For much of the pandemic, Hollywood’s collective attention has hinged on one movie: “Tenet.”
The time-bending thriller from director Christopher Nolan was expected to answer definitively if audiences would go back to the movies once cases of coronavirus were under control. Theaters were closed for months starting in March to help stop the spread of the virus. That, in turn, has left the studios that routinely supply cinemas with films in an extended state of limbo.
After a surprisingly strong $53 million start overseas, “Tenet” landed in the U.S. last weekend and generated a more muted $20 million in its debut. That’s by far the biggest domestic haul yet for a new release during the pandemic, but the middling results don’t signal emphatically that the box office will soon be back to normal.
Now, the film business remains divided over the question of whether or not “Tenet’s” ticket sales justify releasing more big-budgeted films before coronavirus abates or a vaccine becomes widely accessible.
And with a hazy picture of a film’s commercial prospects, Warner Bros., the studio behind “Tenet,” and its rivals are faced with what could be a multi-million dollar decision: Stick with release dates for upcoming blockbusters scheduled for 2020, or continue delaying buzzy titles until major cities can reopen theaters.
Part of the ambiguity is that nobody really knows how to assess the results for “Tenet.” Sure, in ordinary times, $20 million would be a disastrous result for a Nolan film. But these are no ordinary times.
Key markets like New York and Los Angeles still haven’t opened cinemas. That likely slashed ticket sales by the millions. And parts of the country where movie theaters were able to reopen were required to limit capacity to comply with physical distancing measures. Add to that caution on the part of customers who are likely wary of returning to public spaces, and it’s hard to decipher if $20 million is a strong result or a sign that “Tenet” would have done better to wait longer to open domestically.
“We’re accustomed to looking at opening weekend,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro. “We have to look at box office differently [now]. After a few weeks, we might get a better idea about the longterm.”
Without much competition on the horizon, Warner Bros. is hoping that “Tenet” will enjoy a longer-than-usual run on the big screen to help recoup its massive $200 million budget. Ticket sales for the film have cleared $150 million globally to date. It needs to make approximately $400 million in box office receipts worldwide to break even and closer to $450 million to turn a profit.
The issue is that Hollywood may not have time to see the longterm fate of “Tenet” play out before having to make a decision about other upcoming titles.
For now, “Wonder Woman 1984” is the next big film expected to hit U.S. theaters. The comic book adventure, also from Warner Bros., is scheduled to launch on the big screen on Oct. 2, but there’s been a suspicious lack of promotion for the film. That’s a sign, perhaps, that “Wonder Woman 1984” may soon be postponed again.
“Wonder Woman” is a hugely important franchise for Warner Bros., meaning the decision about its release date will not be made lightly. Studios often roll out campaigns for major movies about six weeks in advance — so the clock is already ticking on the superhero sequel starring Gal Gadot. By the time that executives on the Burbank lot have a better grasp on the box office performance of “Tenet,” they will have already needed to make a decision about the follow-up to “Wonder Woman.”
Some analysts believe there’s no sense in forging ahead with tentpoles until the country’s two biggest moviegoing markets are back in business.
“As we’ve seen with the lackluster ‘Tenet’ debut — New York and L.A. are the sun and moon of the box office solar system,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “If the marketplace doesn’t expand significantly, they would be foolhardy to release ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ in the same manner as ‘Tenet.'”
Other studios also have plans to unveil high-profile films in theaters this year. James Bond installment “No Time to Die,” Disney’s “Black Widow” and “Soul” and Denis Villeneuve’s star-studded “Dune” adaptation are among the movies scheduled to release in the next few months.
A sign of optimism: Many countries are ahead of the U.S. in their plans to reopen, and some — such as China — have already seen substantial box office returns. If “Wonder Woman 1984” keeps its release date, industry analysts suggest that foreign markets could help salvage ticket sales.
But there’s a reason that North America is a pivotal market for most movies. Studios receive more in profits from exhibitors in the U.S. than they do internationally. China, for example, only gives a quarter of ticket sales to studios, which is less than half what Hollywood companies would normally make Stateside. With “Tenet” in particular, Warner Bros. is getting more than 60% of domestic ticket sales, which is much higher than its usual payday. However, it’s unclear how splits will work for future releases.
“U.S. and Canada has always been the No. 1 marketplace for a reason. I think studios can get away with it for awhile, but ultimately they’ll have to find a way to create revenue through multiple streams,” Bock said, referencing premium video-on-demand platforms.
Movie theater owners remain optimistic that additional cities will soon get permission to reopen, in turn helping to justify plans to unspool blockbuster-hopefuls. Already, some parts of California have been given the greenlight. When cinemas in New York are able to resume business, it will be “a big landmark,” said Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer of the National Association of Theater Owners, the exhibition industry’s main lobbying arm.
“The major markets that haven’t opened yet are all areas where a Christopher Nolan film would do well,” Corcoran noted. “As more open, there’s a real runway for ‘Tenet’ to continue doing well.”
Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi said 70% of the cinema chain’s 525 U.S. locations reopened in time for “Tenet.” He estimates that opening weekend receipts would have been closer to $30 million if venues across California and New York were able to welcome customers.
“There’s clearly progress being made,” Zoradi said. “Our expectation is that ‘Tenet’ will have an unusual play pattern compared to your typical movie because new theaters will be opening up each week.”
Since Brock Bagby, executive VP of the family-owned theater chain B&B Theatres, has been able to reopen locations in July, he has seen a “drastic increase” in attendance each week.
“We were very pleased with results,” Bagby said regarding turnout for “Tenet” at his theaters. “It was really strong for us, so we’ve been encouraged. Customers were really excited to be back to see a new movie.”
In the meantime, the challenge facing other exhibitors is reminding the public not only that movie theaters are open, but that they are safe to revisit during a global health crisis. That may help studios gauge the popularity of moviegoing.
“Studios are looking very carefully at how theaters are performing in particular markets,” Corcoran said. “‘Tenet’ can play by itself for a while. But at a certain point, there has got to be movies for audiences to go see.”
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