LONDON — By the time the 25th James Bond movie, “No Time to Die,” premiered to an audience of stars, members of the royal family and key workers here last week, it seemed to have the full weight of Britain’s movie theater industry on its shoulders.
The industry has endured 18 months of on-and-off closures while desperately trying to avoid running out of cash as Hollywood studios delayed would-be blockbusters because of coronavirus restrictions overseas, and sent movies to streaming platforms, sometimes bypassing a theatrical release entirely.
Expectations and hopes for “No Time to Die,” therefore, were high: Daniel Craig’s two previous Bond films, “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” are the second and third highest-grossing films ever at the British box office, and the franchise is a beloved — if sometimes bemoaned — fixture in British cultural life.
“We’ll look back on Bond as being a watershed moment for the industry,” said Tim Richards, the founder and chief executive of Vue, the third-largest movie theater chain in Britain.
But with pressure from streaming services and the financial toll of the pandemic still in play, it remains to be seen in what direction this watershed moment will take the British movie theater industry in the longer term.
After a thrice-delayed release, “No Time to Die” has successfully ushered people back into theaters. Over the opening weekend — from Thursday through Sunday — it made £26 million, or $35 million, at the box office, not just breaking pandemic records, but also surpassing the opening weekends of the two previous Bond films. This puts it in the top five opening weekends for movies in Britain ever, according to data from the British Film Institute.
Across the country, movie theaters made a spectacle of the 163-minute, $250 million-budget film. Some London big chain theaters scheduled dozens of screenings a day, and others hosted live music to entertain viewers as they waited. There were opening night parties, which encouraged viewers to dress up in black tie for cocktails and canapés at £50, or $68, a person.
Jack Piggott, 31, was among the first to watch the film at the 0:07 a.m. screening at the Curzon in Mayfair, part of a small chain of movie theaters, which was for the first time putting on midnight premieres. Not only is Bond a major moment in British film, it’s also Craig’s last outing as the spy and “you might as well go all in,” he said on Thursday as he waited for the movie to start.
Despite the late hour, the lure of Bond pulled in passers-by like Canset Klasmeyer, who made an impromptu decision to see the film even though she had tickets booked for Monday. “It’s a big event,” she said.
Even as ticket sales rise, there are many challenges, and Richards doesn’t expect Vue to be back to where it was in 2019 until late 2023.
Across the industry, British theaters will have to find ways to recover from the financial blow of the past 18 months, which saw them take on heavy loads of debt or ask shareholders for cash. It’s still unclear how much the pandemic might permanently change consumer behaviors, as people reconsider what types of leisure experiences they want to have outside their homes.
And critically, the influence of streaming has fundamentally changed the industry as studios make big budget films available sooner through on-demand services. For years, movie theaters enjoyed a period of screening exclusivity that lasted about three months. That’s being cut in half by recent negotiations as streaming services balloon.
In the two years before the pandemic, British movie theaters were experiencing their best years since the early 1970s, thanks to a flow of big budget films, as well as major investments into recliner seating and high-tech sound systems. Stopped in their tracks by lockdowns, companies tried to stem the outflow of cash by furloughing staff members and deferring rent payments.
At the end of August 2020, during an interval in Britain’s lockdown, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” was released in cinemas. It was just a fleeting moment of hope. Not long after that, as restrictions tightened, S&P Global downgraded the credit ratings of Vue and Cineworld, Britain’s largest movie theater chain — which also owns Regal Cinemas in the United States — and gave them a negative outlook. And the pandemic dragged on.
It has been a painful time for all, including independent movie theaters like Peckhamplex, a southeast London institution that sells tickets for just £5. It used almost all of the government support on offer, including furlough, tax referrals and a grant for independent movie theaters, according to John Reiss, the chairman of Peckhamplex.
But to stay afloat the movie theater also spent money that had been painstakingly set aside for more than a decade for major refurbishments, and it could take another year for the movie theater to return to prepandemic sales, Reiss said.
Bond has given a meaningful boost to the industry — in one weekend it eclipsed the total box office earnings for the previously highest-grossing film of the pandemic, “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” — but “No Time to Die” is still just one film. The theater industry’s credit ratings and outlook are “very unlikely to change based on the great success of any particular movie release,” said Abigail Klimovich, a credit analyst at S&P Global. There is still an uncertain path to recovery for movie theater earnings, she said.
Among the hurdles is the virus itself, which is especially troubling as the days get colder and it gets harder to keep physically distant. Britain has a high vaccination rate, but daily case numbers are averaging more than 30,000. At the same time, many households are expected to face a squeeze on their incomes from high energy prices, rising inflation and cuts to benefits and other income support.
For Philip Knatchbull, the chief executive of Curzon, change in the industry couldn’t come soon enough. “There’s an existential threat to cinema generally, as we know it,” he said.
For one, independent cinema has long been pushed out of many large movie theaters that had to make room for the long releases of big-budget films, Knatchbull said.
Curzon has a different model, in which 14 plush movie theaters are just one of three strands of the business. It’s also a film distributor, releasing a catalog of predominantly independent and foreign language films, including Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” in Britain. And for the past decade, it has embraced streaming with its own on-demand service.
Soon Knatchbull hopes to be offering movies on the Curzon on-demand service from other distributors like Sony, Paramount and Universal.
Amid all of this upheaval, Vue’s Richards sounds relatively relaxed. The old exclusivity period was “prehistoric,” he said, adding that he hopes the new 45-day release window will encourage streaming services to release more of their movies in theaters.
“I know it’s clichéd, but I do believe we are about to enter into a second golden age of cinema,” he said. Several factors are coalescing here: The audience has returned, there is a promising slate of new and delayed films to be released over the next year and having an exclusive, albeit, shorter release window works, Richards said.
Knatchbull, speaking from Curzon’s more disruptive position in the industry, also seems optimistic. “During the pandemic, all the changes I anticipated happening over maybe over a five-year period were just accelerated,” he said.
Now, he said, there’s “a lot of experimentation, a lot of hurt, a lot of anger, a lot of opportunity from different parts of the film industry.”