James Bond has been heralded as the only man who can save the cinema industry from its Covid doldrums – and judging by the demand to see 007’s latest blockbuster, No Time To Die, it’s ready to accomplish the mission.
Carol Welch, who runs Odeon’s 124 cinemas in the UK and Ireland, says customers have bought more than 100,000 tickets since bookings opened for Thursday’s release last week. As further proof of Bond’s firepower at the box office, 40 percent of this has been purchased by customers returning to cinemas for the first time since the pandemic last March.
“Bond comes at the perfect time,” Welch says. “What we found is that families and some of our younger viewers all came back in the summer – and came back more often. Because Bond is such a mass-market film, it entices those slightly older age groups back.”
Revival: Carol Welch says her cinema chain is bouncing back after lockdowns
Odeon has welcomed more than seven million people through its doors since reopening in May, and visitor numbers were back at 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels by the summer break. But Bond’s release after an 18-month delay has boosted customer numbers ten percent from 2019 and the number of people signing up for Odeon’s monthly movie subscription service. Welch hopes No Time To Die, the 25th Bond installment, will pave the way for strong box office receipts for this fall’s other major releases: sci-fi movie Dune, Spiderman 3, The Matrix 4, and a remake of West Side Story.
She says: ‘It’s fantastic news for the British film industry, as it gives people confidence in the return to cinema – and that bodes well for the last three months of the year. We’re already bouncing back, but Bond will help that momentum.”
Welch sits in the foyer of the new Odeon Luxe West End in London’s Leicester Square, with the Bond trailer in the background. As Daniel Craig sprints away from exploding planes, she admits that the actor may have surpassed Sean Connery as her favorite 007. “Isn’t he a fantastic Bond?” she says.
When we meet, Welch will meet Craig at an event co-hosted by Odeon and movie body Bafta. She will also attend the worldwide premiere of No Time To Die at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday, alongside the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.
To give Odeon’s customers a taste of the red carpet, Tuesday’s premiere will be streamed live in Liverpool and Cardiff. Over 85 per cent of tickets will go to key frontline figures and NHS staff, who can watch the film with a James Bond themed cocktail in hand – either a ‘Stirred not Shaken’ or an ‘MI6 Martini’.
Odeon started selling alcohol in 2018 when it began rolling out its ‘Luxury’ cinemas, which now make up 32 of its 124 outlets in the UK and Ireland. Each room has an Art Deco ‘Oscar’s Bar’ in the foyer – named after founder Oscar Deutsch – plus digital ticket kiosks, Dolby surround sound and deluxe reclining seats. The sale of food and drinks, which can be ordered via an app or online, is between 20 and 30 percent higher than in 2019.
Welch, 51, says: “People didn’t associate the cinema with a night out. But we see more people buying alcohol and hot food when they go in. So instead of thinking, ‘I’m going to a restaurant, then I have to get out of there in time for the cinema’, it’s a completely immersive experience.’
Welch, who also oversees commercial operations for Odeon’s 220 Continental cinemas, is confident that the public recovery will put the chain back in a “good position” by the end of the year. “Last year we finished in a good position, but this year we are exceeding our expectations. We are therefore confident that we will be present again and are very positive about the prospects for the sector.’
End of an era: Daniel Craig makes his last appearance as James Bond in No Time to Die
But she admits Odeon had a “very rough year” in 2020, with just three months of normal trading between Covid closures. At its most bleak moment during the lockdown, Odeon’s US-listed parent company, AMC, raised more than $1 billion (£728 million) amid fears it could go bankrupt, handing out free popcorn to small investors like an incentive to support the shares.
Welch used a survival mantra of ‘cash, colleagues and recovery plan’, which included using leave of absence to keep most of Odeon’s approximately 4,500 British employees in work, renegotiating a loan and going through ‘every line of our costs’ to save money . While the movie theaters were closed to the public, some were used as vaccination centers or showed university lectures. Odeon also showed criminal trials from Scottish courts, with jurors watching the cinemas socially distancing. “They’ve hired some of our sites and it’s worked out well – they’ve extended the contract until next year.”
Odeon’s rival, Vue, told The Mail on Sunday in August that it was in talks with streaming giants such as Netflix to show blockbuster TV shows on its screens. Odeon has already diversified into leasing its screens for video game parties, and Welch says it is in talks about further potential commercial opportunities.
Welch says: “We are in constant dialogue with various content providers, just as we were before the pandemic. If you think you add value to content and your customer experience adds value to content, go out there and talk to everyone who has content about how to add value.”
AMC opened the door to partnerships with streaming giants last month when it struck a deal with Warner Bros. to shorten the exclusivity period — the post-release period during which movies can only be shown in theaters before being released on video on demand — from 90 to 45. to dawn.
However, Welch says that movie stars and filmmakers prefer their movies to be seen in movie theaters, with big screens and surround sound. “Many stars say Odeon offers a fully immersive experience. My kids love going to the cinema with me because they are immersed in the story – it’s much bigger than life. They also use devices to stream, but it’s a much more functional experience. For us, the immersive experience is what it’s all about. That’s the one thing streaming on the couch can’t offer.’
Odeon has spent £70million on luxury cinema upgrades to date and Welch says it will refurbish the rest of the estate ‘if we’re in the right position’. She adds: ‘Around 34.5 million people in the UK and Ireland are within 20 minutes’ drive of an Odeon. We believe it’s really important to make sure we invest in the experience.
“Growing up in the Northeast, I worked in the frontline retail and hospitality industries – shops, pubs, restaurants, hotels – and that’s what inspired me to do what I do now. Working with people, serving guests, thinking about how to make a better business.’
Once the excitement of the premiere wears off, she’ll revisit No Time To Die on a family trip to the Odeon in Milton Keynes, near her home. Will she pre-order an MI6 Martini through the Odeon app? ‘Absolute.’
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