In recent days, commentators have had it in for James Bond. 007 has faced just as much antagonism from the media as he usually experiences at the hands of Blofeld or the steel-tipped feet of Rosa Klebb – and all because the US studio Universal has taken the eminently sensible decision to postpone the release of the new Bond film, No Time To Die, until April.
This is not to belittle the problems facing the UK’s beleaguered cinema sector as it struggles to deal with the impact of Covid-19. UK box office takings are estimated to be 70 per cent down on the same period last year in spite of 2020 starting very brightly (everything changed in March, of course, with the lockdown).
The media has been full of stories over the weekend about Cinewold’s decision to shut all its UK and US cinemas temporarily, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs. Articles have appeared saying that Bond has “no license to kill the film industry”. The cinemas are closing (these articles claim) because they don’t have any big new US studio blockbusters to show. The loss of Bond, which has already been delayed once, is being presented as the final nail in the Cineworld coffin.
As ever, the story is more complicated. Even before the pandemic, Cineworld, which had expanded at reckless speed, was sitting on a mountain of debt and struggling to meet its repayments. The idea that James Bond is to blame for its predicament is ridiculous.
The argument can also be made that Cineworld and other exhibitors are suffering because of their unhealthy reliance on a single source of supply, namely Hollywood. “We never thought that tap would be turned off,” Phil Clapp, CEO of trade body, the UK Cinema Association, commented earlier this summer, referring to the effect the sudden suspension of big US releases has had on UK cinemas.
UK exhibitors have made vast fortunes in recent years because of the Avengers films, The Lion King, Stars Wars, Spider-Man and all the other blockbusters. They haven’t always invested back into the cinema-going experience or treated their staff especially well.
A 2014 petition run by trade union BECTU called on Cineworld to pay all its staff the London living wage. As the petition pointed out, Cineworld CEO Mooky Greidinger was earning millions and his cinemas, pre-coronavirus, were making big profits. Meanwhile, BECTU was asking for £9.75 an hour for Picturehouse (owned by Cineworld) staff. At the start of the pandemic, Cineworld didn’t hesitate to lay off staff. In response, Cineworld workers formed their own action group to challenge management decisions.
In spite of rapid advances in digital technology, it has sometimes seemed as if UK cinemas have been careering back to the bad old days of the mid-1980s when cinemas were justifiably described as flea pits. Often, the big multiplexes are woefully understaffed. Online booking has allowed the cinemas to get rid of front-of-house workers.
One reason why cinema experienced a sustained revival from the mid-1980s onwards was because of the investment in the customer experience. Now, however, it’s possible to go to a movie at your local multiplex and have no interaction with another human being at all. You download your ticket remotely, find your own screen and your own seat. If you’re lucky, you might find somebody to sell you a tub of popcorn.
Coronavirus threatens to make the cinema-going experience yet more antiseptic (in both a positive and negative way).
The US studios are desperate to release their movies. However, they are faced with daunting economic challenges. The biggest blockbusters can cost $200 to $300 million to shoot and even more to market. Everyone has seen the problems that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has faced since its release in late summer. It has now crawled over the $300 million mark at the global box office.
That may sound a lot but is small pickings when you remember its production cost and realise that Avengers: Endgame last year made $2.8 billion at the global box office. Tenet's US performance has been very disappointing, largely because cinemas in the key cities New York and Los Angeles were closed at the time of its release.
For those this side of the Atlantic, the logic is obvious. The US studios should turn the taps back on and give cinemas in the UK and elsewhere the blockbusters they need to keep their businesses going. These films might perform less robustly than in normal times but they would still do some business and, more importantly, they would restore confidence.
An alternative view is that UK multiplexes have become far too dependent on these blockbusters and should be more adventurous in their programming. They haven’t been remotely flexible either when it comes to the so-called “theatrical window”, the period of time between when a film appears exclusively in cinemas and when it is available to stream. The window currently stands at 17 weeks but most industry analysts would agree that needs to change. The streamers have done very well during lockdown and the exhibitors need to work more closely with them.
As for poor old James Bond, you can hardly blame Universal for not releasing No Time To Die into the cinematic equivalent of a black hole. The US studios make films for audiences. At the moment, as Tenet proved, those audiences simply aren’t there.