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A Summer Without Movie Theaters Is Inevitable

Tenet’s continuing absence from the big screen could have a chilling effect on the theatrical moviegoing business. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube

Update: on Jul. 20, Warner Bros. removed Tenet from its Aug. 12 theatrical rollout and has indefinitely delayed releasing the movie.

Nothing is certain when it comes to director Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, not even a vague grasp of the plot. The cerebral thriller’s much-analyzed trailer seems to suggest its main characters, John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, and Robert Pattinson, can exploit ruptures in the time-space continuum to commit some sort of corporate espionage and also, possibly, “prevent World War III.” Now, after the film’s distributor Warner Bros. pushed Tenet’s release date back twice due to widespread and continuing theater closures caused by COVID-19 anti-gathering concerns, the mystery surrounding the $200 million film’s theatrical rollout is beginning to overshadow whatever bravura cinema Nolan may be set to deliver.

On Monday, the influential movie-exhibition-industry analyst Eric Handler published a report expressing significant doubt that Tenet will arrive in theaters on its new date — August 12 — thanks to spiking coronavirus infection rates in major movie markets across the country. “We place a low likelihood of Tenet opening on Aug. 12 given a rising number of COVID-19 cases in key areas, such as California, Texas and Florida, along with the slowed re-opening of the New York City economy,” the MKM Partners analyst wrote. “In our view, it would be surprising to see theaters able to re-open nationwide before September, at the earliest.”

Warner Bros. executives, for their part, insist Tenet is still on track for a mid-August release frame. Although recent media accounts have portrayed the filmmaker and studio at loggerheads over that corridor — with Warner reportedly in favor of punting the film down the calendar, and the director digging in to get Tenet in front of audiences as soon as possible — sources close to Nolan say he and Warner Bros. are “in concert” about distributing it in as safe and timely a manner as possible. Bolstering that perception, Warner Bros. — arguably Hollywood’s most filmmaker-friendly studio, known for nurturing creative partnerships with auteurs such as Stanley Kubrick, Clint Eastwood, and the multibillion-dollar-grossing Nolan — has continued to keep Tenet “on air,” purchasing advertising including expensive television commercials touting its August 12 drop date.

But after jockeying with Disney’s Mulan to become the first megabudget event movie to hit multiplexes amid 2020’s erstwhile Summer of No Blockbusters, there is a strong possibility that even more of the country’s 4,000 theaters currently in operation will be forced to close, and that July’s anticipated mass multiplex reopening will be pushed into the fall or winter. If that proves true, Tenet’s continuing absence from the big screen could have a chilling effect on the theatrical moviegoing business, which was struggling financially against growing competition from streaming services even before the onset of global pandemic.

Handler predicts the 2020 box office is set to decline by around 70 percent from 2019’s $11.4 billion cumulative gross, the second-highest tally on record. Meanwhile, the nation’s biggest theater chains, including AMC and Cinemark, have run perilously low on cash, struggling to restructure their debts and issuing dire warnings to investors about billions of dollars in lost revenues caused by the virus — even as their theaters beef up safety and distancing protocols to lure back wary moviegoers. “The theaters are going to lose biggest if Tenet doesn’t come out next month,” says a high-ranking executive at a rival studio who spoke to Vulture on the condition of anonymity. “They’re going to spend $100 million on face masks and [disinfection] sprays. Then the theaters aren’t going to open in August? They’re the most at risk.”

According to two insiders, with foreign ticket sales expected to account for two-thirds of Tenet’s overall gross, Nolan and Warner executives discussed releasing the film internationally ahead of the North American rollout, a relatively risky strategy in an era of rampant overseas movie piracy, when most major motion pictures arrive in theaters worldwide on the same date. But according to these sources, the filmmaker — who, as one of filmdom’s chief evangelists for the theatrical moviegoing experience, penned an op-ed in the Washington Post calling the collective cultural experience of seeing a film in a theater a “vital part of social life” — wanted to help support American theaters in their time of need by sticking to the original plan.

Also factoring into that release calculus: The majority of China’s nearly 70,000 theaters remain shut down, and with them, potentially gigantic box-office returns from the world’s second-biggest movie market. “Do you really just open a movie in Europe?” asks a rival studio exec. “Europe is terrible. South America is terrible. International is still a huge question mark.”

To hear it from Richard Rushfield, editor of Hollywood’s must-read entertainment newsletter the Ankler, even by the most optimistic projections, presumed blockbusters like Tenet are unlikely to draw anything close to pre-COVID-level audiences should they indeed release. Studios can expect a steep drop off in business. “Between now and the end of the year, 50 percent loss is probably the best-case scenario,” he says. “It’s probably more like 80 percent. There’s no way you can open a movie anytime between now and, say, February, and have any confidence that the box office is going to be anything resembling normal.”

Moreover, deep into typical popcorn-movie season, with a pile-on of high-profile titles including Top Gun: Maverick, Minions: Rise of Gru, and Jungle Cruise pushed from their original dates into winter 2020 and next year, the movie industry has little choice but to break its longtime overreliance on ticketing revenues. “I would just say to the studios, ‘Let’s get real,’” Rushfield says. “The summer is gone and the fall isn’t happening either. So figure out how to make the best of it because that’s what you got. Figure out what wasn’t going to make a ton of money theatrically and start putting it out on VOD. Some things you can do weird drive-in releases or road shows. Start being creative and looking for other ways to make some money, because you’re not going to with movie theaters.”

A Summer Without Movie Theaters Is Inevitable