Monday, 5 October 2020

James Bond's COVID-19 Delay Suggests It Could Be Cinema's Time To Die

James Bond has pulled a Lionel Hutz. With cinemas struggling to get customers through their doors on account of the COVID-19 crisis, the theatrical exhibition industry's hopes of survival were resting on the promise of a new Bond film to get them through a potentially fatal winter. The name, No Time To Die, was almost symbolic: cinemas would survive and James Bond would get them through it. With the movie having already been delayed numerous times since its original release date was set for October 2019, the marketing campaign kicked off again with the release of a new trailer, soundtrack listing, partner promotions... only for another delay to be swiftly announced, this time to April 2021.

It seems that Bond's promise to cinemas was not 'No Time To Die', but 'No, Time To Die!'

Bond's producers can hardly be blamed for holding off on the film's release once again. Tenet, the only major blockbuster released during the pandemic, pulled in just $45m from the US market and a worldwide total of $307m (at the time of asking) on a $200m production budget. Factor in the costs of marketing the movie worldwide and it's likely the movie either just about broke even or fell slightly short. In a normal summer, the movie might have been expected to double that tally.

With No Time To Die's production costs listed as $250m and cases of COVID-19 surging in Europe, Bond's biggest market, the film's producers were facing a Catch-22: release the film at its then-release date in November and risk releasing the first Bond film to record a loss, or delay to next year and hope against hope that cinemas survive another barren six months.

It is far from certain what the film exhibition environment will look like once the movie's next release date rolls around. Cinemas already operate on tight margins and one of the biggest global cinema groups, Cineworld, announced the temporary closure of its cinemas, risking 5,000 jobs in the UK, only days after No Time To Die was delayed. Though Wonder Woman and Dune are both still listed for a December release, neither is as big a draw as Bond and will be relying on an intensely compromised US market for the bulk of their box-office share. Further delays seem a near-certainty.

If there is an outside chance that chain cinemas could survive, independents are in dire straits. The great South London cinema, the Peckhamplex, also recently announced its closure, temporarily for now but talking, in an online message to its patrons, of 'eking out its resources' to protect its 40 employees. With fewer opportunities for outside investment as big chains, the outlook for locally-owned cinemas such as the Peckhamplex, a longstanding institution offering comparatively low-cost tickets to its community, is looking dire.

It is also notable that in the US, August saw the termination of the Paramount Decrees, which prohibited movie studios from owning the cinemas their films were exhibited in and thus exerting a stranglehold on the market. With both cinema chains and independents likely to either collapse over the winter or emerge in an extremely weakened state, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the big studios will hoover up exhibition real estate at greatly diminished prices and once again begin exerting an unnatural degree of influence over where and how their movies are exhibited, and more importantly for customers, at what cost. Outside competitors like Netflix and Amazon could also get in on the game.

Bond's producers took the gamble that delaying No Time To Die until next year would increase the film's chances of opening to 'a worldwide theatrical audience' (as per the delay announcement). Given the perilous state of the theatrical industry, that seems extraordinarily optimistic. In the best case scenario, it looks likely that Bond will have far fewer cinemas to open into than he would have in a 'normal' year. Worst case, he may have none at all, or only those bought up by Universal, the movie's US distributor.

The situation is no less likely to have improved when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. Any vaccine approved by April will not have undergone the extensive testing traditionally required: traditional vaccine approval takes between 10-15 years. Anyone taking it will be doing so at risk to themselves - if they're young, likely greater than the risk posed by COVID-19 itself - and at danger of similar outcomes as the 2009 influenza vaccine causing narcolepsy or the Thalidomide scandal.

I am a pro-vaxxer, to coin a phrase, but the risks of rushing a product to market without extensive safety testing are catastrophic, particularly a product whose side-effects can be as unpredictable a medical injection: trials of the much-vaunted Oxford COVID-19 vaccine have already been paused due to one participant suffering a rare spinal cord condition potentially leading to paralysis. It is worth noting that there has never been a successful vaccine for any coronavirus. Even if a vaccine is produced and can be adequately tested in a comparatively short span of time, mass immunisation will also take at least a year and may itself only offer short-term protection.

The overwhelming likelihood is that COVID-19 is something the human race will have to learn to live with. In the UK at least, it's here where Boris Johnson's government has once again made all the wrong decisions and will bear considerable responsibility should British cinemas permanently close their doors. Whereas the government prepared initiatives to save the restaurant industry, in the form of the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, cinemas, among other entertainment and hospitality industries, were left to fend for themselves despite having taken just as many expensive measures to protect its patrons against COVID-19 as restaurants. Cinemas are arguably safer than restaurants, yet even while the virus was suppressed over the summer, the public was encouraging to get back to eating out while their fears of sitting in an auditorium went entirely unaddressed.

It must be disclosed that I am only discussing the situation in the UK here: Donald Trump's mishandling of the pandemic has put the US in a very different situation, for instance. Infection and death rates vary wildly by country and each must do what is best for them in finding a balance between limiting hospitalisations and deaths while also maintaining a free, prosperous society. However, given that COVID is sure to be with us for many years to come, the half-measures and fearmongering will eventually have to stop and decisions will need to be made on how society can function alongside this virus in the same way we do many others.

At the time of writing, infections in the UK are spiking but the increase in hospitalisations and deaths has been much, much smaller. Contrary to the way this phenomenon is being reported, this can surely only be a good thing: that a larger number of people are contracting the disease yet hospitalisations and deaths remain at perfectly manageable levels means the population is building resistance to the virus - perhaps even some form of immunity - with a minimum of serious suffering (by which I mean they feel compelled to visit the hospital). The low death rate - rising, yes, but still only slowly - means treatments are becoming more effective.

Precautions remain necessary, of course, but rather than threatening new lockdowns and instilling more terror into an already traumatised public on the basis of a rise in cases alone, the government should be encouraging people to start living their lives again, albeit with a touch more caution. Boris Johnson today encouraged people to return to the cinema - having warned only last week of a hard winter ahead and implying further lockdown measures were likely in the future. It is this contradictory, indecisive messaging which risks real long-term damage to people's lives and the industries they rely on to make their lives worth living. If cinemas do not survive the pandemic, some may reflect that it was James Bond who pulled the trigger. As always, though, it was his government who made him do it.

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