Mr Bond: The British film industry has been expecting you
The mission of 007's latest movie, Skyfall, will be to rescue UK cinemas after a summer of stayaway audiences. Can it succeed?
He's used to saving the world – this summer he even parachuted with the Queen. But it's an altogether different weight currently resting on the shoulders of James Bond: the cinema industry needs the country's most famous secret agent to rescue its fortunes.
For years, cinema was booming. Box offices sold 170 million tickets in 2008, 8 million more than the previous year. As the credit crunch deepened and more Brits holidayed at home, demand for cinema seats only grew.
But this summer, the love affair cooled. Box-office revenues for June to August came in at £55.1m, down 19 per cent on 2011. Big budget, expected blockbusters such as Total Recall and Battleship disappointed; projectors were playing to half-empty screening rooms.
Britain's cinema bosses lay the blame in multiple directions. The Jubilee and Euro football championships, the Olympics – for many Britons, no big-screen entertainment could compete with the heroics of Mo Farah and Team GB – even the rain has carried the can this year. Movie-house moguls don't mention admission prices, but they obviously can't help. Time was, a night at the flicks was a cheap date. Now, a couple of tickets plus a pail of popcorn (the smallest available size, natch) can easily swallow up £20. In austerity Britain, even movie-lovers can't endlessly indulge at that rate.
The films were a factor too. Odeon's chief executive, Rupert Gavin, reckons it was the lack of big domestic hits that kept bums off his seats. "The football and Olympics certainly disrupted the schedule, but the major difference between this year and last is the lack of strong UK-based titles," he says.
The top three films of last year were home-grown Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, The Inbetweeners, and The King's Speech. "So far this year there has been no major break-out British title – which is why we're all focused on the importance of Bond."
Ah, Mr Bond. The industry has been expecting you. The new movie, Skyfall, is released in the UK on October 26. Five years ago, Quantum of Solace brought in box office revenues of £51m while Casino Royale took £55.6m. Insiders predict Skyfall to be by far the biggest film of the year, surpassing the £56m that the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises has brought in to date.
"Anyone in any industry that sees the possibility of a huge source of income to their facilities would be thrilled," says Steve Wiener, chief executive of the only UK listed movie chain, Cineworld. "Bond really is what our industry calls a blockbuster."
"Historically, Bond in the UK grosses over £50m," he adds. "And the buzz on this film is not only good – it is great. It has the potential to do £55m to £60m, or even more. Let's not forget that Avatar brought in almost £100m into the UK box office."
Mr Gavin is just as excited. "It's been four years since the last Bond, and on this, its 50th anniversary year, the film has benefited from huge coverage. The fact that we haven't had a strong, big-budget British film this year has created a sense of anticipation, and the cast is even stronger than in the past, with the likes of Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes," he says.
"At Odeon, advance sales are going off strongly and are significantly above the level where we were at this point before the release of Quantum of Solace."
But the Bond factor won't be enough to transform the year. The summer was a low-point but since January, box office takings are still down 4.5 per cent on last year. That's after several years of growth.
"I think it will be a softer year," says Mr Gavin. "There will be a kink at the end – on top of Bond we've got the final part of the Twilight saga, the first Hobbit film, and Life of Pi – but I would be surprised if 2012 ended up being up on last year."
It's not just the UK industry that's suffering. A report by the Goldman Sachs analysts Drew Borst and Fred Krom found that in the US, cinema attendance is at a 25-year low, with the number of young visitors, who traditionally rack up a tally of seeing the most films, down 40 per cent since 2002. Worse for the operators were Goldman's findings that viewers were turning away from 3D films, which are priced at a premium.
That's something the British industry is privately vexed about too: the 3D format was once hailed as its saviour, but the most recent figures from the British Film Institute suggest otherwise. The BFI said 3D films accounted for just a fifth of box office revenues last year, compared to almost a quarter two years ago – and 47 3D films were released in 2011, nearly 20 more than the previous year. In the US, analysts looking for a reason why cinemas sold 533.5 million tickets this summer – the worst attendance data for two decades – put some blame on July's mass shooting at a Colorado cinema during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises.
But just as in this country, a host of other factors also apply, including the growth of TV hard drives to record films at the press of a button, internet movie subscription services, and a shrinking window of time between when a movie is released in cinemas and on home video. The time lapse is down by a third since 2002, according to the Goldman analysis.
Is the golden era of the cinema over? Cinema visits hit a record of 1.64 billion in 1946, just after the war. Numbers gradually dwindled, falling to an all-time low of 54 million in 1984. Then the birth of the multiplexes helped admissions to recover. The predicted demise of the big screen in the face of first the video, then the DVD, then the internet, has never happened. In the past five years, the number of cinemagoers has hovered between 156 million and 171 million, according to box office tracker EDI Rentrak.
But there is another headache for cinema owners – this one coming from the concession stand. Neither privately owned Odeon nor private-equity house Doughty Hanson's Vue publish retail figures but Cineworld saw its average retail spend per person fall from £1.73 to £1.69 in 2011. With a third of cinema revenues coming from both concession stand sales and screen advertising – which has also been depressed by the downturn – that's tough.
Still, the industry that makes its money from Hollywood endings believes a happy one is written in its script. "People always believe cinema will decline and we constantly confound them," says Mr Gavin. "This year has been softer, but we're optimistic about 2013 – there's already Les Miserables, from The King's Speech director Tom Hooper, Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, [the latest Superman film], and another Hunger Games instalment."
There are also industry whispers of another Inbetweeners movie out by next summer.
"The cinema industry worldwide has peaks and valleys due to the flow of product," adds Mr Wiener. "We have seen our valleys during the summer months of the Olympics. Now we are ready to invite James Bond and his millions of followers to our cinemas."
Bond in numbers
Quantum of Solace brought in UK box office revenues of £51m
Casino Royale brought in UK box office revenues of £55.6m
22 The number of official Bond films
Bond films amassing to more than £3.1bn at the box office worldwide
50 years since the premiere of the first 007 movie ‘Dr. No’ starring Sean Connery
The first film ‘Dr No’ grossed almost £37m
Worldwide, ‘The Quantum of Solace’ grossed more than £365m
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