That was a beautiful insert that Sony recently took in Variety welcoming MGM into its corporate family. The logo was there, the library was there.
Not surprisingly, the MGM management wasn’t and, sadly, the words United Artists were nowhere to be seen. The company that had delivered James Bond to the world’s cinema — clearly the biggest asset MGM had capitalized on in recent years — had been deleted from our industry with a single wave of corporate rebranding.
How could this have happened to the great company that I worked for and loved during its glory years in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s?
The Arthur Krim-Robert Benjamin philosophy that reinvented the Chaplin/Pickford company was simple.
The film and the filmmaker are more important than the financier and the distributor. By giving over creative control, the world’s great talents came to our door and we knew how to treat them. When Transamerica acquired the publicly traded UA in the late ’60s the company’s fate was sealed. I left in the early ’70s and Krim and Benjamin formed Orion shortly thereafter.
Transamerica, clueless, took it over only to see it flounder quickly and sold it. Thus began a series of sales, stock exchanges and management shuffles.
What never changed were the great films and filmmakers left behind. And this is just a short list: Wilder, Wyler, Truffaut, Bertolucci, Malle, Lester, Leone, Jewison, Bergman, Kramer and De Broca. “Last Tango in Paris,” “Some Like it Hot,” “Hard Day’s Night,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Pink Panther,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Tom Jones” — and James Bond.
And about Bond, here’s the true story that started in 1961 and came full circle only a few weeks ago.
In 1961, as a young production exec at UA, I read the Bond books and tried to acquire them for the company. MCA, Ian Fleming’s London agent, advised they weren’t for sale. A year later, now head of production and marketing, I was called by our London office and told Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli were flying to New York for a meeting about something important. A few days later they walked into Krim’s office and shook hands with him, Benjamin and me.
After the usual pleasantries I was leaning back in my chair when they announced they owned the rights to Bond. Harry had acquired a free option from Fleming (we never found out how he got it) and Cubby had become Harry’s partner, not wanting to take the chance that he himself might not get the rights when Harry’s option ran out.
My chair hit the floor and I said in no uncertain terms that we would make a deal and that the KEY to the film was spending enough money to maintain Fleming’s tone in the sensuality, style, action and wit of the books.
Harry and Cubby had no idea that we knew the material, but they knew I “got it.” We worked out the deal very quickly. Since they had options on all the books as well as non-author written sequels (except for “Casino Royale” which was owned by Gregory Ratoff and Columbia), we made a deal for all the pictures in groups of two, cross-collateralized them, etc. It didn’t take long.
When we finished, Cubby said he had to make a phone call just to clear the decks. “Clear what decks?” I asked. “Columbia,” he said. “They’ve been very good to me and I owe them a final call. They said no once but I’ve got to give them a last shot.”
When he saw my face, he said, “Don’t worry.” I felt like Jack Benny. “I worry, I worry,” I said. “I’ll just make a quick call,” Cubby responded.
And he left the room. In less than five minutes — a very long five minutes, I might add — he returned with a smile on his face.
“We have a deal,” he said. He told me he called Abe Montague, who was head of Columbia distribution. Abe said he’s heard about those Victor (!!!) Fleming pictures and was sure Columbia would give Cubby $400,000 or so to make one if he felt strongly about it, but only as a courtesy. Cubby said thanks and hung up.
So we made our deal agreeing to spend $1.1 million when the script was approved (the final cost was some $1.4 million) and an unknown was hired to play Bond so that we could get a long-term deal with whomever in case we got lucky, 50/50 on the profits, etc.
And in those days that’s all it took. And so it began. “Dr. No,” “From Russion With Love,” “Goldfinger,” “Thunderball.” In 1967 Columbia made “Casino Royale” into a spoof that did not do well.
The Hollywood ending is that Columbia could have had Bond for $1 million in 1962. They didn’t get it then, but they’ve got it now for … how many billions did they say?
And how about a thank you to the late, great United Artists.
(Indie producer David Picker served as a top exec at United Artists, Paramount and Columbia overseeing such pics as “A Hard Day Night,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “Lenny” as well as the Bond film series. He is currently chairman of the Producers Guild East.)