As ticket sales flicker back into life following the reopening of cinemas earlier this month, theatre owners are banking on one film to deliver them pre-pandemic-level crowds and box office success: Bond.
Sticking to its roadmap out of lockdown, the government allowed cinemas to reopen from 17 May. This gave Hollywood studios confidence in being able to turn a profit by returning to the big screen with blockbusters such as Marvel’s Black Widow and the latest in the Fast and Furious franchise this summer.
But after three pandemic-enforced date changes, the biggest film of the year could be No Time to Die, the final outing of Daniel Craig as superspy 007. It is regarded by many in the cinema industry as unofficially marking the end of the health crisis that has devastated their finances.
“We’ve got Bond,” says Tim Richards, chief executive at Vue, the UK’s third-largest cinema chain. “It has been delayed because it is so good. The confidence that everyone has in that movie, the pent-up demand … It is going to be very good. Whenever I get asked for a movie release date from any of our customers, it is usually related to Bond.”
The Bond franchise, owned by Eon Productions and MGM’s new parent, Amazon, is carefully geared towards maximising box office sales. There have only been 25 films in 59 years and spin-offs are taboo, which makes Bond a premium big-screen draw. The last film, Spectre, made $880m globally, while predecessor Skyfall topped $1.1bn. The promise of such returns was the reason a $600m offer from Apple for a digital release during lockdown was ultimately rejected in favour of waiting until cinemas could deliver.
Pearl & Dean, which sells advertising for about a fifth of the UK cinema market, believes the hype is such that ad bookings will be back at 2019 levels when Bond premieres at the end of September.
“We have got a Bond,” says Clare Turner, sales director at Pearl & Dean. “Every single time, pre-Covid, screen slots for Bond were fully sold out. The advertiser demand for that film is enormous. And much more so now it is back in its pre-Christmas slot – the ‘golden quarter’ that advertisers like. It was not as popular when Bond was scheduled for an April release.”
Turner says overall confidence levels are much higher now that cinema appears to finally be on the road to recovery. Revenues for 2021 are projected to be 10 times those for 2020, which saw the lowest annual admissions ever and an 80% slump in box office revenues.
“When cinemas reopened last summer, conversations with advertisers were about the cancellation policy, and what were the terms if we went into another lockdown,” she says. “Those conversations aren’t happening this time: it is not top of people’s minds There is confidence that we won’t go back into lockdown and the film slate is more solid.”
The UK’s largest chain, Cineworld, decided to keep all of its 127 sites closed indefinitely when the Bond premiere date was moved last October. But it has now reopened and is optimistically forecasting that admissions will return to 90% of pre-Covid levels by the end of the year. Next year will be just 10% down on 2019 levels, it says, and by 2023 they will be just 5% lower.
Vue’s Richards – who is seeking to spice up the chain’s offering with talks to get Netflix films on the big screen and a possible deal with BT to show the Champions League final – says the pandemic backlog of blockbusters awaiting big-screen release is great news for cinemagoers.
“The consensus within the industry is that without theatrical release, huge amounts of money are lost,” he says, adding that cinema owners probably won’t get back to pre-pandemic revenues until the end of 2023. “In a normal market we pray for rain. But now, rain or shine, people want to get out and do things, like watch a film. We have three years of movies to show in the next 12 to 18 months. We are about to hit a second golden age of cinema.”