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It was the longest wait for the longest James Bond film but this week cinemas in the UK finally had the blockbuster they needed to persuade audiences to return after lockdowns.
“This is a watershed moment. This is the time we got back to business,” said Tim Richards, chief executive of Vue, the UK’s third-largest operator by number of cinemas, of the two-hour, 43-minute long No Time To Die.
“It is the movie that everyone has been waiting for and asking about,” he told the Financial Times.
Cinemas hope Bond will be the catalyst to coax audiences to return after lockdowns, despite record numbers of consumers subscribing to streaming platforms during the pandemic and film studios debuting more major releases online.
“We can’t really understate [Bond’s] importance,” said Chris Bates, Europe commercial director of Odeon, the UK’s second-largest cinema chain. “To have that big blockbuster . . . all the generations will come out for this and we haven’t had that yet.”
Between releasing tickets on September 13 and October 1, Odeon sold more than 450,000 tickets for Daniel Craig’s last outing as the British secret agent — far outselling presales of the previous Bond film, Spectre. Around half of those tickets went to customers that had not returned to cinemas since they were permitted to reopen in England in May, the group said.
Vue said it had sold more tickets for No Time To Die in the first 24 hours of them being on sale than it did in four-and-a-half weeks for Spectre. “It’s what we were secretly hoping for, [but] you never plan for it,” Richards said.
Such demand, operators say, indicates how much pent-up desire exists to return to cinemas despite months spent streaming films at home.
But with more consumers turning to on-demand platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, are blockbuster films the only movies that will draw customers back?
“Streaming has not only increased but it has also been maintained following lockdown,” said Tim Mulligan, research director at MIDiA Research.
The amount of time UK audiences spent streaming TV shows and films increased 9.8 per cent between September 2020 and June 2021, three months after the first easing of lockdown restrictions in England, MIDiA figures show.
Mulligan argued that No Time To Die is an acid test for cinemas to prove themselves after the disruption of Covid. “What is the value proposition for a consumer choosing to pay three times a monthly subscription [for a cinema ticket] where they can’t control what the environment is and they have to leave their home for it? That’s the question.”
Cinema owners say that nothing can replicate the experience of watching a film with a live audience and have continued to invest in reclining seats and better sound and screen technology, but it has been a brutal 18 months.
Cineworld, the UK’s largest cinema operator, came close to bankruptcy before managing to secure more than $750m emergency funding in November, while Odeon’s US parent company AMC narrowly staved off collapse after it raised $917m in debt and equity in January.
Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Cinema Association, said that the recovery has been “steady” but there have been “high points and low points along the way”.
The Marvel film Black Widow has been the best performing film so far this year in the UK, grossing £6.8m on its opening weekend, according to BFI box office figures. This compares to £14.1m achieved by Spider-Man: Far From Home, the most recent Marvel film before the pandemic.
Cinema executives point out that Black Widow was released to Disney’s subscription service the same day that it came out in cinemas.
Still the path to recovery looks uncertain.
Major films Top Gun: Maverick and Mission Impossible 7 have been delayed again, until 2022, and the exclusive period that cinemas have to show films before general release has been cut from 90 days to around 45 in most cases.
Customers also have higher standards than pre-Covid, warned Jed Harmsen, vice-president of cinema and content solutions at Dolby Laboratories.
“We think people are going to come back but when they do there is an expectation that they will want the best and that it will be unlike what they have seen in the home.”
Cinema operators have noted that while audiences this summer were still down on 2019, customers that have returned have paid for more expensive tickets to “premium” screenings that offer comfier seats, high-quality sound and vision or better food.
But Harmsen said that a desire for more immersive, digitally enhanced experiences does not necessarily mean that action-packed blockbusters are favoured over more art house films.
Even quiet films can have “a full immersive soundscape”, he said.
Clapp said that, in fact, a “major conversation coming out of the pandemic is how we engineer a more diverse range of films for audiences” as cinemagoing has bounced back faster in markets such as Germany and Poland that have strong local film output and less reliance on Hollywood releases.
But, he added, so-called tent pole movies — produced with the big screen in mind — do remain crucial to cinemas’ survival: “The reason they are called tent poles is because they hold the structure up.”