James Bond’s toughest mission yet: can No Time To Die spur on a shaken and stirred film industry?

·11-min read
 (AP)
(AP)

Amid all the exploding planes, ambiguously accented villains and trademark thousand-yard stares from Daniel Craig, one brief moment in the latest trailer for No Time To Die feels especially apposite: when MI6 boss M, played by Ralph Fiennes, wearily spits out the line “Come on Bond, where the hell are you?”

Always one to make a dramatic entrance, this time our favourite super-spy has kept us waiting for the best part of 18 months. No Time To Die, the 25th outing in this most storied of film franchises, was supposed to arrive in cinemas in April 2020, having already weathered a series of setbacks - from the departure of original director Danny Boyle (replaced by Cary Fukunaga) to Craig getting injured during filming.

Billie Eilish debuted her haunting theme song in a special performance at the Brit Awards in February that year, marking the start of the film’s promotional campaign in earnest; just a few weeks later, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson announced that, after “careful consideration and thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace,” the movie’s release had been pushed back to the autumn because of the coronavirus pandemic. The move had a domino effect, as other studios rushed to pull their tentpole titles from the release calendar - when its autumn date was nixed, struggling cinemas were left with no lucrative blockbusters to pin their hopes upon; as the pandemic persisted, Bond was parachuted into an April 2021 slot, then finally given a late September premiere date.

No Time To Die marks Daniel Craig’s last hurrah as Bond (AP)
No Time To Die marks Daniel Craig’s last hurrah as Bond (AP)

Anticipation for the film was always going to be high. No Time To Die, which stars Oscar winner Rami Malek as 007’s latest adversary Safin and sees the return of Léa Seydoux as love interest Madeleine Swann, will mark Craig’s fifth and final spin in the Aston Martin before handing over the Bond baton to another actor (predicting just who this might be has become a cottage industry of its own; everyone from Tom Hiddleston to Idris Elba to, most recently, Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page has been touted as a potential successor). Throw in a screenwriting credit for Fleabag and Killing Eve creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the arrival of Lashana Lynch’s Nomi, the first black female 007 agent, and you have all the makings of an incredibly buzzy Bond instalment.

But after months and months of uncertainty for the film industry, with cinemas closed for extended periods and release schedules left sparse, Bond’s big comeback has acquired a new significance: it feels like a milestone moment, one that could restore some much-needed confidence following a difficult year and a half. “It is definitely carrying the weight of the exhibition sector, and of analysis of audience’s appetite for cinema, on its shoulders,” says the BFI’s CEO Ben Roberts.

Getting a sense of deja vu? We’ve been here before: last summer, Christopher Nolan’s time-twisting blockbuster Tenet was hailed as a potential saviour of cinema, a prime candidate to entice wary cinemagoers back to the big screen after lockdown. “If you look back on Tenet, it was not unsuccessful,” Roberts notes. “Its global box office was $350 million, which in the middle of Covid is not bad news.” Yet its scaled-down takings (compared to a rumoured budget of around $200 million) seemed to alarm studios, and further entrench a general feeling that cinemagoers weren’t quite ready to return yet.

Nolan’s puzzling auteur thrillers, however, don’t exactly lend themselves to a like-for-like comparison with Bond, the ultimate crowd-pleaser with, as the Independent Cinema Office’s director Catharine Des Forges puts it, “a really broad appeal” that is “not just about one particular audience in terms of age or geographically.”

Buoyed by the vaccine rollout, cinema-going habits have also shifted significantly since the summer of 2020. Data from the BFI suggests that the average UK weekly and weekend box office is about four times what it was in 2020 (albeit with an important caveat - that average is approximately 55 percent of the pre-pandemic figure). Films like Fast and Furious 9 (£16 million at the UK box office), Free Guy (£14 million) and sleeper hit Peter Rabbit 2 (£20 million) have performed well, while Marvel’s latest offering Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings made around £12 million in its opening weekend. These are all promising signs, even though, as Deadline’s International Editor Andreas Wiseman points out, “few [films] have reached the levels expected of pre-pandemic hits so success is still relative.”

Daniel Craig with Ana de Armas, who plays Paloma (AP)
Daniel Craig with Ana de Armas, who plays Paloma (AP)

For Claire Binns, joint managing director of cinema chain Picturehouse, No Time To Die “has symbolised so much - the fact that it moved [dates] at fairly critical times, when everything was on the cusp.” That the film is finally being released, she says, shows “that we’re trying for normality, whatever that is - obviously it’s a very different world we’re in now.” She notes that Bond’s return is “bigger than just box office… it’s about the fact that this is a true cinema film, that people celebrate and enjoy together.” Indeed, the arrival of a new 007 film seems to encapsulate everything that’s so unique about the theatrical experience. “There aren’t that many proper event experiences, where everybody feels like they should probably see it… all parts of the family, all corners of the globe,” Roberts adds. “There is something very communal about that. It’s clear that the producers and the distributors also believe in that.”

Still, all eyes in the industry will certainly be trained on Bond’s box office come October. “In this climate, [producers] know that the record $1 billion number made by Skyfall [in 2012] is out of reach,” Wiseman says. “Probably also the $880 million taken by Spectre. They’ll be hoping to get as close to that as possible, but in this climate that is going to be very difficult. No English language movie has got close to that this year.” He adds that “delivering at home will be key. The power of the brand is vital and home market success helps that. But studios think globally now. They’ll want to perform across the world.” News that No Time To Die has passed Chinese censorship has been hailed as a good omen for its international prospects (China is an important overseas market for Bond, albeit less so than for other mega-franchises).

Craig with director Cary Fukunaga and co-star Lashana Lynch (AP)
Craig with director Cary Fukunaga and co-star Lashana Lynch (AP)

Closer to home, confidence is high. “Looking at the way that people are booking, it will absolutely be our biggest film of the year, and that augurs well for everything that comes afterwards,” Binns says. Picturehouse have recently opened a new cinema in Finsbury Park, with “a couple of weeks to get operational so that we would be ready for Bond.” Roberts, meanwhile, is “hearing that pre-sales generally are very good, and very favourable to Spectre in the same sort of time period.”

This is bigger than just one film, of course. Bond is “a really strong marketing tool for the cinema industry,” Des Forges notes, and one that might alert fair weather cinemagoers to autumn’s other upcoming titles. “Now that Bond is coming out, there’s a really powerful slate of films in the schedule,” she says, whereas “for a quite a long time, there was a real dearth of titles being released,” because “people [didn’t] feel confident enough to release those more ambitious titles in the marketplace.” Binns agrees. “I think it’s going to encourage all those people to come back for the rest of the year… there’s some people that will come back and see lots of films, there’ll be others that maybe will just come back to see Ghostbusters or King Richard, but there is this amazing wealth of films that have been stored up.”

Roberts, meanwhile, is keen to draw attention to 007’s important role in the UK industry’s production ecosystem. Broccoli and Wilson are, he says, “committed to recognising the franchise’s role in the industry as a jobs creator. Barbara is very focused on education and skills, and behind the scenes, Eon produces other smaller independent films,” such as the upcoming film adaptation of debbie tucker green’s play ear for eye, set to premiere at the London Film Festival, with Lynch starring.

During No Time To Die’s extended cinematic limbo, the releasing climate has changed dramatically, with sign-ups for streaming services skyrocketing and many studios opting for digital releases or a combined ‘day and date’ approach, where a film lands online on the same day it arrives in cinemas (like, say, Marvel’s strategy for superhero spin-off Black Widow). “The landscape has been shifting for years and the pandemic has only hastened that change,” Wiseman says. “Theatrical windows have already collapsed. Viewing habits are much changed from even five years ago.”

Leading the charge is Disney+, with its Premier Access streaming arm and its slew of Marvel and Star Wars spin-off series focusing on favourite characters or unexplored plot holes. Less than a year and a half after its launch, the platform surpassed 100 million global subscribers, a milestone that rivals Netflix took about a decade to reach; last October, the company confirmed that streaming would be its business priority. “The model for all of the studios is changing so dramatically,” Roberts notes. “The streamer business, the direct to consumer business, is incredibly valuable… What’s happening is that you’ve got fewer and fewer brand properties that are being reserved exclusively for the big screen.”

Bond, of course, is one of them. The closest it has got to a Marvel-style cinematic universe was when producers reportedly toyed with the idea of a spin-off film for Halle Berry’s Bond girl Jinx, after she made an impression in Die Another Day. But when news broke this summer that Amazon planned to buy out MGM studios in a rumoured $8.45 billion deal, giving it a 50 percent stake in the Bond movies (the other half is owned by Broccoli and Wilson’s Eon productions), the online rumour mill went into overdrive, speculating about the potential for 007 streaming series (I for one would certainly watch a W1A-style workplace comedy starring Ben Whishaw’s Q).

Producer Barbara Broccoli suggested that Bond spin-offs without 007 would be “like doing Hamlet without Hamlet” (PA)
Producer Barbara Broccoli suggested that Bond spin-offs without 007 would be “like doing Hamlet without Hamlet” (PA)

The deal is yet to be approved by America’s Federal Trade Commission, and Broccoli and Wilson have been quick to shut down whisperings about Bond brand extensions: in a recent interview with the Sunday Times, Broccoli suggested that a spin-off featuring 007-adjacent characters without the man himself would be “like doing Hamlet without Hamlet”; earlier this year, Eon put out a statement stressing their ongoing commitment to the traditional theatrical model. Indeed a film like No Time To Die, with its rumoured budget of $250-300 million and its marketing costs doubtless brought higher and higher by Covid delays, could hardly hope to break even with streaming alone - but, if the Amazon deal goes through, “the carrot of releasing the film via streaming before or around Christmas is a nice one to have in the back pocket,” as Wiseman notes.

There’s certainly a huge question mark hanging over how long Bond can remain a big screen-only behemoth in the streaming-centric era of content overload. Right now at least, this old-fashioned strategy could be its biggest advantage - a crowd pleasing tonic to comicbook fatigue and franchise overkill. “Bond still appeals to many for its fun and adventure while not being a superhero franchise,” Wiseman says. “It has a strong point of difference. It is among the most storied and classic of franchises. Movies such as Mission Impossible and Knives Out also prove that it’s not all about capes and krypton at the box office.” Roberts, meanwhile, reckons that Broccoli and Wilson are “very good at keeping it feeling fresh and relevant, presenting it to an audience that can grow into it,” through casting and music. “I think they’ve managed to keep it feeling very ‘need to see.’”

Dragging Britain’s cinemas out of the covid doldrums is probably Bond’s toughest mission yet - and the entire industry will be watching on the edge of their seats to see if 007 can pull it off. Whatever your stance on the super-spy (old school throwback or British icon?), after a bruising 18 months, as Binns says, “this truly is a film to celebrate.”

No Time To Die is in cinemas from September 30

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