James Bond's homeland is deep in a second wave of COVID-19 that may force cinemas to close
Now that "Black Widow" has left the November 2020 release schedule, a movie theater industry severely crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic is clinging to hope that MGM will move forward on plans to release the James Bond film "No Time to Die" in theaters in six weeks' time.
For now, MGM says plans haven't changed, but a troubling resurgence of the virus in Bond's homeland, the U.K., could threaten to change that.
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This past Friday, the number of daily new infections in Britain reached 6,800, a new high for the country since the start of the pandemic. In response, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not yet closed businesses but has ordered a 10 p.m. curfew for restaurants, pubs and cinemas, though cinemas are allowed to schedule screenings that start prior to that curfew time.
But as the second wave has escalated, The Times reports that Johnson is being caught between advisers who want him to close businesses, as he did this past spring to contain the virus and Tory Parliament members who want him to keep businesses open. One possible outcome if infection rates worsen is a nationwide lockdown of the country's businesses for at least two weeks.
That wouldn't necessarily mean that theaters would be closed on November 12, when "No Time to Die" is set to open, but at the very least it would throw the film's release plans into serious disarray.
Though U.S. theaters continue to struggle and the threat of a second wave this fall hangs over the entire world, insiders have told TheWrap that it's difficult to see a Bond film release move forward without British theaters open at some point early in its theatrical run.
"U.S. and China are always the big markets, but there are some films where a specific country can also be a key market. Obviously, Bond and the U.K. go hand-in-hand," one rival distributor told TheWrap. "Could they do a global release without the U.K.? Sure, but I don't think they'd want Britain to wait more than a couple of weeks longer than the rest of the world."
How important is Bond to the British box office? The last two entries in the 007 series, "Skyfall" in 2012 and "Spectre" in 2015, combined to gross £198.4 million and stand as the second and third highest-grossing films in the country's history. Only "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" grossed more, with £123 million to "Skyfall"'s £103 million. Prior to the pandemic, "No Time to Die" was believed to have a shot at crossing the £100 million mark, as it will be the final Bond film for Daniel Craig after 14 years in the role.
In this pandemic age, expectations are nowhere near that nine-digit mark, but the U.K. is still vital for the film. Depending on how global containment efforts go, one option may be for "No Time to Die" to simply be released a couple of weeks after other territories instead of before, as was the case for the U.S. release of "Tenet," a week after global territories.
Another option, of course, is to just move "No Time to Die" again to 202,1 as Hollywood studios have done for most of their tentpoles. But for a studio like MGM, that will come at a steep price. The studio already lost an estimated $30 million in marketing costs for the film's initial planned release in March. Depending on how much marketing rolls out before a hypothetical second wave overwhelms the U.K. or a majority of key countries, it could be another major financial blow for the studio.
It's a dilemma that we've seen before: Warner Bros. and Disney were forced to make similarly tough decisions when a sudden surge of COVID-19 infections in the U.S. derailed months' worth of plans to release "Tenet" and "Mulan" in theaters in late summer. Though the pandemic has cost both of those films hundreds of millions in theatrical revenue, their respective studios are still large enough to take the hit.
"Other studios have multiple tentpoles they can experiment with. MGM doesn't have that. 'No Time to Die' is THE tentpole for them," Boxoffice analyst Shawn Robbins told TheWrap. "They are going to have to make a tough decision on whether releasing later and absorbing the costs of another delay or taking the risk of releasing now is the safest choice."
MGM is far from the only company invested in "No Time to Die." While they are distributing in the U.S. via United Artists, Universal is handling overseas distribution. Then there are companies like Omega, Heineken, and Aston Martin -- longtime makers of Bond's cars -- who have helped fund the film's $250 million production budget through lucrative product placement deals. Those products have their own marketing campaigns attached to the film, making them major stakeholders in Bond's box office success.
And of course, there are the theaters. While China and, to a lesser degree, some European markets have seen some local hits perform well, the global market needs "No Time to Die" to help stem the tide against what will be a rough 2020 no matter how many lucky breaks the industry might get in the global effort against COVID-19. Even still, Robbins fears it might not be enough.
"I think what 'Tenet' showed is that one big film is not enough," he said. "Theaters need at least two big films to bring a wider range of the audience back and ensure more support, and they lost that when 'Mulan' moved to PVOD. There's still another big November release with 'Soul' on the calendar, so it will probably take both those films and improved efforts to make audiences comfortable again with going to theaters to really get the relief theaters need."