From today’s perspective, United Artists’ 1963 release of “Dr. No” looks like pure sabotage. After screening the first James Bond film for three weeks across 450 theaters in the Midwest, it finally debuted in New York and Los Angeles on the week of Memorial Day 1963. (It was a Wednesday; Friday debuts were rare since newspaper reviews appeared the day after, and Saturdays had low readership.) And yet, this modest acorn of a British movie produced not one but two business models that reshaped the industry: It led to the creation of the franchise film, and the blockbuster release strategy.
To be fair, while “Dr. No” wasn’t viewed as an A+ title, this distribution approach wasn’t meant to scorn. Top films usually opened as exclusive runs in larger cities with staggered dates; lesser titles sought a quick return via multiple theaters in the same metropolitan area. However, its status as a British hit didn’t carry much weight; it starred an unknown, Sean Connery, and it was overshadowed by “Hud” with Paul Newman and Patricia Neal and initial limited dates for Nicholas Ray’s epic “55 Days in Peking.” Enthusiasm was much higher for “Cleopatra,” which was scheduled to premiere two weeks later.
In New York, a top film would screen in a palatial theater near Times Square. In Los Angeles, Hollywood and Westwood were the areas of choice. But not “Dr. No.” In New York, it opened across the metro area at 84 theaters (including a Broadway theater) on something called United Artists Premiere Showcase, a marketing strategy meant to attach some prestige to secondary titles. UA, which was then a financing and distribution consortium, was riding high in this era. The brand denoted sophistication with the release of films like “The Apartment,” “West Side Story,” “Tom Jones,” “The Great Escape,” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
In Los Angeles, it also opened in multiple runs, paired with another first-run film, MGM’s “The Young and the Brave.” Clearly secondary on the bill, it was a low-budget black-and-white Korean War drama starring Rory Calhoun (and shot in rustic areas of Ventura County).
Along with a publicity tour that featured Connery and director Terence Young, what brought “Dr. No” attention was the timing of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although it had nothing to do with the Soviet Union, much of the film’s action was set in the Caribbean and it featured an international spies — close enough. And while the public had limited interest in the Ian Fleming character, UA made sure that became well known that President Kennedy was a fan who said he wished he had Bond at the CIA.
The result was a modest hit with a domestic gross of around $5 million — about $50 million today. In its initial release, “Dr. No” earned around $2 million for UA in film rentals. Not one of the biggest films of the year, but likely in the top 30.
What was audacious was the film was the first of a planned franchise. That was visionary at a time when sequels meant B-grade serials. Filming was already underway on “From Russia With Love,” which would be released in the U.S. a year later and gross double “Dr. No” in its initial run. With reissues — including a hugely successful pairing with “Russia” in 1965 after the even-bigger success of “Goldfinger” — “Dr. No” earned over $16 million ($160 million adjusted).
All of this would lead to the release of the biggest Bond film in the franchise’s history, “Thunderball,” which UA released about six months after “Goldfinger,” in December 1965. Adjusted, it grossed $700 million domestic (right between “Black Panther” and “The Dark Knight”) and became the template for the modern blockbuster release by opening simultaneously around the world in major cities. With that, the franchise era was born.
Not bad for a film given a somewhat secondary initial release.