'No Time to Die' box-office release delayed for coronavirus, but don't expect other Hollywood films to follow

Key Points
  • "No Time to Die" may have moved from April to November, but other Hollywood films may not change their releases.
  • There is little flexibility in the movie release schedule for the rest of 2020.
  • Studios are also very cognizant of not placing big tentpole movies too close together.
Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in "No Time To Die."

The coronavirus outbreak may have pushed "No Time to Die" to trade its April box-office release in favor of a November one, but that doesn't mean other Hollywood blockbusters are going follow suit. 

As the number of countries reporting new cases of COVID-19 grows, so does the fear that the U.S. film industry will take a big hit at the box office. International ticket sales have become key to the overall success of the Hollywood film industry and several countries that are crucial to movie ticket sales have banned or restricted large public gatherings.

On Wednesday, MGM, Universal and "No Time to Die" producers were the first in Hollywood to delay the release of a film because of the coronavirus outbreak, leading people to wonder if more studios would move their release dates. 

"All the studios are considering what to do with safety and loss mitigation in mind," Schuyler Moore, an entertainment attorney at Greenberg Glusker, said in an email to CNBC.

However, "No Time to Die" could be the exception and not the trend. MGM is only set to release five films this year, all but one of which is co-financed with another studio. Far and away, the 25th James Bond film is expected to be the company's biggest film of the year. 

For comparison, a company like Disney is expected to release more than 20 titles in 2020. So the stakes are higher for MGM. It must give "No Time to Die" the best chance of success as it doesn't have much room for error when it comes to securing ticket sales.

And the film already had to cancel publicity tours in China, South Korea and Japan for the film due to the outbreak of the deadly virus in those countries. Worldwide COVID-19 has killed at least 3,383, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, and it has sickened more than 100,000 people.

More than 78% of the $881 million the previous James Bond film "Spectre" garnered at the global box office in 2015 came from international regions. While the United Kingdom accounted for 15.5% of the film's total ticket sales, or the biggest chunk outside the U.S., China ranked second, with 9.7% of sales, according to data from Comscore. 

Currently, a large portion of theaters across China are shuttered due to the coronavirus outbreak and it's uncertain when they will be reopened.

Calendars are tight

But, what might work best for MGM may not be ideal for other Hollywood studios. Even if a studio wanted to move a film's release date, there is little flexibility in the movie release schedule for the rest of 2020. 

The calendar is strategically set each year. Certain types of movies are released during certain times of year — family movies are often in the spring, the summer gets blockbusters, the fall is for big-budget horror films and award contenders — and holiday weekends are quickly reserved by studios hoping to capitalize on moviegoers having one more day off from work or school.

Studios are also very cognizant of not placing big-budget tentpole movies too close together. So, you're not likely to see a Marvel movie and a "Fast and Furious" film arrive in theaters on the same weekend or even within one or two weekends of each other. 

Liu Yifei stars a Fa Mulan in Disney's live-action adaptation of "Mulan."

Since the calendar for 2020 is pretty much set, if a studio decides to push a movie from the first half of the year to the second, it doesn't have a lot of weekends to choose from.

And if it can't find a suitable weekend to release a pushed film, a studio might have to resort to taking over a weekend slot it has already assigned for another movie. For example, hypothetically, Marvel could push "Black Widow" (May 1) to the spot currently held by "The Eternals" (Nov. 6). 

However, that choice can be tricky. By pushing a film like "Black Widow" into "The Eternals" slot means that Marvel's whole slate of films has to push in 2021 to accommodate the change. And that could mess with the company's slate of Marvel shows on its streaming service Disney+. 

Universal, which is set to distribute "No Time to Die" in international markets, moved up the release of "Trolls: World Tour" to April 10 to fill the gap left by Bond moving from April 8 to November.

Studios also have to consider what has already been spent on marketing. "No Time to Die" advertising online, on TV and out in the market — billboards, signage on taxis, etc. — is already running ahead of the film's original release. MGM will now how to restart that campaign in the months leading up to November.

Notably, the studio worked with "Saturday Night Live" to get James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, to host the comedy sketch show ahead of the film's original release. Craig will still host this Saturday night, but he's now promoting a movie that won't come out for seven months, which is less effective than if the film was coming out next month as intended.

"The moving of Bond was unique to that film and, at this point, it's highly unlikely that other studios will shift release dates for their tentpole films in North America," Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, said. "Multiplexes are all open for business and audiences are excited for these upcoming titles to hit the big screen." 

Theaters stayed open in prior outbreaks 

While consumers have been stocking up on hand sanitizer, toilet paper and face masks, it's unclear if they are avoiding movie theaters. 

"During the prior outbreaks of SARS and H1N1, U.S. theaters remained open," research firm MoffettNathanson wrote in a note Friday. "In fact, we could even point to some strong box office results during these prior periods of heightened fears."

But box-office comparisons may be hard to make, the note warns, because of changing habits. The SARS outbreak, which ran between 2002 and 2003, the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, occurred before there were tons of options for on-demand viewing at home. Attendance trends in the film industry are changing due to this competition.

"However, the recent outperformance of 'Invisible Man' last week relative to industry expectations is a positive near-term data point," MoffettNathanson said.

This weekend, Pixar's "Onward" and Warner Bros. "The Way Back" enter theaters.

In many cases, studios will likely keep the North American release dates for films, but postpone releases in countries that have closed their movie theaters, like China. 

Disney's "Mulan" has long been expected to perform tremendously well in China, as it is set in the country and features a Chinese folk hero, but if theater closures continue it won't be able to be released in the country right away. 

The biggest worry is that the film will be pirated over the internet after its North American debut, putting a dent in potential ticket sales in Asia when the film is finally available to the public. However, some analysts suspect that there will be pent-up demand for group activities and for leaving the house to go to place like cinemas.

Disney, Universal and MGM weren't immediately available to comment.

Disclosure: Comcast owns NBCUniversal and CNBC. Universal is releasing "No Time to Die" internationally while MGM handles the domestic release. NBCUniversal also distributes "Saturday Night Live" and will distribute the upcoming "Trolls: World Tour."

Coronavirus hits China box office
Coronavirus hits China box office