box office

Lots of People Actually Braved the Coronavirus to See Tenet in Theaters

Photo: Warner Bros.

Much like the time-warp bullets issuing backward into the gun of the Protagonist (John David Washington), Tenet seems to exist in some kind of future world, where audiences — well, at least international ones — are still open to seeing big-budget tentpole titles in theaters. Over its opening five days in release, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi espionage caper hauled in a surprisingly strong $53 million in 41 foreign markets, including Korea, Germany, and Canada, ahead of the $200 million Warner Bros. film’s scheduled arrival in U.S. theaters on September 3. Those box-office grosses seem to justify the studio’s experimental foreign-first release scheme while emphatically demonstrating a continued audience appetite for the communal filmgoing experience, even at a time when a second wave of the coronavirus has rippled across parts of Asia and Europe.

“Considering the truncated, limited marketplace, $53 million is really a spectacular result,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. “The idea of going to see a brand-new Christopher Nolan movie has received quite an enthusiastic response from moviegoers. These numbers really validate [Warner Bros.’] strategy and tell us that despite the ubiquity of streaming content, people are really excited to go back to the movie theater.”

Although first-weekend tallies are no longer viewed as the most reliable metric of a film’s overall commerciality, Tenet’s debut beat its prerelease financial estimates by a wide margin and sparked joy around Hollywood as a harbinger of American ticket tearing to come (following closely on the heels of 2020’s Summer of No Blockbusters). With no other mega-budget event films dated for arrival at the multiplex until further into the fall, studio executives are banking on a longer-than-normal theatrical run for Tenet, rather than the kind of front-loaded opening-weekend spike that would have dictated a hit in non-pandemic times. “Given the unprecedented circumstances of this global release, we know we’re running a marathon, not a sprint, and look forward to long playability for this film globally for many weeks to come,” Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich said Sunday.

Such signs of box-office life — especially coming from the Chosen Blockbuster™, a prestige popcorn title hungrily anticipated to become moviegoing’s great post-lockdown savior — couldn’t come at a better time for the beleaguered exhibition community. The country’s biggest theater chains (AMC, Cinemark, and Regal Cinemas) all teetered perilously close to bankruptcy after widespread curve-flattening closures earlier this year. And until the arrival of such titles as The New Mutants and Unhinged in the past couple of weeks, the chains’ remaining theaters in operation had been relying upon older movies and catalogue titles to keep their popcorn machines churning.

Mooky Greidinger is the chief executive of Cineworld, the U.K.-based corporate parent of Regal Cinemas, which operates 9,500 screens in 11 countries. Even with the company’s U.S. theaters operating at limited capacity in adherence to new epidemiologist-developed safety protocols, Greidinger thinks Nolan’s multidimensional mystery-thriller could still hit big. “We are giving Tenet more auditoriums within our theaters to accommodate for social-distancing measures, which will hopefully allow the film to reach the same box-office numbers it would under normal conditions,” he told Vulture via email.

He added, “This film is the perfect kickoff to what is looking to be an incredible rest of the year for film, with Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow, No Time to Die, Soul, and many more currently slated for 2020 release.”

Heading into Tenet’s American release frame over Labor Day weekend, the Nolan thriller stands to benefit from trailblazing efforts by such newly theatrically available films as Bill & Ted Face the Music and The New Mutants, which, despite withering reviews, earned a surprisingly robust $7 million over its opening weekend. “All these new movies coming out right now are building blocks in getting the movie theaters back online and getting people safely and securely back into the moviegoing habit,” Dergarabedian says. “As more and more theaters open, the release plan for Tenet is really going to pay off in North America. It’s just been a buildup like no other, born out of the pandemic situation. The movie has been so talked about, even those who aren’t necessarily movie fans know Tenet is out there right now. That portends good things.”

Lots of People Braved Coronavirus to See Tenet in Theaters