On the heels of months of repeated delays, untold Hollywood hand-wringing, and a Hail Mary foreign-first release scheme, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet finally made its way into domestic theatrical circulation over Labor Day weekend and did … resoundingly okay at the box office. The sci-fi “locked puzzle box with nothing inside” took in $20.2 million over its first four days in theaters (including preview screenings in both the U.S. and Canada) to deliver the highest-grossing domestic open since mid-March when multiplexes shuttered due to COVID-19 concerns.
That number, unsurprisingly, arrives as the weakest opening for a Nolan title since 2006’s The Prestige and falls well short of the $50 millionish debut a movie like Tenet — which reportedly cost $200 million to produce and around that much to globally promote — would hope to earn under ordinary circumstances. But as the first megabudget post-lockdown event movie, a kind of box-office defibrillator after nearly half a year of moribund ticket sales, the defiantly befuddling espionage caper seems to have provided something of a public service.
Arriving in 2,800 locations across North America when nearly one-third of domestic cinemas remain closed and theater operations in key markets — including Los Angeles and New York — are still suspended, Tenet actually put butts in seats to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that audience appetite for theatrical moviegoing remains significant even as the death toll due to the novel coronavirus in the United States edges ever closer to 200,000. “This is a success just for the film to be playing,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for Boxoffice Pro. “Just for theaters to be open and for a film to make $20 million in the U.S. is something no other film has done for six months.”
Experimentally dispensing with Hollywood’s prescribed methodology for blockbuster marketing and distribution at a time when most major studios canceled, postponed, or sent their biggest releases packing for premium video on demand (Mulan, we are talking about you), Tenet’s distributor Warner Bros. rolled out the Robert Pattinson–John David Washington espionage bromance in 41 countries — including Australia, Korea, and Spain on August 26 — where it took in a surprisingly robust $53 million over its opening five days. That foreign gross rose to $126 million over Labor Day weekend, including $30 million over its first three days in China alone, to a $146.2 million cumulative haul.
Bucking the typical tentpole release pattern — in which a high-stakes film would expect to harvest the majority of its gross during opening weekend then recede quickly from theaters, facing stiff competition from other blockbusters — Tenet is scheduled to remain at the multiplex virtually unchallenged by other megabudget event movies like No Time to Die, Black Widow, and Wonder Woman 1984 until later in the fall. But Tenet’s break-even number is unusually steep. Most industry analysts say the extravagantly besuited spy thriller needs to earn an eye-watering $500 million to turn a profit.
As Robbins points out, though, Nolan’s most dedicated moviegoing constituency resides in this country’s cities and suburbs — the sort of locations that remain offline for the time being but whose theatrical outages are expected to be restored in the coming weeks. And the box-office track record of the director’s post-Dark Knight movies suggests that Tenet would have probably had a longer-than-usual theatrical tenancy even without COVID-19 running interference on the competition. “Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk, those all had really long runs,” Robbins says. “Those films were in theaters for close to four months — Interstellar and Inception longer than that. If the assumption is that Nolan’s films are leggy under normal circumstances, the question is, how long can this movie stick around when it’s the complete opposite of normal?”