United Kingdom

Odeon boss heralds big autumn comeback as Bond boosts audiences

James Bond has been billed 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 is set to be mission accomplished. 

Carol Welch, who runs Odeon's 124 cinemas in the UK and Ireland, says customers have bought more than 100,000 tickets since bookings for Thursday's release opened last week. As further proof of Bond's box office firepower, 40 per cent of these have been bought by customers returning to cinemas for the first time since the pandemic struck in March last year. 

'Bond comes at the perfect time,' Welch says. 'What we were finding is that families and some of our younger viewers were all coming back over the summer – and coming back more often. Because Bond is such a mass-market film, it's tempting those slightly older age groups back.' 

Revival: Carol Welch says her cinema chain is bouncing back after lockdowns

Odeon has had more than seven million people through its doors since reopening in May, and audience numbers were back to 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels by the summer holidays. But the release of Bond after an 18-month delay has pushed customer numbers to ten per cent higher than 2019 and increased the number of people signing up to Odeon's monthly film subscription service. Welch hopes No Time To Die, the 25th Bond instalment, will pave the way for strong box office takings for this autumn's other big releases: sci-fi film Dune, Spiderman 3, The Matrix 4 and a remake of West Side Story. 

She says: 'It's fantastic news for the British cinema industry because it's making people feel confident about 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 is sitting in the foyer of the new Odeon Luxe West End in London's Leicester Square, with the Bond trailer on in the background. As Daniel Craig sprints away from exploding planes, she admits the actor may have surpassed Sean Connery as her favourite 007. 'Isn't he a fantastic Bond?' she says. 

When we meet, Welch is due to meet Craig at an event co-hosted by Odeon and film body Bafta. She will also attend the global 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, it is live streaming Tuesday's premiere in Liverpool and Cardiff. More than 85 per cent of the tickets will go to frontline key workers and NHS staff, who will be able to watch the film with a James Bond-themed cocktail in their hand – either a 'Stirred not Shaken' or an 'MI6 Martini'. 

Odeon began selling alcohol in 2018 when it started rolling out its 'Luxe' cinemas, which now make up 32 of its 124 outlets in the UK and Ireland. Each has an Art Deco-style 'Oscar's Bar' in the foyer – named after founder Oscar Deutsch – plus digital ticket kiosks, Dolby surround sound and luxury reclining seats. Sales of food and drink, which can be ordered through an app or online, are up between 20 and 30 per cent on 2019 levels. 

Welch, 51, says: 'People didn't associate the cinema with a big night out. But we are seeing more people buying alcohol and hot food as they go in. So rather than thinking, 'I'll go to a restaurant then I need to be out in time for the cinema', it's a fully immersive experience.' 

Welch, who also oversees commercial operations for Odeon's 220 Continental cinemas, is confident the bounce-back in audiences will return the chain to 'a good position' by the year end. 'We ended last year in an OK position, but this year we are exceeding our expectations. So we are very confident that we have our attendance back and we are very positive about the outlook for the sector.'

End of an era: Daniel Craig will make his final appearance as James Bond in No Time to Die

But she concedes that Odeon had a 'really tough year' in 2020, with only three months of normal trading between Covid closures. At the bleakest point during lockdown, Odeon's US-listed parent company, AMC, raised more than $1billion (£728million) amid fears it could go bankrupt, and gave out free popcorn to small investors as an incentive to back the stock. 

Welch used a survival mantra of 'cash, colleagues and recovery plan', including using furlough to keep most of Odeon's 4,500 or so UK staff in work, renegotiating a loan and going through 'every line of our costs' to save cash. While the cinemas were closed to the public, some were used as vaccination centres or screened university lectures. Odeon also showed criminal trials from Scottish law courts, with jurors watching socially distanced in the cinemas. 'They hired a number of our outlets and it has worked well – they have extended the contract to 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 avenues. 

Welch says: 'We are constantly having discussions with different content providers – as we were before the pandemic. When you believe you add value to content and your experience for customers adds value to content, you go out and talk to anybody who has content about how you can add value.' 

AMC opened the door to collaboration with streaming giants last month when it struck a deal with Warner Bros to shorten the exclusivity window – the post-release period when films can be shown only in cinemas before being released to video on demand – from 90 to 45 days. 

However, Welch says film stars and film makers prefer their movies to be viewed in cinemas, with big screens and surround sound. 'A lot of stars say that what Odeon does is provide a fully immersive experience. My kids adore coming to the cinema with me because they get lost 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 that streaming can't offer on the sofa.'  

Odeon has so far spent £70million on Luxe cinema upgrades and Welch says it will refurbish the rest of the estate 'when we are in the right position'. She adds: 'About 34.5million people in the UK and Ireland are within a 20-minute car journey of an Odeon. We feel that what's really important is making sure we invest in the experience. 

'When I was growing up in the North East I worked in retail and hospitality on the frontline – shops, pubs, restaurants, hotels – and that's what inspired me to do what I am doing today. Working with people, serving guests, working out how you make a better business.' 

Once the excitement of the premiere has died down, she will watch No Time To Die again on a family outing to the Odeon in Milton Keynes, near her home. Will she pre-order an MI6 Martini through the Odeon app? 'Absolutely.'

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