Yesterday, the studios and producers behind the latest James Bond film made a surprising announcement: No Time to Die, due for an April release, would be pushed to November “after careful consideration and thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace.” Here’s how last-minute that decision was: When it was made, the sketches for Daniel Craig’s hosting appearance on this week’s Saturday Night Live had already been written. Bond won’t be here for months, but the actor who plays him is still going to have to show up at Studio 8H the day after tomorrow.
The decision to postpone the international rollout of a blockbuster isn’t one that any studio would take lightly, but the Bond team’s hand was forced by the reality of the coronavirus outbreak, which continues to spread. The Chinese film industry is a crucial quadrant for Hollywood productions looking to rack up worldwide grosses. But some 70,000 Chinese theaters are currently closed as the country battles the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, with strict stipulations in place for any looking to resume business. With the epidemic also making its way across Europe and the United States, it’s clear MGM and Universal, which are handling distribution of No Time to Die, feared that an April debut would be disastrous for viewership.
Halting a release so late is virtually unheard of for a film of this scale (the estimated budget is $250 million). In the past, some smaller movies, such as Universal’s The Hunt, have been shifted on the schedule because of topical events. But a whole promotional machine had been built around No Time to Die opening in April, from the release of Billie Eilish’s title song to Craig’s SNL appearance. The decision to postpone may have been motivated by the somewhat precarious status of MGM, the recently reconstituted studio that weathered a 2010 bankruptcy and began distributing its own films again only in 2018, in partnership with Megan Ellison’s struggling Annapurna Pictures. No Time to Die is MGM’s biggest release of 2020, and the studio needs it to pull in huge worldwide grosses.
James Bond is popular everywhere, but international markets are vital to the franchise. Each of Craig’s Bond movies has made more than 70 percent of its money outside the U.S. and Canada, with 2015’s Spectre grossing a staggering $679 million internationally, versus $200 million domestically. The expected decrease in business from closed theaters around the world made the postponement a “purely economic decision” for the studios, according to Deadline. The Chinese film industry is already poised to lose $2 billion this year over its closed theaters; MGM wanted no part of that equation.
Another factor may be that Thanksgiving is a more traditional landing place for Bond. Each of the Craig films has come out in November, and the last movie in the series not to do so was 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, which debuted in December (it opened at No. 2, behind the first weekend of Titanic). In fact, No Time to Die was originally planned for November 2019, before being pushed to 2020 when the director Danny Boyle dropped out and Cary Fukunaga was hired to replace him. Moving into the franchise’s comfort zone around the holidays likely softened the blow somewhat for the studios.
One question now is whether other blockbusters due for similar global rollouts in the coming months will follow suit. MGM decided that worldwide markets wouldn’t be operating at regular capacity a month from now; what does that mean for Disney’s Mulan, due out March 27? The film features the major Chinese stars Liu Yifei, Jet Li, and Gong Li, along with the Hong Kong action legend Donnie Yen, but Chinese viewers will likely have to wait to see the film. According to Variety, Mulan’s release date remains unchanged in America, “but the film will debut in certain foreign markets at a later date.”
Disney may well be concerned about the box-office prospects of Mulan or its May release Black Widow, the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II and Universal’s Fast & Furious 9 are among the other blockbusters due in the next two months that may see postponements. But those studios have less riding on the fate of any one film than MGM does, and they should all be powered by solid sales domestically. Barring further cinema shutdowns, most major distributors are planning to stay the course, according to the trades. But as one insider noted to Deadline, “We are in uncharted territory.”
Studios plan the timing of “tentpole” movies years in advance; if executives do end up pushing more franchise projects further down the calendar, we could see a domino effect in which other future releases get delayed so that cinemas don’t get too crowded. If theaters around the world continue to close, or if audiences simply stay away out of fear of being exposed to large crowds, the entire movie industry may very well have to treat much of 2020 as an unforeseen financial write-off.