No Time To Die Was Due For A Digital Release, Here’s Why That Didn’t Happen

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Over half a century, the world’s most famous fictional spy has gone from the Bahamas, to India and even a Moroccan desert. It seems like James Bond can go anywhere he wants to, apart from Netflix that is. Over the last few weeks, there were plenty of rumours 007 was supposed to head to a streaming service. Sadly though, he didn’t. 

No Time To Die, Daniel Craig’s last outing, has been beset by problems. Right from being doubtful to being injured on set, it seemed like a miracle that the film finished shooting at all. However, its release has been more problematic (who knew that would be possible?). 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, No Time To Die has been repeatedly postponed, first to November 2020 and now to April 2021. It’s a long and sad tale for a franchise that has netted over $7 billion globally. Understanding why is a complex tale of rights, profits and of course the 007 experience.

It’s All About the Money

The COVID pandemic has led some pundits to proclaim that “cinemas are dead”. Whether they are or not, is a debate for another time. The important thing to know is that to help with social distancing, theatres world over have been closed since March/April 2020. In some places, like India, theatres have been reopened albeit with severe restrictions on the number of people.

It’s only natural that these restrictions are in place, after all, isn’t the goal to protect human life? That goal though, comes at a drastic cost. With theatres seating 50-70% less than capacity, several studios have decided against releasing. It was a purely financial decision. After all, movies are also a business. No Time To Die for example cost between $250 – $300 million to make. That money isn’t coming back if theatres can’t run full houses multiple times a day.

People watch an Indian movie as cinemas reopen in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Even if the film runs for an extended time, say 2-3 months rather than the usual 1-2 months, Eon and MGM just won’t be able to make enough to break even. For years, theatrical tickets have been slowly declining even before a global pandemic. A Deadline report found that sales had dropped 5% in 2019. 5% may not seem like much, but it represents a few million dollars lost. 

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That’s why digital rights have become such a vital revenue source for studios over the last decade. That brings me to the next problem.

Who Would Pay $600m?

A few weeks ago, there were strong rumours that MGM was considering a direct-to-digital release for No Time To Die via an OTT platform. The studio was reportedly asking for $600M for the rights. It wasn’t an unusual idea. The Tom Hanks flick Greyhound was sold to Apple TV+  by Sony after it became clear that a theatrical release just wasn’t viable. 

Of course, Greyhound cost Apple just $70m, which is a huge difference from the $600m asking price for No Time To Die. Then again, this is James Bond we are talking about. The franchise has repeatedly pulled in sales even through bad films like Casino Royale and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

That high price tag is a culmination of two factors:

  1. The cost of the film, including marketing (we don’t know yet how much MGM has put in for marketing and lost).
  2. Ensuring that Universal Studios is compensated for losses on the foreign distribution rights.  

But it seems like the 007 name just wasn’t worth it. After early reports that Apple and Netflix were in a bidding war, suddenly nothing. “We do not comment on rumors. The film is not for sale. The film’s release has been postponed until April 2021 to preserve the theatrical experience for moviegoers,” an MGM spokesperson told Variety. For now, it is clear that if and when No Time To Die releases, it will hit theatres first. 

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No Time To Die BTS
A behind-the-scenes shot of director Cary Joji Fukunaga with Rami Malek. Source:

How Viable is a Theatrical Release?

A delay to April 2021 may seem smart for now, but as the pandemic has shown us, there’s really no telling what will happen. The UK has gone back into a lockdown that is likely to extend until Christmas. An April release, and that too to packed cinema halls seems well beyond impossible. 

Even if we do get a vaccine, there’s no telling how long it will be before venues like cinema halls can be packed to capacity. And that is bad news for MGM. Without packed halls, it is very unlikely that the film will break even.

That represents even worse news. Delays to No Time To Die are reportedly costing MGM  $1 million a month. That’s just the interest on the loans the studio took to make the film. 7 months in, that means MGM has already lost $7m. If an April release doesn’t happen, the studio could be forced to go back to streaming services. Out of desperation if nothing else.

With the way things are going, it is more than likely to happen. The only question will be how low is MGM willing to go? Netflix’s most expensive film till date was Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman at $159m. Since Netflix doesn’t divulge subscription numbers, there’s no telling if the company has managed to profit from the film. Even if it has, paying $600m seems like a huge step they simply won’t take.

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Even Apple, one of the world’s wealthiest companies baulked at the cost. According to its own Q3 2020 earnings report, Apple is sitting on a modest $193.82 billion cash reserve. Surely for a cash reserve that large, a $600m purchase would be but a drop in the ocean?

The 007 Experience

Of course, price aside, there’s one major reason Apple could have hesitated to purchase No Time To Die – the 007 experience. There’s no real way to measure this, but if you are a fan of the franchise, you might understand what I am talking about. For others, the experience is made up of two things.

No Time To Die Poster
No Time To Die is Craig’s fifth and final outing as 007. Source:

The first is the theatrical experience. Movies like No Time To Die are made for the big screen. Like with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Mission: Impossible franchise, these films are best experienced in Imax. I am sure plenty of us have seen Endgame on Disney+ ( I have), but there’s something so disappointing about seeing the film on a laptop, mobile on TV. The cinema is an important experience, which is why it has been around for so long.

The second is access to other Bond films. Due to the complex nature of film rights, it is very hard to get all the 007 films in one place, unless you pay for the box set. Some movies are available on Amazon Prime and Hulu, others on Netflix. But again, that varies with region. You can’t get the whole 24 film series on a single streaming service. For die-hard fans, that’s a major letdown. Of course, you will want to watch No Time To Die first, but a few months later, you might want to rewatch the whole Craig-era, especially since the films have an interlinked storyline. 

So, people might sign up to Apple TV+ or Netflix or wherever the film ends up, but could very well not bother to continue their subscription. Also, with the film bound to be available to purchase on DVD, iTunes and other mediums soon, it makes sense to wait for those releases. At least, that way, you tend to have the whole collection and own it too. 

However, it seems like we could have no choice in the end. If the pandemic doesn’t die out with the new year, MGM could either release No Time To Die to reduced crowds, or shift to streaming. Either way, the film isn’t making as much money as the studio wanted. Instead, it will be about the 007 experience, and that is something streaming services will find hard to replicate. 

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