The first theatrical release to reschedule in the face of COVID-19 was “No Time to Die.” As the 25th installment in the main 007 series, it’s part of an extraordinary franchise that’s survived nearly 60 years, with seven leading men as James Bond; someday, presuming the pandemic permits it, there will be a 28th Bond title, with an eighth leading man. (Daniel Craig has repeatedly sworn that the Cary Fukunaga Bond film will be his last.)
But first things first. “No Time to Die” is currently slated for November 20, and this week saw unconfirmed speculation that even the fall date may be unduly optimistic. There’s little assurance that American theaters will have resumed normal operations, and China also looks daunting with its announcement that until further notice all theatrical releases must be two hours or less. (Fukunaga’s film is a whopping 2:43.)
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One well-placed source categorically denied the possibility of pushing again. However, that choice doesn’t even belong entirely to the franchise’s fiercely protective owner, Eon Prods.; it’s tied more closely to the curves of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. And, if we look back to this weekend in 1989, there is evidence that if Bond has to move again, it won’t be to summer.
Much has changed in 31 years: Back then, theaters could support multiple massive hits and successfully target varied audience segments. However, all of that failed “License to Kill,” which was the only new wide release on July 14, 1989 (a sign of respect from the competition — very rare at that time). Opening on 1,575 screens, it managed to place #4, behind three holdovers. (Among these was the rerelease of Disney’s “Peter Pan.”)
This was the second (and last) Bond film starring Timothy Dalton, and it ranks as the lowest grossing domestic entry in the series. Adjusted to current ticket costs, it managed only $72 million. That’s less than half of what the five most recent Bonds earned. (Second worst was Roger Moore’s 1975 “The Man With the Golden Gun,” which grossed an adjusted $90 million.)
After “License to Kill,” no Bond film ever touched summer again. Since then, there have been seven Bond films: Six opened in November, and one in December. (The original slot for “No Time to Die” was April 10, itself a surprising date.) And while no Bond film opened as badly as “License,” the venerable series has sometimes fallen short: In the wide-release era, seven Bond films failed to open at #1.
“Casino Royale” (2006)
Twice, Bond placed second to a “Star Wars” installment. “Tomorrow Never Dies” opened the same weekend at “Titanic.” And then there’s the outliers like “Casino Royale” in 2006, which came in second to animated hit “Happy Feet.” In 1981, “For Your Eyes Only” opened in third place behind the second weeks of “Superman II” and “Cannonball Run.” And in 1985, “A View to a Kill” was bested by the debut of another action-hero installment with “Rambo: First Blood Part 2.” Sony released the last two Bond titles in November, “Skyfall” (2012) and “Spectre” (2015); these were the best-grossing Bond titles since 1995.
“License” had its own problems; the series was getting tired and self-serious, and felt out of sync with the times. (When Pierce Brosnan replaced the dour Dalton, grosses doubled). And against the competition, it was simply outmatched. The three films ahead of it were “Lethal Weapon 2,” “Batman,” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” — films that topped out with a combined gross of $1.1 billion adjusted. It would be a tricky lineup for any film to face.
Also in theaters was “Ghostbusters II,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Weekend at Bernie’s” (lagging at #9 in its second week) and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” which remained at #10 in its third month. Meanwhile, Columbia opened “When Harry Met Sally” in 41 theaters in a word-of-mouth opening that saw a very strong per-theater average of over $50,000. (A year earlier, “Die Hard” opened in 21 theaters before going wide the next week to great success.)
In retrospect, a lesser Bond film didn’t stand a chance. Eon took that cue and placed its films more carefully ever since; if “No Time to Die” is forced to delay again, expect the same.
The Top Ten (all grosses listed with adjusted grosses in BOLD)
1. Lethal Weapon 2 (Warner Bros.) Week 2; Last weekend #1
$17.2 million/$35.6 million (-16%) in 1,830 theaters (+27); PTA (per theater average): $9,292/ $19,294; Final gross: $147.3 million/$304.9 million
2. Batman (Warner Bros.) Week 4; Last weekend #2
$15.1 million/$31.3 million (-21%) in 2,201 theaters (no change); PTA: $6,867/ $14,215; Final gross: $251.3 million/$520.1 million
3. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (Disney) Week 4; Last weekend #3
$8.8 million/$18.2 million (-7%) in 1,460 theaters; PTA: $6,031/$12,484; Final gross: $130.7 million/$270.5 million
4. License to Kill (MGM/UA) NEW
$8.8 million/$18.2 million in 1,575 theaters; PTA: $5,571/$11,532; Final gross: $34.7 million/$71.8 million
5. Peter Pan (Disney) (reissue)
$5.6 million/$11.6 million in 1,475 theaters; PTA: $3,805/ $7,876; Final gross: $29.4 million/$60.9 million (reissue only)
6. Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade (Paramount) Week 8; Last weekend #5
$4.6 million/$9.5 million (-11%) in 1,717 theaters (-200); PTA: $2,687/$5,562; Final gross: $197.2 million/$408.2 million
7. Ghostbusters II (Columbia) Week 5; Last weekend #4
$4.3 million/$8.9 million (-18%) in 1,978 theaters (-337); PTA: $2,192/$4,537 ; Final gross: $112.5 million/$232.9 million
8. Dead Poets Society (Disney) Week 7; Last weekend #6
$4.3 million/$8.8 million (-18%) in 1,047 theaters (-62); PTA: $4,068/$8,421; Final gross: $95.9 million/$198.5 million
9. Weekend at Bernie’s (20th Century Fox) Week 2; Last weekend #8
$3..7 million/$7.7 million (-17%) in 1,139 theaters (+5); PTA: $3,292/$6,814; Final gross: $30.2 million/$62.5 million
10. Do the Right Thing (Universal) Week 3; Last weekend #9
$3.0 million/$6.2 million (+3%) in 498 theaters (+137); PTA: $6,060/$12,544; Final gross: $27.5 million/$56.9 million
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