No Time To Die: can it realistically still be released this year?

No Time To Die
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It remains on the release schedule for November, but questions are being asked as to whether the next James Bond film will remain there.

The official James Bond Twitter feed has, this year, had a lot of news to convey on top of its usual job of celebrating the birthdays and so forth of those involved with 007 films, and posing the occasional trivia question. After all, this is the year – in theory at least – that we get the 25th James Bond adventure, No Time To Die.

It’s a film of which much is expected. I attended a commercial presentation at the end of last year where UK industry insiders were confidently predicting it’d be the biggest movie of 2020 – no matter what Marvel threw at it – and had all gone to plan, the film would have arrived in cinemas last spring. Lots of money would have been banked.

Of course, all didn’t go to plan. And in a moment of prescience that world leaders in some quarters could most certainly have learned from, the 007 team acted quickly when the threat of Coronavirus surfaced. It yanked the film’s release date when nobody else was budging, and shifted the movie back by seven months.

No Time To Die’s release date delay was shocking when it was thus first announced at the start of March, although now it feels like the new norm. But it was Bond that went first, and woke many up to the severity of the virus’ impact. As it would happen, in the aftermath of the 007 announcement, there’s not a single major studio film between now and November that’s not been subject to delays. In fact, there are now barely any studio films left on the release schedule at all in 2020.

And now, perhaps inevitably as the virus shows little sign of going away around the world, questions are now being asked as to whether it’s still realistic that No Time To Die arrives in November at all.

Going back to that James Bond Twitter feed, the last discussion of the release date for the new 007 movie was back in the middle of June. Here’s that particular Tweet, that confirmed the UK date was holding at November 12th, with the US date edging forward to November 20th

The bio for the Twitter account retains the release date information, but no fresh Tweet has reinforced it.

Since that June Tweet though, attention has shifted elsewhere, with the box office and release date narrative instead zeroing in on Tenet and Mulan, the first major blockbusters set to open as at least some cinemas come out of lockdown.

That notwithstanding, it’d be no understatement to suggest that cinemas worldwide are banking on the release of the new James Bond film this side of Christmas, with the livelihood of some likely to depend on it. Yet such are the commercial demands and expectations on and of the film that is it still viable to hold a November date?

A key consideration here is that No Time To Die has two different distributors to consider. In the US, the film will be released by United Artists Releasing – comfortably its biggest movie to date – and in the UK by Universal Pictures.

That means arriving at a decision involves multiple parties – MGM and Eon are the production companies behind the film too (although United Artists Releasing is MGM’s distribution arm) – and thus this is, as you’d expect, far from a case where one firm can go with its gut instinct. Eon is the kingmaker here, and every major studio in town bar Disney was chasing it for the 007 distribution rights when they became available. But even so: No Time To Die is a $200m movie with many vested parties in it, and the plan was always to release the film at a point of maximum possible return. Not least because of the commercial promises made by those who secured those distribution rights. Lord knows how much they assured Eon they’d bring in, but it’s not likely to be loose change.

As for a date of maximum return: who knows now when that could be? In theory, US cinemas should have been welcoming lots of people back by this stage for new releases, but the resurgence of Covid-19 in the States has – appreciating there are far darker ramifications of the virus – thrown that into disarray. In the UK too, Prime Minister Boris Johnson (yeah, him) announced last week that masks were now compulsory in the UK cinemas that were open. Anecdotally, the car park of my local multiplex that I drove past was empty on Saturday afternoon, in spite of a full collection of films showing. Even though cinema doors are opening, it doesn’t appear that many are walking through them.

Of course, there’s a degree of chicken and egg here: many won’t be lured back until there’s a big new film to attract then, but studios are reluctant to release a big new film until audiences are lured back.

Against this backdrop then a report dropped last month at the excellent and firmly established James Bond news site MI6-HQ. It noted that there’s fresh doubt over US cinemas opening fully this side of Christmas, and threw into the mix that Universal and United Artists Releasing was now exploring a summer 2021 release date for 007.

It’s the news that cinema chains are perhaps now dreading the most this year, although there’s been no official word either way it’s important to iterate.

As MI6-HQ notes, though, the trigger has to be pulled on a 90 day-or-so advertising campaign leading up to the new release date at some point, with tens of millions already spent and lost building up to the previously planned April release. In the case of Warner Bros and Tenet, the promotions have resurged, and the studio there is now committed to a release as soon as it can. In the case of 007, until you see another promotional spot for No Time To Die, there’s still wiggle room. And with a UK release date of November 12th, it means promo work – even if you don’t see it for a film – needs to be booked and underway in earnest starting this month.

Eon et al, in theory, would have the box office returns of Tenet and Mulan to mull over as we came into August. But now, a decision needs to be made without much in the way of hard data to back it up. It’s going to, instead, have to be as informed a best guess as it can make.

Bluntly, it’s hard not to see another delay coming. The firm commitment to a cinema release, and the need for that to be successful, is driving the decision. And who would bet more than a cheeky tenner – let alone a $200m major franchise movie with a $1bn box office expectation – on there being much in the way of cinema normality come Christmas?

A premium video on demand release has been suggested by some, but then this isn’t Trolls World Tour, a sub-$100m movie where a PVOD release was an option both as a piece of pathfinding and a route to a likely financial return. 007 demands the big screen not just as a piece of cinema but as an avenue for all concerned getting their money.

It’s worth adding that with the last Bond movie Spectre, Sony only had cinema release rights, and its total theatrical gross worldwide of $880m barely scraped it a profit (such are the upfront costs, and the marketing expenses). In the case of No Time To Die, home entertainment rights are with MGM and Universal, but both will be keenly aware that a strong theatrical showing is the best springboard for high sales. The splitting of revenues between the respective parties is the different variable here, and that’s going to play a part in whatever decision is made next.

One further consideration. Appreciating that No Time To Die is the final Daniel Craig 007 adventure, many of its details are understandably being kept under wraps. However – and I tip my hat to Anton Volkov on Twitter, who’s been having interesting chats about this – the Bond movies have always had something of a staggered release in recent times. Much of the conversation about Tenet and trying to keep its release as close to simultaneous worldwide centred on spoiler protection. Yet go back to a 007 film with major spoilers such as Skyfall, and that enjoyed its traditional UK debut a good week ahead of many other major markets. The 007 team is conscious of spoilers as a consequence of a staggered release, but it’s clearly no dealbreaker.

Accepting that it’s highly unlikely that No Time To Die will see James Bond killed off – but boy, would that be a twist – perhaps the new 007 adventure is the kind of film that could survive to a greater degree than most a release spread over a few months? Sure, there are piracy concerns, but in terms of charting the best possible answer in the current circumstances, Bond – perhaps more than a Tenet or a Marvel movie – could withstand a staggered rollout.

It’s ultimately a situation where cinemas need James Bond, and James Bond needs cinemas. But I can’t help but feel a further compromise or two may be needed for Daniel Craig’s swansong as 007 to bring big audiences to the big screen. Expect more news soon, but for now, that November 12th debut for No Time To Die is holding. For how long remains anyone’s guess – but it’s worth keeping an eye on that Twitter feed…


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