He’s best known for sweeping in at the last minute to save the day – but James Bond’s latest act could be the death knell for many British cinemas.
The announcement that the release of No Time to Die, the 25th film featuring the secret agent, would be delayed again has left cinemas facing financial obliteration because of the absence of other forthcoming blockbuster films.
In response London-based Cineworld, the world’s second largest cinema chain, on Sunday confirmed it is considering temporarily closing all 128 outlets in the UK and Ireland, including 26 Picturehouse venues, potentially affecting over 5,000 staff – many of whom found out on social media. The same could happen in the US, where it has 536 Regal cinemas.
The chain had pinned its hopes on the new Bond film, now scheduled for release in April 2021. Instead its viability is in the balance less than two months after it reopened its screens.
According to industry sources, the cinema industry is caught in a Catch-22 situation. Movie studios are reluctant to release blockbuster films until they are sure that audiences will return – and cinema owners are unable to prove they can lure back audiences given the absence of blockbusters.
“The stark reality is that without new releases it is unlikely that footfall will increase to a level that makes opening financially viable,” said Philippa Childs, head of the arts union Bectu. Cineworld said: “We can confirm we are considering the temporary closure of our UK and US cinemas, but a final decision has not yet been reached. Once a decision has been made we will update all staff and customers as soon as we can.”
Cineworld controls about one in seven of the UK’s remaining cinemas. Closing so many sites would have a knock-on effect on other chains because distribution of new releases would then become even harder to justify. Box office figures show Britain’s cinemas took just £2m in ticket sales over the last weekend in September, down 80% on the same period last year.
Film studios have been particular spooked by the returns from Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, one of the few big-budget films released during the pandemic, which only earned $45m in the crucial US cinema market.
Given the likelihood of coronavirus cases rising over the winter, and months of social distancing reducing cinema capacities, many studios are instead choosing to sit on billions of dollars’ worth of films shot before the pandemic until they feel they have a realistic chance to recoup their money.
Mark Millar, the Scottish comic book writer who created the Kingsman and Kick-Ass films, said the mainstream cinema industry had become too reliant on making a handful of blockbuster films with $200m-plus budgets rather than a variety of mainstream films with $50m to $80m budgets.
“This requires huge number of tickets needed to break even so nobody can risk the loss,” said the writer, who now works for streaming giant Netflix. “A slew of mid-budget movies could have salvaged [the situation] but studios don’t make those any more, sadly.”
However, convincing movie studios to accept substantial losses by releasing blockbusters soon could be a tough sell, especially as it would benefit cinema chains that had been highly profitable.
Although some studios have looked at releasing their material over pay-per-view – with Disney’s live-action Mulan film being made available for £19.99 on its Disney streaming service – the industry is still geared up for blockbusters to make most of their money from big openings.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon at a Vue cinema in London’s Islington, the relatively small number of customers had few safety concerns. India Townsend, a 29-year-old solicitor who had to come to watch Tenet, said she had been to Vue and the local Odeon several times since the outbreak: “It’s as safe as going on an aeroplane, with social distancing and masks.”
Eren Dogan, 21, a customer assistant at the Vue, said: “Having the cinema back is a bit of normal life in the same way as going to the pub.” He estimated that 300 to 500 people are coming every day.
Even when the public are willing to return to screens in large numbers, the promotional schedule accompanying each release will take time to ramp up. The producers of James Bond had already begun to restart the massive promotional schedule for a November launch, releasing the video for Billie Eilish’s theme song just 24 hours before they decided to delay the films’s release again.
Some independent cinemas have been forced to give up, with Peckhamplex in south London closing temporarily six weeks after reopening. John Reiss, the chairman of its operating company, said audiences had initially returned when they reopened in August but have since been in steady decline: “For some it is the understandable concerns about the risks of Covid-19, but for most it is about the lack of available films.”
Oliver Meek, executive director of the independent Rio cinema in east London, said: “If a giant like Cineworld is falling, it just shows how difficult it’s going to be.” He said the delay of the latest Bond movie would be acutely felt by multiplexes as well as independents. “Bond is always one of our bigger box office successes for the year. We are relying on a film like Bond to fill our auditorium for a couple of weeks and it subsides our other films.”
If big releases keep getting pushed back, the Rio may have to close again temporarily after reopening in late August, he warned. The Rio can seat 130 people, down from its usual 400-seat capacity because of physical distancing. But Meek recalled that the 111-year-old cinema survived the 1918 Spanish flu when cinemas were shut for two years. “The public still wants cinema; it’s lasted a long time.”