Where were you when the news broke that the release date of the latest James Bond film had been cancelled?
It was Wednesday 4th March, and franchise producers MGM and Eon Productions announced that, after a “thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace”, No Time to Die would no longer open on 2nd and 3rd April internationally (10th April in the US). Now it would be released on 12th November in the UK, 20th November in the US.
This last-minute about-turn came the day after two 007 fansites published an open letter, calling for the filmmakers to take account of the rapidly spreading coronavirus. Even for the founders of MI6 Confidential and The James Bond Dossier, seeing No Time to Die was no time to die.
“It is time to put public health above marketing release schedules,” they wrote. “With a month to go before No Time to Die opens worldwide, community spread of the virus is likely to be peaking in the United States. There is a significant chance that cinemas will be closed, or their attendance severely reduced, by early April.
“Even if there are no legal restrictions on cinemas being open, to quote M in Skyfall: ‘How safe do you feel?’ ”
The fact that the movie’s theme song, by Billie Eilish, had been out for three weeks – she’d performed it live for the first time at the Brit Awards in February – was the least of the film’s problems. So too the already-off-the-shelves Vanity Fair cover featuring Ana de Armas (“Reinventing the Bond Girl”). The news was so sudden that even Bond himself was powerless to escape a sticky situation.
On Saturday 7th March in New York, Daniel Craig was forced to honour a commitment to host that evening’s edition of Saturday Night Live. Never a fan of publicity at the best of times, now the English actor was having to parade his so-called “comedic” chops for a presumably long-booked promotional outing that now served no purpose (other than letting viewers “enjoy” Craig’s so-called comedic chops).
The actor was left high and dry in other ways, too. To mark his final outing as Ian Fleming’s super-spy, Craig was on the cover of the April edition of men’s magazine GQ in the UK and the US. After five films – No Time To Die was preceded by Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015) – widely credited with rebooting the man with the golden quip for the 21st century, the leading man was signing off in a “world exclusive” interview. As the cover lines solemnly intoned: “His last Bond. His last interview.”
In terms of the cost of press and marketing opportunities, the now-benched $200 million blockbuster had lost its shirt – just like the depilated and caramel-toned 52-year-old in the magazine photoshoot.
Film industry observer Charles Gant remembers where he was when Eon/MGM revealed that the 25th James Bond film – a humongous global cash cow that, under normal circumstances, would be expected to gross north of $800 million and untold millions more in home video/streaming revenue and licensing partnerships – was being pushed back seven months. Screen International’s Box Office/Awards Editor was in the magazine’s London office.
“Oh my God, that was incredible,” he says. “When that news broke, there was no precedent you could point to. For a film that big, that was probably within days of being finished – they’ll have been finishing off the last effects shots – to be delayed, out of the blue, that close to release, was absolutely extraordinary. In the office, people were shell-shocked: this just happened?
“Now, of course, because we’ve been through so much change since, you look back and you’re like: ‘Yeah, whatever, movies are moving all over the place.’ So it’s hard to remember how incredibly shocking and profound that news was.”
But that’s exactly what it was. The stoutly British but truly international James Bond franchise is the longest, and one of the most lucrative, in film history. Since Dr No in 1962, the 24 released films have earned an estimated $7 billion at the global box office (only Star Wars, Harry Potter and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have earned more). And with No Time to Die, expectations were even higher than usual. For one thing, Craig had long made it known that he was out after this one. For another, the production already had a chequered past.
In August 2018 original director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) left the production over differences arising from the script written by his long standing writer John Hodge. “John was doing a wonderful job, but they wanted to go in a different direction,” Boyle told me in the wake of rumours suggesting that one of the pair’s ideas was – oh yes – to kill off Bond. “So it’s silly continuing on something like that – [the films are] so complex and so huge, it would just cause unhappiness. So I wasn’t prepared to continue without John.”
Replacement director Cary Fukunaga (It) was announced quickly, the following month. And then, more change. At Daniel Craig’s inspired suggestion, Phoebe Waller-Bridge was brought on board to add (in her words) “little spices” to the new script, making the Fleabag creator only the second woman to have a writing record on the franchise in its near six-decade history.
Cue greater excitement, but also greater delays: the release date for Bond 25 jumped from November 2019 to February 2020, then to April 2020. And then, the Covid-bump to November 2020.
Initially the film industry continued to “put a brave face on it,” Gant says. For one thing, Bond films traditionally come out in autumn or early winter. You have to go back to June 1989’s Licence to Kill to find a Bond film that came out earlier than October. For another, “at the end of the day, it’s still coming out in November, so the annual box-office will still be OK. The bigger picture is: we’re still gonna have X billion dollar gross this year because Bond is still within the calendar year 2020.”
But as it happened, Bond was the canary in the coalmine for the disaster that was about to engulf cinema and cinema-going. With public spaces closing and public gatherings evaporating all over the world, tentpole movies started fleeing in fright, in multiple directions.
Fast and Furious 9 hightailed it all the way to May 2021. Marvel’s Black Widow spun out just as far, to the same month. Artemis Fowl was Disney’s $125 million springtime 2020 school holidays hope, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh and based on Eoin Colfer’s best-selling children’s book series. But in another (that word again) unprecedented move, Disney punted it straight onto their newly-launched-in-the-UK Disney+, where subscribers could watch it for free right after the latest episode of The Mandalorian.
Even more controversially, the studio also put their live action retelling of their Mulan IP on the streaming service, but at a premium fee of £19.99 in the UK and $29.99 in the US. For already beleaguered theatrical distributors, this was another body-blow.
“Cinemas had been promoting that film – they were showing the trailers, they had the standees in their foyers,” Gant says, meaning those big cardboard cut-outs propped next to the popcorn machines. “So cinemas were outraged: ‘We’ve been marketing this movie for you – for free – for months! And now you’re telling us we can’t have it at all?’”
But all bets were off and everything was possible. Across the industry, the feeling was: if Bond can move, any film can move. Ultimately, what had looked like a promising summer blockbuster schedule was left decimated, with only one film left standing: Tenet.
The time-bending, mind-bending thriller’s appearance in Actual Cinemas was largely down to director Christopher Nolan’s dogmatism and determination to have his film play on big screens. When, early last summer, I asked Branagh – who starred in Tenet and whose second scheduled film of 2020, Death on the Nile, was due to open in October – about Nolan’s lone stand, he replied: “It’s just in his blood, this desire to both continue and prolong the communal experience, even if it’s in a reduced or distanced way, with stories that are told on and in and through large images.”
“We’ve talked about that being something he continues to feel passionately about,” he continued. “Someone’s got to get out there sometime soon and test the waters. We know the research is being done about how dispersed audiences may or not be returning [to cinemas]. Chris believes that if you build it, they will come. And I’m behind him.”
As it turned out, Branagh ended up being a long way behind him: Death on the Nile was postponed not once but twice, and then removed completely from the release schedules.
And then No Time to Die did its own vanishing act. On 2nd October, with a second wave of coronavirus surging across Europe and the US – and with cinemas in the major movie markets in New York and Los Angeles still shuttered – MGM and Eon were forced to announce a second delay, to 2nd April 2021.
It was yet another sucker punch to not just the idea of cinema-going as Nolan’s celebratory, communal experience but to the actuality of cinema-going. Six days after the latest Bond nothing-to-see-here announcement, movie chain Cineworld closed all 127 of its UK and Ireland sites, the venues joining the company’s still-shuttered 536 Regal theatres in the US.
No Time To Die’s principal players were stranded again, too. In another instance of galling timing, the video for Eilish’s theme song had only been released the day before, featuring scenes involving Craig and returning “Bond girl” Léa Seydoux as Madeleine Swann (at least it lets us see something of the film in 2020).
And at least this time the bad guy got it in the neck, too. Rami Malek, the latest Bond villain, was on the cover of the December edition of – you guessed it – GQ. Clearly the magazine had decided to heed the gnomic advice of 1983’s Bond outing: Never Say Never Again. Alas, their attempt at future-proofing the story with a coverline offering “A Bond villain worth waiting (and waiting) for” wasn’t quite enough in a year where the only thing to expect is the unexpected.
“No matter what you expect from Bond,” the actor teased, “you will be shocked.” Not as shocked, you imagine, as the mag’s editors were on 2nd October.
So here we are in mid-December, on the brink of the UK cinema release – at time of writing – allegedly – surely? – of what is only the second film of significant scope and scale this year: Wonder Woman 1984.
But even the appearance (allegedly, surely, etc) of a Warner Bros film that is now on its fourth release date of 2020 isn’t the silver lining, or golden lasso, it might appear. In the US, WW84 is simultaneously being released on the studio’s streaming platform HBO Max, meaning American viewers also have the option of watching the big-screen superhero sequel at home, on any number of small and even smaller screens, immediately.
In the UK (where HBO Max doesn’t as yet exist), it’s likely the normal 16-week theatrical window between cinema release and a film’s appearance on premium VOD will be shrunk dramatically. Meaning: sure, you can see WW84 on the big screen as a festive season outing. But you can also probably see it at home on your telly/laptop/phone/watch in January or thereabouts.
And then… As the cinema-no-going year limped to a close, on 3rd December came the probably-not-final nail in the coffin: the announcement that, in the US, Warner Bros entire 2021 film slate will appear simultaneously on HBO Max. That is: 17 films, including Dune, The Matrix 4, the Suicide Squad sequel and Godzilla vs. Kong, will be launched on what The New York Times calls the studio’s “underperforming” platform in, clearly, an attempt to transfuse some of the lifeblood rapidly draining away from movie theatres.
Nolan – a filmmaker with a long and fruitful relationship with Warner Bros, right back through his Dark Knight trilogy – was by no means the most outraged filmmaker. But he was the most punchily vocal: “Some of our industry’s biggest film-makers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio,” he fumed in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter, “and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”
It was, yet again, unprecedented. It was, yet again, another kick in the hotdogs to a global cinema industry whose revenue is forecast to drop 66 per cent this year, from $45.1 billion to $15.5 billion. It was, once more, the extended end-result of the decision, in the long ago Before Times of March 2020, to postpone a film about the world’s favourite spy.
As Charles Gant puts it: “Once you do something as radical and extraordinary as move the sure-fire giant franchise hit of the year, delay it massively, so close to release – then do it again – anything can happen. And actually, anything is happening.”
Well, within reason. At least we know James Bond won’t end up going straight to TV, right?