Several sources now report that brief talks were held over the new James Bond film being sold to streamers – but that’d surely damage not just cinemas, but 007 himself.

Chatting to the manager of a local multiplex over the weekend, I casually asked what’s the most useful thing I could do to support chains such as the one the person in question works for. “Don’t suppose you’ve got any contacts at Disney?”, he quickly countered, barely missing a beat. For as much as the headlines over the past few months have tended to centre on whether No Time To Die or Tenet would hit their cinema release dates, the two hardest blows to multiplexes in UK to date – in terms of individual films – have been the decisions made about Mulan and Soul‘s releases.

The tale has been told lots of times – not least on this site – that by not even allowing any prints of Mulan and sending it to Disney+ premium access, Disney walked away from cinemas when cinemas needed it the most.

Now granted, everyone in the mix here is in business, and Disney has problems of its own. Furthermore, there had been suspicions that the firm may hedge its bets anyway with Mulan, and do some kind of simultaneous digital release in line with its cinema rollout. Still, its ultimate announcement came as something of a shock.

The news last month that Eon Productions was delaying the 25th James Bond adventure, No Time To Die? Less of a shock. Appreciating the knock-on said delay has had with cinemas (it was clearly the metaphorical straw that broke Cineworld’s back, for instance), plans began being recalibrated for its next release date in April 2021. And what was interesting amidst the dialogue about Bond’s delay though was there was never the slightest hint of a conversation that the movie would skip cinemas altogether.

This is a James Bond film, right? 007 and cinema go hand in hand.

Which made it all the more surprising when news broke over the weekend that some talks had been had about the new 007 film skipping cinemas at all. Not very serious talks, by the looks of it. But still talks.

The numbers concerned were mind-boggling too. Bloomberg reported on Saturday that conversations took place between MGM – one of the invested bodies in the film, of course – and streaming companies about selling the film’s release to a digital platform. Those talks didn’t appear to get anywhere fast, but both Apple and Netflix were said to have been involved in at least some kind of conversation.

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MGM has flatly denied, to be clear, that it’s selling the film and eschewing a cinema release. But this subsequent Variety report suggests an asking price of some $600m was mooted for worldwide rights (around three quarters of the gross of the last Bond movie, Spectre). To put that in some degree of context, the most expensive deal for a streamer to buy a film from a studio has been Amazon’s purchase of upcoming sequel Coming 2 America from Paramount Pictures. The sum involved there, an eye-watering $125m. That’ll likely earn Paramount a better return than a cinema release – once everyone had taken their cut – would have done. But it also, I’d suggest, makes that particular film less of an ‘event’. I’ll be coming back to that point.

Netflix and Apple were said to have balked at the asking price, which would have reportedly given them a one-year exclusive licence to the film on their platforms. But the very fact that even an exploratory conversation took place is enough to send shudders across the exhibition industry. Had someone stumped up such a sum, then MGM, Eon et al would be in the black on the film, not least given the number of ancillary deals around the movie. James Bond would, in theory, no longer need the cinema.

Yet I’d argue it’s far, far from being that simple. Just because cinema is having a terrible year – as many of us are – I’d argue strongly that its place as the prestige place to watch a film properly remains. That there’s something quite special about the right big screen outing that can’t be recreated at home, unless your home cinema set up runs into at least five figures of investment. And also assuming that nobody pauses the film 20 minutes in to ask what’s going on/get a drink/answer a call of nature.

A film at home is very, very rarely an event. A James Bond movie at the cinema is. It’s the sort of event release that gets people who rarely go to the multiplex through the doors, the kind of movie that people see again and again. Can you imagine it being locked to an Apple exclusive for a year? It’s the kind of move that would be great for a firm like Apple certainly, driving people to its subscription service. But it’d also instantly lower the audience for No Time To Die, in turn diminishing the 007 saga less than a decade after Skyfall smashed through $1bn at the box office.

Furthermore, I’d argue that if Bond topples and takes the presumably safer short-term route to a streaming service, then it’s pretty much an irrecoverable blow for blockbuster cinema in at least the short to medium term as well (appreciating that smaller independents have been quite brilliant in keeping cinema screens of the UK busy with interesting things to watch). Huge films are a big risk at the best of times, requiring nine figures of investment to get to the screen, and then the hope that an audience responds in similar numbers. It’s an industry having a bad year, and likely to have another.

Yet surely this is – easy to say when it’s not my money – the hold your nerve moment? A successful cinema run can be and is transformative to a film’s fortunes. Would the Marvel Cinematic Universe be of the size it is now were those movies not cinema events? I’d wager not.

There’s also a broader question about the perception of the James Bond saga were the straight to streaming route to become a serious consideration: wouldn’t it simply appear a bit, well, smaller? Less the big name that others aspire to match, and just a little less as a consequence of skipping cinemas? Would there be any way back from that, too? Once the precedent had been set, would James Bond ever return with quite the same big screen swagger, once the rules had been changed?

Businesses have evolved, certainly, and cinema can be no exception to that. But when you have a Rolls Royce big screen franchise, why would you skip the way of showing it off the best?

A further question: is it to Eon and MGM’s benefit that this conversation is being had out in the open? Because what’s happening as a side effect is that streamers are being quietly alerted to the fact that there’s even a sliver of a conversation to be had. A discussion that even when No Time To Die was delayed for the first time last spring would have had us scoffing and calling it all nonsense. The streamers with the deepest pockets for a purchase – Amazon and Apple – will likely have already been aware of what was going on (and it seems one of them very much was). But now the story is being tested, the numbers – with $250m the figure for reported US rights, although surely this would be an all or nothing deal – are out in the open. And the very possibility of James Bond being a streaming production is getting a free bit of market research in the press.

Eon’s Barbara Broccoli, the effective custodian of the Bond series, has quickly shut all this down, and Deadline reports she wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in entertaining the idea (although again, it did confirm that brief talks took place). Yet Eon is but one (very important) stakeholder here, and there’s an awful lot of money at play.

The cinema industry is going through a long-mooted revolution this year, and it’s happening in double quick time too. That much is clear. Thankfully though, it looks like those 007 rumours for the moment are just that, and that we’ll finally get to see Daniel Craig’s swansong as 007 on the big screen in 2021. Hopefully, too, these rumours aren’t the tip of a bigger metaphorical iceberg. Because I for one think that cinemas are a bridge worth protecting, and not worth setting light to in search of a better looking short term balance sheet.

As my local multiplex manager lamented, there have been tough times this year, and there are tough times likely still to come. That’s then when cinema needs its heroes. And if you ask me, it sounds like a job for 007…

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