Sylvester Stallone was a mere employee in all 5 films. Licensing and franchising rights are held by United Artists and the production companies, not him.
Let's start this off by saying that Sylvester Stallone is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He's filthy, stinking rich. And let's also throw in that he invented the character of Rocky, wrote the scripts, directed most of the 5 films. And, oh yes, starred in the title role. In the 1980s and 1990s, he and Arnold Schwarzenegger were the go-to action heroes. But, incredibly, he doesn't own the franchise. He was a paid employee in all 5 of the films. What he's made off the films can be count in the tens of millions, not (as you might expect) in the hundreds of millions. And he's recently been complaining long and loud about it to anybody who will listen.
How can that be? Well, when he approached United Artists with the idea and the script for the original 1976 film, they wanted to cast a big star like James Caan in the role. Stallone had a string of forgettable acting gigs under his belt. He was a nobody. But he insisted that he play the lead. Eventually, UA agreed. And he got a pittance of a salary and a meager profit-sharing deal kind of package.
His agents didn't help. They told him, more or less, to take what he could get. And he did.
The franchise has grossed getting on $2 billion worldwide. And his return on that can, as we have said, be counted in tens of millions.
Here is why dad and multi-millionaire Sylvester Stallone resents how much the Rocky franchise has earned.
The Back Story
In the run-up to Rocky glory, Stallone had all of a $100 to call his own. He had to sell his Bullmastiff dog Butkus to pay his rent. He was new to Hollywood and determined to make it big. He conceived the character of Rocky the down and out boxer who makes it big, writing the script himself.
A newcomer to Hollywood, he shopped the script around various studios. There was little interest. United Artist showed some enthusiasm, but want to cast a big name like James Caan in the title role. Stallone insisted he was going to play Rocky. It was his baby. He drew a line in the sand.
United Artists eventually agreed, granting Stallone a salary of around $20,000 and a 10 percent stake in the profits from the film. Once he had his advance in hand, he bought back his dog Butkus. The dog not only appeared in the film but got credit for it. He has his own IMDb page. On a production budget of around $1 million, the film took in over $220 million worldwide and got a slew of Oscar nominations. The formerly impoverished Stallone took home $2.5 million in total.
Of his sudden success, he has said: "Literally, I was parking cars 10 months earlier and now here we are [at the Oscars]. I rented a tuxedo and on the way to the Oscars the tie broke and the driver goes, 'You want to borrow mine?' I go 'nah, I guess it doesn't matter,' so I walk into the Oscars looking like Vinny Boom Bots, 'how you doin?' and people were like, 'oh my god, what arrogance, how dare he?" Never mind. The film took home the Best Picture Oscar. Stallone was up and running fast. He went from zero to hero.
What's important to note, yet again, is that United Artists and the production companies owned (and still own) Rocky. Stallone probably took home a couple of million for the second film, $3.5 million for the third film, $12 million for Rocky IV, and $15 million for Rocky V. Let's put this in perspective. At about the same time as Rocky V was made, Jack Nicholson banked more than $100 million for playing the Joker in the first Batman film. Why? He accepted a fairly low salary (still in the millions) in exchange for a percentage of every single penny the film took in at the box office. It's called box office gross.
So What's The Problem?
The character of Rocky made Stallone a household name. It led to a career in films such as Rambo and The Expendables. The guy is worth $400 million. So what's the problem? Well, as Stallone told Variety:
“I have zero ownership of Rocky." The producers told him "Hey, you got paid, so what are you complaining about?"
He admits: "I was furious." He was a mere employee in all 5 films. Licensing and franchising rights are held by United Artists and the production companies, not him. If you buy a Rocky action figure or a Rocky poster, Stallone doesn't get a penny. The films may have brought in nearly $2 billion, but Stallone's take home on that is probably less than $50 million.
He blames himself (and his former agents) for rolling over and accepting it. Actors make the big bucks when they do deals for a cut of gross revenue, not net revenue (take less all expenses) and when they form their own production companies that have ownership of film rights. Stallone missed out on both counts.
So, is he grateful for the character Rocky? You bet. Does he wish he had done things differently? Totally.