James Bond returns, and theaters see reason for hope
By Brooks Barnes
Movie theaters are finally bouncing back from the pandemic, with solid turnout over the weekend for the latest James Bond spectacle, “No Time to Die,” giving Hollywood its third box office success in the span of a month. For coronavirus-battered multiplex chains, it’s reason for a celebratory martini.
But the box office is still extremely fragile, analysts say, and one of the doomsday scenarios about the pandemic’s lasting effect on theatergoing has been coming true: The only movies attracting sizable attention in cinemas are big-budget franchise films. The audience for smaller dramas and comedies seems — at least for now — to be satisfied with home viewing, either buying films through video on demand or watching them on streaming services.
“Superhero, action and horror movies are performing well in theaters, particularly when they are offered exclusively and not simultaneously available to stream,” said David A. Gross, who runs Franchise Entertainment Research, a film consultancy. “But parts of the business remain down. Dramas, character-driven and art-house movies were under pressure before the pandemic, and the bar is going to be even higher now.”
“No Time to Die,” billed as the 25th installment in the Bond franchise and with Daniel Craig in his fifth and final turn as 007, took in an estimated $56 million from 4,407 theaters in the United States and Canada, according to Comscore. In partial release overseas, “No Time to Die” collected an additional $257 million, according to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and its overseas distribution partner, Universal Pictures International. (Amazon bought MGM for $8.5 billion this year.)
Because of the pandemic, more moviegoers have been holding off on ticket-buying decisions until the last minute, analysts say, making it difficult for studios to predict how a movie will perform. Going into the weekend, domestic estimates for “No Time to Die” ranged from $36 million to more than $70 million, depending on what research firm was doing the prognosticating. The film’s franchise predecessor, “Spectre,” took in $70.4 million in North America over its first three days in 2015.
“No Time to Die,” which received strong reviews and an A-minus grade from ticket buyers in CinemaScore exit polls, was the first major movie to be affected by the pandemic. It was originally scheduled to roll out in theaters in April 2020. MGM and the London-based producers who control the franchise, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, pushed back the release to November 2020 and then again to this month.
Theaters keep roughly 50% of total ticket sales, which means the expensive “No Time to Die” is unlikely to turn a profit for MGM. The film cost an estimated $250 million to make and a further $150 million to market worldwide. But the film sold enough tickets over its first three days in theaters to qualify as a success, in part because of interest from older ticket buyers, who have been avoiding theaters over coronavirus concerns.
About 36% of the weekend audience in North America was older than 45, and roughly 57% was older than 35, according to Erik Lomis, president of distribution at United Artists Releasing, an MGM affiliate. Lomis said that exit polls indicated that 25% of ticket buyers had not been to a theater in 18 months.
“That is a very big deal that shows the power of Bond,” Lomis said. “This movie is going to remind a lot of people how fun it is to go to the movies, and that will hopefully help the whole industry. We need a more mature audience to return.”
Greg Durkin, founder of Guts and Data, a film research firm, said that “No Time to Die” had a “fantastic” opening weekend, “especially given the audience composition and how older moviegoers have been more hesitant to return to theaters.” Durkin estimated that, without the pandemic, “No Time to Die” would have opened to about $62 million in domestic ticket sales.
“No Time to Die” arrived after the superhero sequel “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” (Sony) generated $90 million at North American theaters between Oct. 1 and 3 — the highest opening weekend of the pandemic era. The global total for “Let There Be Carnage” now stands at $186 million. Another superhero movie, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings” (Disney-Marvel) sold about $75 million in tickets over its first three days in theaters in early September, setting a Labor Day weekend record (pandemic or otherwise). It has since collected $400 million worldwide.
But films that are not fantasies or part of existing franchises have been struggling, adding to worries that cinemas in the post-pandemic era will offer much less variety. The concern is that old-line studios will reroute most dramas, comedies, documentaries and foreign films to streaming services, as they have been doing during the pandemic, leaving cinemas to become even more of a movie-as-theme-park-ride business.
Recent theatrical disappointments have included “Dear Evan Hansen,” a big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical; “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” about overly emotive televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker; “Respect,” an Aretha Franklin bio-musical starring Jennifer Hudson; and art-house drama “Blue Bayou.” Clint Eastwood’s latest film, “Cry Macho,” and period mob drama “The Many Saints of Newark” both arrived to muted ticket sales, in part because Warner Bros. released them simultaneously in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming service.
So far this year, art film distributor Magnolia Pictures has released 17 films that have collected roughly $1 million at the North American box office combined, according to the database IMDb Pro. In 2019, Magnolia released 16 films that generated about $6 million.
The next weeks and months will either add to worries or ease them, as studios begin to release a more steady stream of non-franchise films, including sophisticated offerings with Oscar aspirations. “The Last Duel,” a historical drama directed by Ridley Scott and starring Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Jodie Comer and Adam Driver, will roll out exclusively in theaters Friday. “The French Dispatch,” directed by Wes Anderson and featuring an all-star cast, is scheduled for exclusive theatrical release Oct. 22.
“We need studios to release a wider range of movies,” said Patrick Corcoran, a spokesperson for the National Association of Theater Owners, which represents 35,000 movie screens in the U.S. “Right now, theaters are like grocery stores where you can only buy steak,” he continued, referring to effects-driven spectacles. “People also want cereal. They also want fresh fruit and vegetables.”