box office

The Problem With Calling Tenet a Flop

In the midst of a pandemic, nobody wants to use the F word. Yet Christopher Nolan’s movie is coming to be viewed as a theatrical misfire nonetheless. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.

Over the three brief weeks Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has been playing in U.S. theaters, the film’s financial performance has been the subject of nearly as much confusion as its “closed-loop” entropy plot. Rolled out Stateside around Labor Day, a week after debuting in dozens of foreign territories in an experimental reversal of the tried-and-true Hollywood blockbuster release formula, the espionage thriller took in $20.2 million over its first four days in North American theaters — a mere $9.4 million in the U.S. if you subtract Canadian grosses, it was later revealed.

Tenet’s distributor, Warner Bros., has remained confoundingly opaque about the film’s ticket-sales figures. The company initially refused to break down the numbers day by day and territory by territory (as is long-standing industry tradition), instead lumping in the Canadian haul with domestic numbers and infuriating box-office analysts and competing studios. Even under pandemic circumstances — in an era when movie theaters are governed by strict social-distancing rules that limit capacity and opening-weekend box-office tallies can no longer provide a reliable indication of a movie’s commercial viability — the prestige title long hailed by fans and theater chains as cinema’s great post-lockdown savior is facing an even more vexing set of questions: Is Tenet flopping? And if so, what does this mean for the industry? Particularly at a time when studios are kicking an increasing number of blockbusters down the release corridor, or testing the waters of premium video on demand à la Disney with Mulan.

“This is not how Warner Bros. expected it to go even in their worst-case scenario,” says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “They are not happy with these numbers. I’ve never seen a studio hide anything unless they’re disappointed. If you have something to crow about, they’ll let the world know.”

While Tenet’s worldwide ticket sales surpassed $251 million over the weekend, a black-and-white read of whether the studio gambled correctly by keeping the $200 million title on the 2020 release calendar remains difficult to quantify. With no significant competition from similarly scaled event films until November (when Marvel’s Black Widow and the 25th James Bond installment No Time to Die are slated for release), Warner Bros. has drilled down on the message that it’s “running a marathon, not a sprint,” monopolizing a majority of multiplex screens as hundreds of theaters across the country emerge from quarantine restrictions. Indeed, Tenet earned $4.7 million domestically over its third weekend, bringing the North American gross to $36.1 million — a not-disastrous outcome all things considered, but one inching rather than hurtling toward the movie’s conservatively estimated $400 million break-even point.

A box-office flop is typically defined as a highly anticipated studio film that is significantly unprofitable over the span of its theatrical run, but any movie whose combined revenue fails to exceed its production and marketing costs can be considered a bomb. According to industry insiders and analysts, however, there are two metrics of success more telling than simple dollar amounts in these highly unusual times: the film’s financial performance vis-à-vis a contemporaneous title like that of the X-Men spinoff The New Mutants (which premiered on August 28 in the U.S.) and Warner Bros.’ decision to maintain or reshuffle its release calendar in the immediate wake of Tenet’s American debut.

On September 9 — not even a full week after the Nolan sci-fi epic touched down in America — the studio pushed Wonder Woman 1984 from its October 2 release date, redating the sequel to director Patti Jenkins’s $821.8 million-grossing smash for a Christmastime drop. That would put WW84 in direct competition with another Warner Bros. title, the sci-fi epic Dune, which is currently scheduled for roll out December 18 (although nobody possessing even a remote familiarity with Hollywood’s inner workings expects it to stick with that date). According to a top executive at another studio, if Tenet were doing boffo box-office returns, Warner Bros. would have little incentive to alter the period-set superhero caper’s distribution plan — a viewpoint that Bock seconds. “They didn’t even wait until weekend two numbers to push Wonder Woman ‘84 back to December,” he says. “This isn’t a marathon. This is a ‘grab your guns and get out of town as quickly as possible’ scenario.”

For its part, New Mutants arrived in theaters as the latest superhero movie to be based on a Marvel comic-book property and one of first big films to open after widespread theater closures. Despite almost uniformly negative reviews — the New York Times described the film as “all build up and no bang,” the London Evening Standard called it “an unholy mess” — the PG-13 horror-hybrid took in $7 million in the U.S. over its opening weekend in what was regarded, with a kind of industrywide shrug, as a lackluster debut. To put that dollar amount in perspective, though, Tenet only earned $2.4 million more over the same period, never mind that the Nolan title debuted in 2,810 locations and New Mutants played in just 2,412.

Further eroding the narrative of Tenet as cinema’s great post-lockdown savior: The film’s domestic box-office returns dropped 66.8 percent — by more than two-thirds — in its second week after release, and another 29.9 percent in its third, raising significant questions about the kind of long-term “playability” Warner Bros. had been hoping for in the absence of competing blockbusters. Internationally, the film has continued to slide by double digits week by week, dropping by 35 percent in 54 overseas markets last weekend. Tenet could feasibly remain in theaters for longer than the traditional window (70 days) and continue to experience small returns until the end of the year, when a potential shift to HBO Max could be on the table. But, barring any hugely successful rerelease scheme, the pace at which the film performing doesn’t bode well for its future.

Tenet still stands in stark contrast to the slow-burn success of Fox’s The Greatest Showman, which — in non-pandemic times — initially tanked but stayed in theaters and sustained audiences for months after its 2017 release to earn $435.1 million globally. (Then again, Tenet is hoping to eventually do better than a movie like 2015’s Jupiter Ascending, classically accepted as a flop when you weigh its $184 million global returns against its approximately $200 million budget.) The obvious Tenet takeaway, according to the veteran entertainment operatives and studio executives who spoke to Vulture on condition of anonymity due to ongoing business sensitivities, may simply be that COVID-wary audiences are still overwhelmingly skittish about returning to theaters.

Even in more typical Hollywood conditions, singular movie hits and misses tend to send corrective ripples across the industry; this dynamic is only amplified in the shadow of pandemic uncertainty. Tenet’s soft box-office performance seems to have triggered a cascade of movie postponements across studios toward a time when many hope a COVID-19 vaccine will be readily available. On September 11, Universal pushed the Jordan Peele–produced supernatural horror flick Candyman from its October 16 date (the movie does not currently have a new release frame). Three days later, STX punted its end-of-days disaster thriller Greenland from September 25 to some point later this year. And since the middle of the month, rumors have swirled that Disney will likely shove Marvel Studios’ Black Widow from its November 6 rollout, and is reportedly exploring options to release the Pixar animated romp Soul, currently bound for theaters on November 20, via Disney+.

(Smaller 2020 titles seem less prone to delay. In fact, the lack of titles flooding theaters has been seen by some distributors as incentive. For example, the Freestyle Releasing romantic-drama 2 Hearts remains headed for multiplexes October 16. “We know this is a challenging time for our friends in the exhibition community, and they need great movies now more than ever to offer their customers,” the film’s director Lance Hool says in an email to Vulture. “Because of the pandemic, 2 Hearts has a unique opportunity to play with very little competition as one of the few films in theaters this fall.”)

A Vulture source points out that even if Tenet winds up earning $200 million less at the box office as a result of sticking to its original no-PVOD plan, Warner Bros. will ultimately defray those costs in years to come by preserving its relationship with multibillion-dollar director Nolan (who, according to just about every insider account, agitated strenuously for his movie to come out only in theaters and as close to its original July drop date as possible) and the massive receipts that are likely to accompany his movies in years to come. But, overall, it can be agreed the British director’s palindromic thriller is gradually coming to be viewed as a theatrical launch failure — certainly not a flop in traditional terms, but no doubt a studio example of what not to do in pandemic circumstances with your biggest IP.

As for what counts as a successful pandemic premiere, it’s tough to count Mulan’s premium video-on-demand bow as a preferable alternative scheme. Earlier this month, Disney made the unheralded decision to skip theaters and release the $200 million live-action period epic straight to its proprietary OTT service for a $29.99 fee (but only in countries including the U.S. and New Zealand where Disney+ is fully functional). At a time when more than a third of American theaters were still off-limits and multiplex operations in major markets including New York and Los Angeles still have yet to restart as a result of curve-flattening ordinances, the studio reasoned that the excitement of releasing an event movie with a nine-figure budget online would trigger a spike in Disney+ subscriptions.

But on the heels of Mulan’s rollout on September 4, the studio refused to publicize data regarding the number of rentals or new subscriptions it brought in save for chief financial officer Christine McCarthy’s oblique remarks on an investor call: “We are very pleased with what we saw over the four-day weekend — I’ll leave it at that.”

According to industry estimates, Disney+ logged somewhere between 1 million and 1.3 million Mulan rentals over Labor Day weekend for a total gross of between $30 million and $40 million — not quite in the ballpark of what a global theatrical bow would have brought in but solid for an experimental release gambit. But, more tellingly, data from the streaming platform analytics firm Antenna reveal that two-thirds of those Mulan purchases came from users who began subscribing to Disney+ in 2019, and that Mulan’s opening-weekend sign-ups accounted for a mere 4 percent of the film’s rentals. By contrast, over the weekend the studio released its filmed version of the Broadway smash musical Hamilton on the OTT service. New subscriptions soared by 650 percent.

“Our data suggests that Mulan did not drive a meaningful number of new sign-ups for Disney+ — that’s a very important takeaway,” says Rameez Tase, Antenna’s co-founder and chief executive. “From a pure purchase standpoint, it did not break even on the cost of production, [and] it’s unlikely to clear the [return-on-investment] bar. However, the world is in a pretty unique place so I don’t know if that was ever possible.”

The Problem With Calling Tenet a Flop