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Bond is the biggest movie of the year at a weird time for box office

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What No Time to Die, Ghostbusters, Will Smith, and Spider-Man say about post-pandemic moviegoing

Daniel Craig as James Bond in No Time to Die, standing in a spotlight, surrounded by formal-suited members of SPECTRE Photo: Nicola Dove/MGM

Daniel Craig is leaving James Bond on top. Audiences have poured into theaters for Craig’s fifth and final performance as the super-spy in No Time to Die, which over the weekend became the highest-grossing Hollywood movie of 2021 with a total of $734,091,693, according to industry tracking site The Numbers. Currently, it’s outgrossed by two Chinese movies: the war epic The Battle at Lake Changjin and Hi, Mom, a time-traveling family comedy, but still stands as the biggest new release at the North American box office since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Craig is leaving the James Bond franchise in a better condition than he found it. Before Craig, Pierce Brosnan’s turn as 007 had started strong (GoldenEye) but was marred by diminished returns (Die Another Day). Rather than stay past his prime, as has arguably happened with a number of Bonds, audiences have not soured on Craig’s no-nonsense approach.

Both No Time to Die and F9, the movie Craig just surpassed at the global box office, have had a number of things going for them in terms of welcoming audiences back to the movies. They’re both part of well-known franchises with clear expectations of what will be happening once the lights lower and the trailers are over (spy stuff and several mentions of family, respectively). And perhaps just as important has been the decision by their respective studios to give No Time to Die and F9 exclusive theatrical releases, a time when many audience were hoping for a streaming sea change.

dom and his brother yell at each other in f9
While No Time to Die passed F9 in box office, but dominated as theatrical exclusives.
Photo: Giles Keyte/Universal Pictures

This isn’t exactly what Hollywood was predicting. Back in March, Milan Popelka, chief operating officer of FilmNation, the company behind Arrival, predicted to Variety that “stories that are more uplifting and optimistic will be at a premium,” saying that COVID and a number of other real-world crises meant there was “more than enough stress in the world.” While No Time to Die and F9 are both escapist in some sense, a feeling that theater attendance may enhance, they’re not exactly meant to be uplifting.

Rather, productions with inspirational intent seem to be flailing. It might be unfair to compare King Richard, Will Smith’s newest movie about how Richard Williams raised his daughters Venus and Serena to become tennis superstars, to the latest James Bond movie in terms of box office. But Smith’s own catalog offers another another clear example: his 2006 feature The Pursuit of Happyness, which like King Richard is an uplifting movie about a father overcoming tremendous odds. Back in 2006, Pursuit of Happyness had a $26 million opening weekend and wound up with over $300 million worldwide. Compare that with King Richard, which took in a paltry $5.7 million in domestic box office.

Have audiences tired on inspirational Will Smith movies, even well-reviewed ones? Was it confusing to have a movie about Venus and Serena Williams, two of the most famous women in the world, framed around their less famous father? Both options are certainly possible. But one undeniable culprit seems to be that King Richard was also available for streaming on HBO Max. Without an instantly compelling visual quality, like Dune or Ghostbusters: Afterlife (which won the weekend with the year’s second-biggest theatrical release, second only to No Time to Die), attendance suggests that audiences are drawing a line between certain types of movie that are and aren’t worth the hassle of getting out to a theater, especially when they’re already paying for a streaming subscription.

Not all demographics are back at the movies. Specifically, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, women over 35 only represent 15 percent of U.S. movie ticket sales in 2021, compared with 37 percent in the pre-Covid era. The Journal cites a number of reasons for the fall, from the lack of options aimed at their demographic to rising concession prices.

Meanwhile, James Bond is looking over his shoulder at a certain webslinger. Forecasts are predicting a huge box office weekend for Spider-Man: No Way Home, landing somewhere between $135 – $185 million. And it’s buoyed by — you guessed it — an ”exclusive theatrical release.”