If the new James Bond movie, No Time to Die, skipped theaters and went straight to streaming, how would you feel about that?
The chances of that happening briefly flared up in late September when the studio behind the 007 franchise, MGM, put out feelers to Apple, Netflix, and other streaming services about picking up the 25th official entry in the series and the final one to star Daniel Craig.
According to multiple reports last weekend in the Hollywood trades (after Bloomberg initially broke the story), MGM was looking for a deal in which the streamer would license the movie for one year for $600-700 million (with rights to stream the rest of the Bond catalog possibly included in the deal as well). But only one outlet, Apple TV+, responded with an offer of its own, which The Hollywood Reporter said was in the range of around $350-400 million.
The talks ended shortly thereafter. MGM not only wanted more money, but Barbara Broccoli, head of Eon Productions — which has controlled the Bond franchise since 1962 when her father Albert co-produced the first movie, Dr. No — apparently nixed any such deal (she allegedly was not informed about MGM even exploring the idea, which must have made for an awkward conversation).
No Time to Die was originally supposed to come out last April, nearly five years after the previous entry, Spectre. But as the COVID-19 pandemic began to grip the world in earnest last March, the Bond thriller was actually the first major studio tentpole to postpone its release, moving its arrival date to what was then a more optimistic November.
But with the virus not abating (and in fact even surging again) and movie theaters, while largely open, not pulling in business, MGM again delayed No Time to Die to next April, a full year after it was originally supposed to arrive. Since the studio was essentially loaned the $250 million needed to produce the film, the delays have reportedly cost MGM anywhere between $30 million and $50 million in interest and other costs while the movie sits collecting dust and not box office receipts.
If the deal had gone through, and if Netflix or Apple had ponied up the vast fee that MGM was looking for, would you be perfectly happy to watch No Time to Die at home, on whatever screen you use for all your viewing, or would you miss watching the latest 007 action spectacle on a full-sized movie screen? And if you were content to watch it via streaming, what kind of impact would that have on the theatrical business going forward?
The need to watch a giant cinematic behemoth on the biggest screen available clearly did not sway enough moviegoers to brave the ravages of the pandemic and see Tenet. Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller has earned just $52 million in the U.S. and $341 million globally, not a bad outing under the circumstances but still far from what Warner Bros. Pictures needs to even break even on the movie.
Nolan’s epic was billed as the movie that was going to save theaters, the kind of immersive, senses-melting experience that only a movie theater could provide. Instead, most potential customers said, “Nah, that’s okay,” and a number of them are no doubt hunkered down and waiting for the movie to premiere on HBO (or most likely HBO Max, which would be another dumb move for different reasons).
Now, of course, Tenet was an original high concept adventure sold mostly on its premise and the name of its director, while No Time to Die is the 25th entry in one of the most popular film series of all time, whose last two movies alone grossed nearly $2 billion combined. It’s possible that Bond would draw more folks to theaters even in this uncertain and increasingly (again) unsafe times. But if you had the option to watch at home instead, would you?
A large number of consumers seem to think that may be the way to go, judging purely by their purchases this year. Even though overall TV sales are down from 2019, USA Today said earlier this year that sales of TVs that are 65 inches and up are on track to easily surpass those of 2019. That includes 75-inch and 90-inch screens as well as 4K Ultra High Definition units. The sales are driven by the pandemic forcing many people to stay home, as well as the prices dropping for 65-inch units in particular.
And the bottom line is, consumers want to put those TVs to use: in a survey issued by Variety last May, some 70% of respondents said that they would watch a first-run feature film at home, while only 13% said it was necessary to go to a movie theater. Fully 10% of people in the survey insisted that they had no plans to ever return to a movie theater again.
Combine that with the always increasing growth of smartphones, tablets and other devices as many young people’s primary method for watching entertainment, and it points to the conclusion that sitting in a theater, waiting for the lights to go down and experiencing a movie on a big screen in a communal setting is just not as important to consumers as it perhaps used to be (although diehard cinephiles will no doubt always treasure that experience to some extent).
If No Time to Die premiered on a streaming or as a PVOD option, it seems likely that it would be a monster hit. The films that have switched from theatrical to VOD or PVOD this year already — including Trolls World Tour, The King of Staten Island, Greyhound, and even Disney’s Mulan — don’t have quite the cache of 007. The only question is whether the numbers would make sense for both the streaming service involved, the movie studio and all their partners.
But if MGM were to take that step — and if the pandemic refuses to subside in a meaningful way in the next six months — a successful launch could pave the way for other major studio blockbusters like Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow, Top Gun: Maverick and more to do the exact same thing. And that, almost certainly, would be the final nail in the coffin of the already weakened and desperate theatrical exhibition industry.
Just as people today look at rotary phones and transistor radios as strange relics of past eras, movie theaters might become abandoned shrines to a type of group experience that vanished, along with so many others, into the mists of history.