No Time To Die will send audiences back to cinemas, but has COVID changed our behaviour for good?

By music and pop culture reporter Paul Donoughue
The new Bond film will land just as cinemas in Sydney and Melbourne ramp up post-lockdown. (IMDB)

The new James Bond film, No Time To Die, is a big deal in many ways.

It's the final outing for Daniel Craig as Bond. It has been ready for release for 18 months but delayed repeatedly by the pandemic.

You can add to that list: it's a blessing for cinemas everywhere.

"It is a symbol of us getting to a new stage," says Zak Hepburn, film critic and general manager of the Astor Theatre in Melbourne.

"I think that is what people want, and that's what's going to get people back into the cinema."

No Time To Die is Daniel Craig's final time as James Bond. (IMDB)

No Time To Die is coming out just as cinemas ramp up in NSW and Victoria.

NSW will open cinemas with reduced capacity from Monday, while Victoria will follow in early November. The film is released in Australia on November 11.

"The level of interest is sky-high," says Palace Cinemas CEO Benjamin Zeccola of the film.

But the film is more than just a chance to get bums on seats.

It will also become an essential data point in a long-running argument about the future of the cinema experience.

Is the culture of cinema-going in trouble?

When cinemas closed, big movie studios started looking for alternative means of distribution.

Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros all sent films to streaming in 2021 at the same time as cinemas, something they had not done before.

The fear was that the lucrative exclusivity window, where cinemas get a chance to show a movie before it becomes available on a streaming service, might get cut down or turfed completely.

At the same time, Australians were falling more in love with streaming services.

Video streaming subscriptions rose 16 per cent in the year to June, according to research firm Telsyte.

Households with a video streaming service now have 3.1 different ones, on average, up from 2.8 in June last year, Telsyte found.

A separate survey from Deloitte found 70 per cent of households have a TV/movie subscription service and 42 per cent have more subscriptions now than they did a year ago.

Meanwhile, with high overheads and thin margins, cinemas have struggled through repeated lockdowns.

For Palace Cinemas, Melbourne and Sydney make up three-quarters of their business.

Since JobKeeper ended, they have burned through some cash reserves and relied on goodwill from their bank.

"So, everybody was watching closely," Mr Zeccola said of the impact from streaming.

"What would it mean for the future of film distribution?"

The answer is complicated

"By fast-tracking straight to streaming, you simply miss out on giving people the best movie-going experience … and you miss out on several windows of revenue," Mr Zeccola said.

"Very soon after those experiments took place, a consensus seemed to form around Hollywood that the window would be about 45 days," — down from 90, but still intact.

Even then, he said, streaming service subscribers might still have to pay for the film, like they did with Mulan on Disney+.

In the short term, things look good for cinemas.

In the UK, they could be back to 85 per cent of pre-COVID levels by the end of the year, and fully recovered by mid-2022, according to their trade association.

Partly it's the thrill of getting off the couch and experiencing something that has been out-of-reach for so long – not to mention something communal.

Cinemas will also benefit from a backlog of other blockbusters that have been delayed, like Dune and The Matrix 4, coming later this year.

The long-term behavioural changes are still an open question

"I think that's going to be very title-orientated," Hepburn says about how streaming might change things.

Blockbusters like No Time To Die and Dune are made for the cinema.

"That's what people want to spend their ticket money on: things that are going to remind them of the power of that communal viewing experience," he says.

Dan Robins, a director in PwC's telco, media and technology practice, has analysed the industry and expects a strong initial return of audiences.

He says the straight-to-streaming move in 2021 was a chance – brought about through necessity – for studios to test an idea.

In the wash-up, "each will come out with a different strategy and find a balance between their own platform and theatrical releases that will work for them," he says.

"But what we'll probably have to contend with is the consumer habits changing to an extent."

Mr Robins sees the change taking place not with big-budget action films like Bond but with titles that don't get an obvious boost from the big screen experience.

"If I can get [a film] on a subscription service, coupled with a great delivery service for my dinner, then that old thing of going for dinner and a movie – there's just a different opportunity for me to do it at home," he said.


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