Over the weekend, “No Time to Die” eclipsed $730 million in global ticket sales, making the James Bond sequel both the year’s highest-grossing Hollywood film and the top performing film at the box office since COVID-19 appeared on the scene and nearly shut down the movie business.
The action-packed spy spectacle, which endured several coronavirus-related delays, has become the rare pandemic-era box office hit, which is even more impressive considering adult audiences — the core demographic for “No Time to Die” — have been reluctant to return to theaters. However, the movie cost more than $250 million to produce, at least $100 million to promote and tens of millions more to postpone over 16 months. Insiders say “No Time to Die” needs to make closer to $900 million to break even, a feat that would have been realistic had a global health crisis not entirely upended the theater industry. As a result, the film now stands to lose $100 million in its theatrical run, according to sources close to production. Other industry sources suggest the losses wouldn’t quite reach the nine-figure mark though they would still be substantial.
MGM, the studio behind Bond’s latest adventure, disputes this math. In a statement to Variety, the company insisted “No Time to Die” didn’t just break even but was a money maker.
“Unnamed and uninformed sources suggesting the film will lose money are categorically unfounded and put more simply, not true,” MGM spokesperson said in a statement. “The film has far exceeded our theatrical estimates in this timeframe, becoming the highest grossing Hollywood film in the international marketplace and passing ‘F9’ to become the highest grossing Hollywood film since the pandemic. With the PVOD release of the film already doing stellar home viewing business, all while continuing to hold well theatrically, ‘No Time To Die’ will earn a profit for MGM, both as an individual film title and as part of MGM’s incredible library.”
MGM clearly isn’t conceding that “No Time to Die” is a financial disappointment, but their contention is disputed by others with knowledge of Bond’s budget and with a deep understanding of what a film of that scope and scale needs to earn to get into the black.
In any case, the potential losses illuminate the harsh reality currently facing big-budget films: becoming profitable (at least in the theatrical run) is uncommon in the best of times and basically unfeasible during a pandemic. “No Time to Die” is far from the only tentpole that stands to lose money while the movie theater industry struggles to recover. Marvel’s superhero epics “Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Eternals,” as well as “The Suicide Squad” and Christopher Nolan’s mind-bender “Tenet” all stand to finish in the red with losses in the tens of millions. Nor are these the biggest box office debacles of the COVID era. That honor would likely go to Twentieth Century Studios’ “The Last Duel,” a historical epic that stars Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Ben Affleck, which cost more than $100 million to make and promote and will lose more than that after it eked out a paltry $27.4 million globally. It’s a total wash for the studio, and a sign of how D.O.A. most films that don’t feature super spies or superheroes are at the multiplexes these days. Oscar contenders such as “Spencer,” “Belfast” and “King Richard” are all struggling to attract crowds despite enjoying glowing reviews.
To be sure, things are getting better. October revenues were at record levels thanks to tentpole films like “Dune” and “No Time to Die.” But there’s an unfortunate reality behind these numbers. Almost no movies are making money right now. Yes, a few horror films like Universal’s “Halloween Kills,” which are made cheaply, are still enjoying healthy profit margins, but the business that is reemerging from its COVID torpor still has a lot of ground to make up.
Further complicating things is the fact that the pandemic hit right as media companies like Comcast, Disney, Viacom CBS and WarnerMedia were launching streaming services of their own. In order to compete with Netflix, these companies unwound licensing deals with cable companies and streamers, which deprived them of millions of dollars in wildly profitable licensing fees. In some instances, it has been worth it. Disney’s stock surged during the pandemic as Disney Plus kept adding subscribers, which helped the conglomerate cushion the blow of having its theme parks closed and its cruise ships in dry dock. But it has resulted in a depletion of short term revenues in favor of long term growth.
But what can movie companies do?
For movies that cost between $100 million and $200 million, it’s become a Catch-22. Studios can release a film knowing that turning a profit has become somewhat unrealistic, or they can continue to delay, delay delay and risk a total industry collapse. Had MGM and United Artists Releasing, the company’s behind Bond’s latest, and its rivals decided to not release “No Time to Die” and other key tentpoles such as Disney’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” theatrically in 2021, Hollywood may have found itself without a film exhibition industry on the other end of COVID. Put simply, movie theaters wouldn’t be able to survive if Hollywood chose the latter, more fiscally conservative approach. It’s not entirely altruistic for the companies that make and distribute movies. Many of these titles were postponed from their initial 2020 release dates, and continuously pushing them back creates added expenses for studios — not to mention the reality that some of the films would feel stale after years on the shelf. In some ways, it’s like an investment in movie theaters, which overtime will generate billions more for Hollywood studios. But keeping highly anticipated tentpoles, the kind that demand to be seen on the big screen and require outsized box office receipts to turn a profit, comes with obvious risks; studios aren’t going to be able to reach the ticket sales needed to achieve profitability while the market remains impaired.
Compared to star Daniel Craig’s previous 00 outings, “No Time to Die” has already made more money globally than 2006’s “Casino Royale” ($616 million globally) and 2008’s “Quantum of Solace” ($589 million). It does fall short of its two predecessors, “Skyfall” with its $1.1 billion haul and “Spectre” with its $880 million tally. At the domestic box office, its total ranks as the lowest Bond with Craig at the center, but the global popularity of the franchise softened that blow.
In an attempt to mitigate theatrical losses, “No Time to Die” moved to premium video-on-demand platforms after 31 days in theaters, where industry insiders believe it is thriving. Unlike box office grosses, where studios evenly split revenues with theater owners, companies like MGM get to keep closer to 80% of the money from digital transactions. Though its theatrical window has been a shorter frame than previous Bond films, it’s a notably longer period of big-screen exclusivity than Disney’s “Black Widow” and “Cruella” and Warner Bros.’ “Dune,” all of which landed on streaming platforms on the same day as their theatrical releases. Despite alarm bells that studios will completely abandon the theatrical widow — the period of time that movies play exclusively in theaters — it’s vital to downstream revenue. After Warner Bros. put its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max on the same day as their theatrical debuts, the studio learned the hard way that companies benefit from exclusive theatrical windows because you make more on premium VOD and other ancillary markets.
When “No Time to Die” was greenlit, many of these new streaming services were still in their nascent stages, the global box office was thriving, and major movies had exclusive cinema runs of nearly three months. Bond’s long-time studio home MGM/UA was an independent operator — now it’s about to be absorbed by Amazon. Clearly, a lot has changed, including the economics behind successful moviemaking. But one thing has remained eerily prescient about the Bond sequel. In “No Time to Die,” 007’s shadowy adversary, Lyutsifer Safin, doesn’t wield a massive bomb or kidnap a world leader in order to bring the global superpowers to their knees. His weapon of choice is a bioweapon with the ability to infect its victims in a virus-like fashion. That kind of contagion, it turns out, may be the deadliest and most disruptive force of all.