festival, but when it was eventually released in the summer of that year it underperformed both critically and commercially. As a result, Fleming’s faith in McClory’s abilities diminished, but he kept him involved in the writing for the time being.

In the November of 1959, Fleming left the country to travel and write a column for The Sunday Times (the writing done on this trip would later be compiled into his non-fiction travel book, Thrilling Cities). McClory then engaged Jack Whittingham who had written a number of screenplays for Ealing Studios to help with the work. Ivar Bryce and Kevin McClory flew out to New York to discuss the script with Fleming while he was still travelling. At the meeting, the pair informed Fleming that Whittingham had completed a draft of the screenplay, and the project was now ready to shoot.

When Fleming returned to Britain in December 1959, he had a final meeting with McClory and Whittingham, after which they sent him the finished script, entitled Longitude 78 West. Fleming, with his thriller-instinct re-titled the screenplay Thunderball.

For a short period of time it seemed that Thunderball would be made by Xanadu Productions. There was talk of Alfred Hitchcock directing and Richard Burton taking the role of James Bond, but Ian Fleming still harboured concerns about McClory’s abilities as a filmmaker and producer. Fleming retreated to Goldeneye – his house in Jamaica – in the spring of 1960 where, unbeknownst to his co-writers he re-worked the Thunderball screenplay into a novel.

When they found out in 1961, McClory and Whittingham tried to stop the publication of the novel in court, but failed. Returning to court in 1963, Whittingham and McClory were determined to achieve a different outcome. The pair alleged that they had not only had their work on the plot stolen, but also that they had helped create iconic parts of the Bond franchise, including Bond’s arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and his evil organisation, SPECTRE.

When Fleming suffered a heart attack three weeks into the hearing, he chose to settle the case out of court. In the settlement, McClory received his court costs and damages and gained the rights to the Xanadu Productions’ Thunderball screenplay, along with the worldwide film and TV rights for Thunderball. Fleming retained the rights to the novel, which would now carry an acknowledgement in each copy to show it was ‘based on a film treatment by K. McClory, J. Whittingham and Ian Fleming’.

After the success of Goldfinger in 1964, Broccoli and Saltzman decided that their next film would be Thunderball. This required making a deal with McClory. Kevin McClory’s company, Paradise Film Productions, duly licensed Eon Productions the rights to adapt Thunderball. The agreement came with an understanding that ten years after the release of the Eon Productions’ adaptation McClory could begin work on his own version of Thunderball.

The agreement also stated that McClory would own the Thunderball shooting scripts used by Eon, and their contents. Before the ten years agreed with Eon passed, both Ian Fleming and Jack Whittingham would suffer fatal heart attacks: Fleming passed aged 56 on August 12th 1964 (a month before the Goldfinger premiere), and Whittingham died aged 61 on the July 3rd 1972. When Kevin McClory began work on a new version of Thunderball he did not tell Jack Whittingham’s family, nor did he invite them to the premiere once the film was completed.

McClory’s new version of Thunderball was given the working title of James Bond Of The Secret Service. This had been an early title for Thunderball, but also set a defiant tone, suggesting through its directness that the film was wiping the Bond slate clean. Needing a script, McClory engaged espionage thriller writer Len Deighton (his novels The Ipcress File, Funeral In Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain had been made into films produced by Harry Saltzman) and Eon’s original James Bond, Sean Connery, to be his writing team.

Connery had never written a script before, and would never write one again, but it helped get McClory’s film attention in the press by having his name attached. The trio found backing for their script, now titled Warhead (after Eon objected to James Bond Of The Secret Service sounding too similar to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), at Paramount. However, Eon Productions was also developing The Spy Who Loved Me at the same time as Warhead, and details in the Warhead and The Spy Who Loved Me scripts proved disconcertingly close. The productions took out injunctions against each other which halted the work on both films. In order to avoid association with the cases, Paramount and Connery stepped away from Warhead. While work on The Spy Who Loved Me was eventually allowed to proceed, McClory’s project remained in limbo.

In 1981, MGM acquired United Artists and with it the deal to distribute the Eon Productions’ Bond films, which that year included Eon’s twelfth Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. Eon’s frustrations with Kevin McClory were recognised in the film’s opening action sequence. The film begins with Roger Moore’s James Bond being flown in a helicopter, when a man, styled to look like Blofeld as played by Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice (but, crucially, never named as Blofeld), remotely takes control of the vehicle. Bond regains control and, in an unusually cold move, uses the helicopter to scoop up his unarmed menace and drop him down an industrial chimney.

Before Blofeld is dropped, as a final gamble to save his life, he shouts to Bond, ‘I’ll buy you a delicatessen in stainless steel’ – a bizarre statement in the context. McClory is identified in Blofeld, the character that he owned after his settlement with Fleming. He is the villain, taking control of Bond from Eon. The ‘delicatessen’ remark is traced to a common mafia bribe of the ‘20’s and 30’s. A delicatessen was a dependable business, and stainless steel counters in these delicatessens made them particularly attractive, as they were easier to clean. The mafia bargain indicates Eon Productions’ view of Kevin McClory’s business practices.

By dropping the unnamed, but identifiable Blofeld to his death, Eon Productions was also dropping the character out of the franchise. Eon was demonstrating it did not need Kevin McClory. If McClory ever wanted to sell the Thunderball rights, Eon did not need them; there was no reason for Eon to remake the story, and now it was also not necessary for it to re-introduce Blofeld to the franchise.

Towards the end of the 70s, producer Jack Schwartzman joined McClory’s production team.  Schwartzman was able to kick Warhead into motion again by clearing up the legal issues it had faced. Sean Connery rejoined the film, but this time as star. Schwartzman engaged screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr, who had worked with Gregory Ratoff and Michael Garrison on a script for Casino Royale, to redraft the contentious Warhead screenplay. Connery disliked Semple Jr’s work and had him removed from the film.

As a replacement, Connery approached Tom Mankiewicz who had co-written the Diamonds Are Forever screenplay, but Mankiewicz refused to contribute out of loyalty to Eon. A chance meeting at Elstree studios, between Ian Le Frenais and the film’s director, Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back), led sitcom writing team Dick Clement and La Frenais to work on the script. Despite Clement and Le Frenais working for three months on the screenplay, Writers Guild of America rules meant Lorenzo Semple Jr. was given the sole on-screen credit.

However, the pair had so impressed Sean Connery that when he was helping to shape his 1996 action movie The Rock, he brought Clement and Le Frenais on to help with the script.

Connery had grown tired of Bond even while he was still playing the character. Vanity Fair reported how, in 1964, while filming Goldfinger, Connery had described Bond as ‘a dull, prosaic English policeman’, and the Observer further quoted him as saying ‘I have always hated that damned James Bond – I’d like to kill him’. The reported fee of $3 million that Sean Connery was paid to star in McClory’s film clearly helped him overcome his issues with the character.

Furthermore, Connery had fallen out with Eon producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli at the end of his tenure as Bond in the early 1970s, and the ill feeling was still festering (Connery would file a £225m dollar lawsuit against Broccoli, MGM, and United Artists, in 1984). Might Connery’s animosity to Broccoli and Eon Productions have helped him decide to join McClory, their competitor? Even the final title for the film, Never Say Never Again, punned on Connery’s claim that he would ‘never’ play Bond again (Connery’s wife Micheline, who had suggested the title, received an onscreen credit for her contribution).

Never Say Never Again brought together an illustrious cast and crew. Alongside Connery’s return as James Bond, Max Von Sydow took on the role of Blofeld, with Edward Fox as M., Kim Basinger as Domino Petachi, and the project also gave Rowan Atkinson his first film role as Bond’s eccentric British contact Nigel Small-Fawcett.

Further legal trouble surfaced again when, in early 1983, the Fleming estate attempted to stop Never Say Never Again from reaching cinemas. The case was rejected, and the way was clear for McClory’s film. Never Say Never Again was finally released on the December 15th 1983, seven months after Roger Moore’s sixth Bond film, Octopussy. The box office takings for Never Say Never Again, despite receiving generally positive reviews, were lower than that of its Eon rival: it was clear that the public could tell Never Say Never Again was off-brand Bond.


After the release of Never Say Never Again, Kevin McClory didn’t lie dormant for long. In 1989, he announced he was re-working Thunderball once again, this time under the title Atomic Warfare. Pierce Brosnan, who had recently missed out on being cast in the Eon franchise due to contractual commitments, was approached to play James Bond for the film. Despite the project coming to nothing, and Brosnan missing out on playing 007 for a second time, he would be successful when his chance came again.

The Sony gamble

Eon Productions had been releasing Bond films every two years (or more frequently) since 1962, but a legal battle between Eon Productions and MGM halted this run following the release of 1989’s Licence To Kill. The ensuing hiatus finally ended with 1995’s GoldenEye, which brought Bond into a new post-Cold War world, and proved there was still audience appetite for 007. The following year, Kevin McClory made a deal with Sony to rework Thunderball once again.

Under the working title Warhead 2000 AD, the film’s production was rumoured to be in the hands of Independence Day director Roland Emmerich and its producer Dean Devlin – although Devlin later denied that he had been involved. Several actors were considered for Sony’s Bond, including Liam Neeson and Timothy Dalton (who had recently stepped down from the role in Eon’s franchise). Neeson rejected the offer, but Dalton’s response is unknown.

Sony, however, had greater ambitions beyond just another re-tread of Thunderball. Between Casino Royale, which Sony had gained the rights to when it purchased Columbia Pictures in 1989, and the Thunderball rights held by McClory, Sony saw the potential to build its own Bond franchise. In 1997, almost two months before Eon’s next Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, was due for release, Sony’s Columbia Pictures unit announced to the world that it had reached a deal ‘to make a series of new James Bond feature films’.

The deal with Kevin McClory had been made by Sony Pictures’ President, John Calley. Calley had joined Sony in 1996, after working for MGM and United Artists as president and chief operating officer; within which role he had helped Eon’s Bond return to cinemas after the six-year break with Goldeneye. MGM, however, had been experiencing financial difficulties, and in late 1997 was preparing to sell shares in the studio to help raise revenue. The studio believed that the announcement made by Sony Pictures had no substance; it contested that Calley held a grudge against his former employers and had deliberately timed the Sony announcement to deflate the value of the MGM shares by diluting the uniqueness of their Bond franchise – which it did.

As a result, MGM and Danjaq launched a $25 million dollar lawsuit against Sony Pictures. In December of 1997, MGM snapped up the rights to distribute Never Say Never Again, from Taliafilm, the company owned by the film’s producer, Jack Schwartzman. Slowly, Danjaq, Eon and MGM were beginning to bring Bond in-house.

In February 1998, Sony Pictures counter-sued MGM and Danjaq, and claimed that the Thunderball rights alone were enough to allow it to make new Bond properties, because 007 movies are ‘all based on the sort of action originally written in the storyline for Thunderball’. Sony further claimed that McClory, through the work he had done on the original Thunderball screenplay, was the co-creator of the ‘cinematic Bond’, an entity separate from the Bond of the novels.

As the co-creator of the ‘cinematic Bond’, Sony Pictures said McClory was owed royalties from the entire Eon Productions Bond franchise. Sony began pre-production on Warhead 2000 AD while the trial continued, but MGM filed an injunction against the film. Production halted and would never restart.

A settlement between MGM and Sony Pictures was finally reached in 1999, in which Sony paid MGM $5m of the lawsuit it had levelled, and traded rights to Casino Royale for the rights MGM held to Spider-Man. This left McClory to fight MGM and Danjaq for his assumed royalties alone. In the end, the courts ruled that McClory had waited too long to bring his case; he was not entitled to any of the profits from the Eon franchise.

Financial problems persisted for MGM. When the company was put up for sale: it was Sony who placed the winning bid of $4.7 billion on the 13th September 2004. This purchase now placed the distribution rights for the Bond franchise (and the Casino Royale rights it had swapped away) with Sony.

Casino Royale, the first Bond film released under Sony, hit UK cinemas on November 16th 2006. Four days later, Kevin McClory passed away in Dublin. The legal issues which had dogged Bond’s life onscreen finally came to an end 9 years later: on November 15th 2013, MGM and Danjaq announced they had acquired all of the Bond rights and interests from McClory’s estate. Eon Productions made full use of its acquisitions in its next Bond film, 2015’s SPECTRE.

The title of the film may have been a final nod to the concluded conflict with McClory: SPECTRE is not only the name of Blofeld’s evil organisation, but was also an unused title for the initial Thunderball script.

Eon’s 23rd Bond film, Skyfall , had proved a phenomenal success for the company. It was the first Bond film to bring in over a billion dollars ($1.111 billion) at the box office. This achievement affirmed Eon’s dominance, and demonstrated that Eon was the rightful home of Bond.

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