what happens now?

Is 2020 the End of the Domestic Box Office As We Know It?

Due to the ineffectiveness of COVID-19 measures in the U.S., Americans must wait to see Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Is this the new normal? Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.

Once upon a time — just a few short months ago, before the onset of global pandemic, to be specific — the North American movie marketplace was the world’s single most important theatrical film market: a monolithic territory whose ticket-buying behavior largely dictated whether a film was deemed a triumph or a dud, where Hollywood studios earned the greatest share of box-office receipts.

But that primacy was put under the wrecking ball with Monday’s announcement that Warner Bros., the studio distributor behind director Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, plans to release the time-travel thriller internationally on August 26, before opening in “select cities” across the U.S. and Canada over Labor Day weekend. In an unusual inversion of the day-and-date release scheme that typically governs gigantic tentpole movies (in which a high-stakes title like Tenet would hit screens around the globe within 24 hours of its North American release), the $200 million film starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson will roll out in 70 countries including Australia, Russia, Korea, Japan, the U.K., and France before making American landfall. (Warner Bros. does not currently have a release frame in place for China, the world’s second biggest theatrical market.)

Coming on the heels of Warner Bros.’ July 20 announcement that Tenet would be shifting its release date for the third time this summer as “the pandemic continues to proliferate,” such a divergence from Hollywood’s blockbuster playbook reflects abiding market realities. Namely, that theaters across Asia and Europe are coming back online sooner due to the effectiveness of COVID-19 curve-flattening measures in the respective countries, while America’s largest chain (and industry leader) AMC Theatres announced it would not reopen the majority of its locations until the end of August due to the sluggishness of curve-flattening measures in our own.

According to Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian, such a release scheme for a film with both the enormous audience appeal and nine-figure advertising budget of Tenet is “unusual but not unprecedented.” In 2012, Marvel Studios’ The Avengers opened in parts of Europe nearly two weeks before hitting theaters in North America, generating pent-up demand for the comic-book thriller and ultimately yielding a $623.3 million domestic gross. Similarly, 2018’s Aquaman rolled out across Europe more than a week before reaching domestic cineplexes and went on to gross $1.1 billion worldwide.

On a smaller scale within this year’s Summer of No Blockbusters, STX’s disaster-thriller Greenland, starring Gerard Butler, will make its theatrical debut in Belgium on July 29 before arriving Stateside September 25. And the Russell Crowe road-rage drama Unhinged hit multiplexes in Germany on July 16; after being postponed earlier this month due to continuing coronavirus-related theater closures, will reach North American on August 21.

“Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures,” Dergarabedian says. “In real time, studios are showing that they can be nimble, adjusting by the number of [coronavirus] cases and availability and capacity of theaters country by country. So with a staggered release in this environment, they’re just doing what they have to do.”

Even as hundreds of U.S. theaters began closing throughout the spring and remained shuttered into 2020’s hottest months, Nolan — arguably cinema’s most strident proponent of the theatrical moviegoing experience — hoped to stick with Tenet’s original July 17 release date, in part to help prop up struggling North American theater chains that face further disruptions due the major studios’ decision to delay their biggest budget releases until late in the year or 2021. According to two insiders, the Oscar-nominated director only entered into conversations with top Warners execs about uncoupling the domestic and international rollouts of Tenet when it became clear American theaters would not reopen until summer’s end at the earliest. With the understanding that opening-weekend box-office numbers can no longer be relied upon as a reliable yardstick of a film’s overall commerciality, the new calculus they arrived at was simple: start making money abroad as soon as possible rather than wait — perhaps indefinitely — for American movie houses to resume business and American consumers to get over their jitters about sharing space with strangers in a darkened auditorium.

A statement from Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich regarding Tenet’s most recent postponement to a then-indefinite future date earlier this month served to tease the studio’s intention of going with a foreign-first distribution scheme. “We are not treating Tenet like a traditional global day-and-date release,” he said, “and our upcoming marketing and distribution plans will reflect that.”

As Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for Boxoffice Pro, sees it, that’s a sound move at a time when around two-thirds of a film like Tenet’s grosses can be expected to come from overseas ticket sales and Hollywood has come to increasingly rely on foreign box-office tallies to prop up flagging domestic grosses. Even with the temptation of digital piracy — which costs the entertainment industry as much as $71 billion a year and can cost studios as much as a quarter of their theatrical revenues per film — and an abundance of spoilers expected to trickle online, he predicts that American fans of the notoriously secretive Nolan’s cerebral yet muscular filmmaking are likely to treat the movie’s arrival in theaters as a cultural event. That they will, for the most part, strenuously avoid online reveals of Tenet’s closely guarded plot and still shell out for admission.

“The industry has essentially been in complete shutdown for months and there’s growing demand both internationally and domestically for a new movie. Tenet in particular has gotten a lot of publicity as being a kind of poster child as the first big [post-lockdown] release,” Robbins says. “Spoilers and piracy come with the territory on any movie, even under normal circumstances. Especially now, fans don’t want to read spoilers. They want to go and see movies for themselves.”

And anyway, “you might think you’ve got Tenet figured out, but it usually takes three viewings of a Christopher Nolan movie to unpack the many mysteries that lay within,” Dergarabedian notes.

So will other studios follow Warner Bros.’ lead, rolling their major releases out overseas before flooding the domestic movie market? With the competition exercising an abundance of caution in unfolding response to coronavirus concerns, it may be too soon to tell. In March, Sony pushed almost all of its most eagerly anticipated titles for the year — Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Peter Rabbit 2 and Morbius, among them — into 2021. Universal infuriated theater chains that same month by bypassing the theatrical release of Trolls World Tour altogether and releasing the animated sequel straight to paid video-on-demand. The studio then postponed the theatrical drop dates of F9 from May to April 2, 2021 and Minions: The Rise of Gru into next July. In a release shake-up last week, Paramount punted its presumed 2020 blockbusters A Quiet Place 2 and Top Gun: Maverick into next year, and sold off rights to Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-bait drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 to Netflix.

Which leaves only Disney to potentially pick up Tenet’s foreign-first baton. On Thursday, the House of Mouse unmoored its live-action adaptation of Mulan from its August 21 release frame — the film’s third delay owing to COVID-19 disruptions this year — absenting the movie from its distribution calendar for the indefinite future. “Over the last few months, it’s become clear that nothing can be set in stone when it comes to how we release films during this global health crisis, and today that means pausing our release plans for Mulan as we assess how we can most effectively bring this film to audiences around the world,” a Walt Disney Studios spokesperson said in a statement on July 23.

Such language, of course, leaves plenty of latitude for the Chinese period epic — which features an all-Asian cast and was specifically re-written, re-imagined and production-designed to resonate with Asian audiences — to reach the Middle Kingdom’s 70,000 theaters ahead of American multiplexes. “Everybody has been waiting to see what Tenet does because nobody wants to be out first,” says an executive from a rival studio who chose not want to be identified. “The way [Warner Bros.] handles this is going to set the agenda.”

Is 2020 the End of the Domestic Box Office As We Know It?