Cineworld is drawing up plans to close all 128 of its cinemas, putting 5,500 jobs at risk, after the COVID-19 pandemic caused the latest James Bond film No Time to Die to be delayed until April. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

No Time for Cinema to Die

What does the postponement of the new James Bond film mean for the future of cinema?

Over the past half-century, James Bond has battled any number of implacable and deadly foes bent on world domination, but he seems to have met his match with the Covid-19 virus. The latest 007 adventure, No Time to Die, had already undergone a difficult pre-production period. Its original director Danny Boyle left due to script disagreements, and then filming and post-production had many rumours of turbulence, with purported arguments between the star Daniel Craig and replacement director Cary Fukanaga, followed by the last-minute recruitment of composer du jour Hans Zimmer to replace Fukanaga’s regular composer Dan Romer.

Yet these things are all par for the course in modern blockbuster filmmaking, and when one is dealing with a $250 million budget, the producers cannot afford to act recklessly. Which is why, as far back as February, Bond uber-producer Barbara Broccoli took the executive decision to put an end to the marketing blitz that had already begun, fearing that the film’s original release date of April 2020 was no longer viable if the world’s cinemas were closed. It was then rescheduled for 12 November, on the grounds that, although the pandemic was causing mass havoc, it was hoped that it would be under control by later in the year. And even as many other films rescheduled their release dates for 2021, Broccoli and the Bond filmmakers remained resolute, meaning that the cinema industry could pin their hopes of a financial renaissance on the lucrative pre-Christmas market with No Time to Die’s release. Marketing resumed, new trailers were released, brand tie-ins were agreed, and cinemagoers began to look forward to one of the most reliable pleasures of the year.

The natural link between the latest releases and the cinema has been broken and may never return

It was therefore both a disappointment and a surprise that it was announced a couple of days ago that the film’s release would be postponed a further five months and is now scheduled for 2 April 2021. The immediate consequence of this was swift and unpleasant. The Cineworld group, which runs both the Cineworld group of multiplexes and owns the arthouse Picturehouse chain, announced that, without a significant new film to keep their cinemas open, they would close their doors entirely until further notice, resulting in as many as 5,500 redundancies. A spokesman said that “this is not a decision that we take lightly”, but without a James Bond film to bring in significant financial revenue, there seemed little point in the 128 cinemas that they operate continuing to function, meaning that, as of Thursday 8 October, many people will no longer have a local cinema to visit for the foreseeable future. As the CEO put it, “we are like a grocery shop with no food”.

The whys and wherefores of this decision are more complex than simple cowardice – or pragmatism – on the part of Barbara Broccoli, or anyone else. The major filmgoing markets of New York and Los Angeles are still closed, meaning that any film released in the US at the moment is doomed to make a vast amount less money than it would otherwise have done. The industry placed immeasurable faith in Christopher Nolan’s new film Tenet to rescue it – something that I discussed when its own release was temporarily postponed – and the results were inconclusive. It has made over $300 million worldwide; a staggering amount when the circumstances of social distancing and mass cinema closures are taken into consideration, but barely enough to cover its reported $200 million budget once advertising and marketing costs are factored in. Given that Nolan’s previous film Dunkirk made $527 million worldwide, and the likes of Interstellar and Inception made even more, it can only be viewed as disappointing.

However, Tenet was not exactly the film that many had expected. When I watched it in a quarter-full Curzon Oxford on the day of its release, I was struck by how disengaged the audience were, which I put down partly to discomfort at the idea of visiting a cinema at all – careful, if the person next to you coughs, you could get the virus – but also because Nolan’s film was a difficult, intellectually stretching examination of the circular nature of time, with its genuinely daring provocations undercut by both muffled sound design and an unwillingness to make things easy for its audience. As a result, word-of-mouth was far less positive than might have been expected, and many of the casual viewers who might have gone out on a Friday or Saturday evening chose not to bother. The film has made around £15 million in the United Kingdom so far, which is hugely impressive given the circumstances (and the kind of cerebral head-scratcher it is) but doesn’t begin to compare to Dunkirk’s £62 million gross from 2017.

There is the chance that there will simply not be cinemas left for filmgoers to visit

Thus, nervous studios and executives have taken fear at the prospect of high-profile films flopping badly and have delayed their release into 2021 in most cases. While this has created the possibility of an embarrassment of riches for audiences next year and beyond, there is also the chance that there will simply not be cinemas left for filmgoers to visit. Apart from Tenet, there has been no high-profile, must-see film released since the beginning of March. There have been many excellent, critically acclaimed smaller films making it to the cinema, but nothing that has brought in significant revenue. The postponement of such serviceable-looking big-budget entertainments as the new Poirot film Death on the Nile until Christmas, if not beyond, means that there is now no new blockbuster on offer at the local cinema until then, if it decides to continue to open. Does this mean that No Time to Die should have stuck to its (Walther PPK) guns, launched as anticipated next month, and the consequences be damned?

There are two ways of looking at it. The first is that the filmmakers have acted in a panicked and rather hasty fashion, ignoring the likelihood that, unless a second wave of Covid-19 is even more devastating than the previous one, there would have been a great desire from millions to go out to the cinema and see the new Bond film, especially in its traditional pre-Christmas release slot. Had it been as successful as anticipated, then it would have been a vote of confidence in the entire industry, and release dates would no longer have been in a perpetual state of flux. And there is also the growing possibility that the film itself will seem deeply stale by April 2021. There have now been two separate marketing campaigns launched, and then quietly abandoned, and various brand tie-ins are left high and dry. Most who have seen the trailers over and over again, and one wag quipped about the Billie Eilish theme song, “it’ll be the first time that a Bond film is released with an old standard over the opening credits”. When it is finally released, it may be greeted with weary over-familiarity, rather than excitement.

It is not the responsibility of any individual filmmaker to keep the theatrical industry alive

Set against this, it is not the responsibility of any individual filmmaker or producer to keep the theatrical industry alive, even if Nolan did give it a damn good go. The release of Tenet probably saw Warner Brothers lose between $100 and $200 million in potential revenue, and that was because the studio was sufficiently in thrall to its star director to accede to his wishes, even if they were financially catastrophic. Ultimately, blockbuster tentpole films with large price tags have to make a certain amount of money back, or they end up bankrupting the studio that has produced them. Should No Time to Die have come out, flopped and become the lowest-grossing James Bond film of the past couple of decades, then future Bond pictures would adjust their budgets accordingly. Before long, the most exotic place that 007 will be sent on assignment to will probably be North Wales.

The irony is that streaming services have become the natural home of many of the mid-budget films that would once have seen audiences trot out to cinemas. Whether it’s Enola Holmes, Aaron Sorkin’s forthcoming The Trial of the Chicago Seven or Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat sequel, the ready availability of high-profile new films in one’s sitting room has meant that the natural link between the latest releases and the picturehouse has been broken and may never return. An attempt by Disney to release their blockbuster Mulan as a premium pay-per-view option was reportedly unsuccessful, so it seems unlikely that the likes of No Time To Die will be available for home viewing for a fee of, say, £10 per household, not least because of the ever-present risk of mass piracy.

Discussing this over the weekend with a friend who works in the industry, he was more optimistic than I was, even if he believed that it was ultimately down to the government to support the cinema industry with loans and grants until business returns to normal. As he said, “I have no doubt that cinemas will return, eventually. It’s a viable way to make a lot of money, and once we come out the other side of this, the investors will open cinemas again. The theatrical landscape is shifting and has been for many years. But cinemas will always be attractive for both the public and investors.” He is also more sanguine about the Bond team’s decision than many others. “I don’t think that any of this is Barbara Broccoli’s fault. The decision she’s made will have a huge impact on the industry as a whole, but it’s not down to her, personally, to save cinemas, and she shouldn’t shoulder the blame here. And I would have felt the same if it was any other film.”

I very much hope that he is right, and that the film industry eventually looks back on 2020 as a hideous anomaly, rather than the shape of things to come. Yet just as I hear occasional rumours about people adjusting to the “new normal” and showing deep reluctance to return to their former way of life, I suspect that we shall soon see many much-loved cinemas close forever, no doubt to find a second life as a pub or luxury flats complex, and attendance consequently fall. At the time of writing, Boris Johnson called for “people to go out to the cinema, enjoy themselves and support those businesses.” To which the only riposte is that, without anything new to show, their fortunes seem likely to mirror his premiership, and it doesn’t need any cackling Blofeld to predict this particular deep freeze for the industry, or a deep uncertainty as to whether it can, or will, ever recover.

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