Cinema has come full circle.
When the release of the James Bond epic No Time to Die was originally delayed in March 2020 it was a minor casualty to most of us who had had our lives upended by uncertainty. To the filmmaking industry, however, it was a dark portent.
A number of big-budget releases were pushed back, with in-person theatre attendance remaining an impossibility in many parts of the world. Even after doors began to open it was clear it would take some time before packed audiences would be compelled to flock through them. That amorphous term we have all come to loathe floated into studio boardrooms: “the new normal”.
In efforts to adapt, distributors have toyed with different approaches to their releases. A rare few have braved a near-full cinema run; others have opened on the big screen, but quickly turned to home release; many have simply cut out the pretense and gone directly to a streaming platform.
James Bond, it was always thought, was too big and suave a star to go straight to DVD. And so when its rescheduled date of November crept around, it was once more pushed back by almost a year.
Which brings us to today. No Time to Die premiered in the UK’s Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday and debuted internationally two days later.
As the final piece in the largely well-regarded Daniel Craig saga, the film was greatly anticipated outside the context of the pandemic. But against that backdrop ― myriad delays and the devastation of cinemas ― its release is a hugely significant occasion.
Coinciding with high vaccination rates in much of the developed world, the industry hope is that No Time to Die will be the film to tempt movie-goers back into seats in a similar fashion to how crowds in sports stadiums there have largely returned to pre-2020 levels.
South Africa is no exception: the local industry desperately needs a boon.
The country’s cinema chains have endured a torrid time in the pandemic. Forcefully closed for five months, they have had to operate under strict hygienic and social distancing protocols in the time since. Most have offered limited screening times and seating and have largely scrapped evening shows.
The most recognisable of South Africa’s chains, Ster-Kinekor, had no choice but to enter into business rescue at the beginning of the year. Last month, one of the practitioners involved in the resuscitation had pegged attendance levels “to steadily recover towards the end of the year”.
Rival Nu Metro too has had to operate abnormally and has largely been closed outside weekends and school holidays. It is offering half-price No Time to Die tickets to Nedbank patrons, presumably in an effort to see long lines at the popcorn stand once again.
Of course, South Africa cannot boast the high vaccine rate of other markets — at the time of publication only 21% of the population had received at least one dose. It’s for this reason that our own sports stadiums remain empty.
Working in the favour of the cinema chains, however, is the return to lockdown level two after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address earlier this month. The serendipitous timing means outlets can now go from selling 50 tickets to 250 for the 007 release, and can offer later shows owing to the extended curfew.
Ultimately, the success of No Time to Die, both locally and internationally, will reveal itself soon enough at the box office. The film is expected to almost certainly swell past 2021’s offerings so far, which are currently topped by Chinese comedy Hi, Mom at a total theatre gross of $841 674 419. For context, the top film of the last uninterrupted year was Avengers: Endgame which raked in $2 797 800 564. If Craig’s last adventure can get anywhere close to that it would be considered a resounding victory for cinema.