How Tenet Ended Hollywood’s 2020 Movie Hopes

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Hollywood was hoping Christopher Nolan and Tenet could save the movie industry in 2020, but following the film’s poor box office performance, those hopes have been dashed. The movie industry, like so many others during the COVID-19 pandemic, is in trouble. Theaters have been forced to close their doors while studios scramble to cope with shooting delays and compromised release schedules. During this truly unprecedented time, both studios and theaters put their faith in Christopher Nolan to usher in a return to some sort of stability and prove there was still demand for the movie-going experience.

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Together, Nolan and his sci-fi epic Tenet seemed like a reasonable savior for the industry. Arguably the most celebrated director of the 2010s, Nolan has consistently proven his ability to bring audiences into the multiplex, especially with big-budget sci-fi action. If anything was going to bring viewers out again, it was Tenet, with its time-travelling and inversion-focused storyline. Warner Bros. was taking a big risk by releasing their tentpole in such uncertain times, but obviously had enough faith in the project and the buzz it was generating to push ahead – much to the delight of other studios who were watching keenly to see if they, too, could proceed with their big-budget releases.

Related: Tenet Box Office Performance Explained: Is It A Failure?

Unfortunately, despite the spin WB tried to put on Tenet‘s box office figures, the $200-million movie did not fare well. It was hoped the film would prove there was still life in the domestic movie industry, but despite fairly strong international earnings, Tenet‘s truly underwhelming US box office performance has seemingly proven the opposite. In other words, the second half of 2020 is looking as bleak as the first, at least in terms of movie releases.

Hollywood Planned To Release Movies In The Summer

Mulan being a warrior in the 2020 live-action version of "Mulan."

Even more than studios, movie theaters have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic – being forced to close down for months when the crisis became increasingly serious. But theater chains, like the studios, remained hopeful that crowds would soon return, and were eagerly anticipating the moment they could reopen their doors. AMC, which shuttered its theaters back in March, was keen to return to business after reporting a loss of $2.17 billion in the first quarter of 2020. At the same, the chain announced it would be reopening its locations in June, ready for the July launches of Disney’s Mulan and, of course, Tenet. In fact, 44 out of 50 states allowed movie theaters to reopen for two of the most anticipated releases of the year.

While the pandemic had dealt a huge blow to the industry, Hollywood was clearly eyeing the summer to get things back on track. There had been talk of both Tenet and Mulan being delayed, but Disney pushed ahead with Mulan‘s September 4 launch – also offering its live-action reboot through its Disney+ streaming service for a premium price. Warner, meanwhile, remained wedded to releasing Tenet solely in theaters on September 3 – a move the other major studios were naturally watching closely.

Tenet’s Box Office Proved People Weren’t Going To Theaters Yet

John David Washington Tenet Protagonist

Prior to Tenet‘s debut, it remained unclear just what a successful launch would look like in the existing climate. With Warner seemingly relying on a lack of competition at the box office to boost ticket sales, analysts remained split on projections. Sneak previews for the film ran from August 31 to September 2, before the movie officially opened on September 3. Unfortunately, the bold venture didn’t pay off. WB reported Tenet as taking in $20.2 million domestically in its opening weekend, but included revenue from the aforementioned previews and even the Canadian release, making the actual figure closer to $10 million. In comparison, Nolan’s last mind-bending sci-fi outing, Inception, took $62.8 million on its opening weekend. Of course it’s unfair to compare the two movies considering the circumstances, but pandemic aside, Tenet still cost $200 million to make. Whichever way the $20.2/$10 million figure is spun – and Warner certainly tried to spin it – that’s a seriously underwhelming performance, especially considering it’s estimated Tenet will have to bring in between $400 and $500 million just to break even.

Related: Tenet Ending Explained: All Questions Answered 

After its disappointing opening weekend figures, US box office predictions for Tenet dropped below $10 million for its second weekend. Those predictions turned out to be right, with Nolan’s ambitious blockbuster bringing in just $6.7 million – a 66.8% drop from the $20.2 million the movie made on its opening weekend. Warner publicized the $6.7 million figure as just a 29% drop from its first weekend, but that’s based on the more modest (and arguably more accurate) first-weekend figure of $9.4 million. Either way, it means that in total, Tenet has grossed less than $30 million in the US in just over two weeks – admittedly with top-grossing theaters still closed in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. That doesn’t bode well for US movie theaters, which according to IndieWire took around $5,000 per location on Tenet‘s second weekend – not even enough to cover operating expenses. In that sense, far from helping revive the movie theater industry, Tenet arguably helped bury it a little deeper.

Internationally, Tenet has fared relatively well, making more than $207 million globally. But there’s no doubt the US is one of the film industry’s biggest markets, and the figures Tenet is bringing in show the public simply isn’t prepared to return to the movie theater yet. There’s still hope for Tenet if Warner can continue to bring in audiences around the world, and keep the movie in theaters as one of the only options for those that do venture out. But overall, the film’s box office performance isn’t a good sign – and Hollywood has reacted accordingly.

Hollywood’s Reaction To Tenet’s Box Office Performance

Robert Pattinson in Tenet

With the release of Tenet, it was suggested there would be a sure-fire way to tell if the studio considered Nolan’s latest offering a real success: namely, if they moved Wonder Woman 1984‘s release date. And that’s exactly what’s happened. Seemingly spooked by Tenet‘s underperforming, Warner has now moved its other major Summer release from its planned August launch to Christmas. The decision may partly come down to the fact the studio – which has steadfastly avoided the VOD option for Tenet – will likely keep Nolan’s movie in theaters for as long as it can in order to maximize ticket sales, and doesn’t want any competition, even from its own titles. But there’s no doubt the Tenet experiment has been an eye-opening experience for Hollywood.

It’s not just Warner delaying big-budget movies in the wake of Tenet. Universal, seemingly motivated by Warner’s  domestic struggles, has delayed its Candyman reboot, originally set for an October 2020 release, to 2021. Elsewhere, Sony Chairman Tony Vinciquerra confirmed his studio won’t be launching any $200 million films during the pandemic – or at least until theaters are “operating at significant capacity”. And even small studios are heeding Tenet‘s warning, with STXfilms delaying the Gerard Butler-led Greenland, which was planned for a September 25 release in the US, to some time in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Paramount had already taken pre-emptive action back in June by moving Top Gun: Maverick‘s planned December release date back to 2021.

Related: Why We’re Not Reviewing Tenet’s Theatrical Release

What The Rest Of 2020 Looks Like For Hollywood

Wonder Woman 1984

As it stands, the only other major releases on the 2020 calendar, Marvel’s Black Widow and No Time To Die – both due in November – haven’t had their release dates changed. But it’s reasonable to assume they will. There are already rumors Marvel is considering delaying Black Widow and MGM will likely want to avoid an underwhelming performance for Daniel Craig’s final turn as Bond. As such, delaying would be a smart move on behalf of the studios. Tenet‘s release, though far from an unmitigated disaster, has clearly demonstrated that this simply isn’t the time to release big-budget films. Meanwhile, Warner will have to consider whether it sticks to its planned December 18 release date for Dune – another $200 million tentpole that remains a huge box office risk regardless of coronavirus woes.

While there’s a contingent of public that will still show up for movies, and the opening of theaters in the major cities could still provide a boon to Tenet‘s domestic earnings, these expensive movies are simply very unlikely to even recoup their budget, let alone make a profit in the current climate. All of this is happening within the larger framework of major challenges facing movie theaters. Already under pressure prior to the pandemic, theaters will now have to struggle through weekend after weekend operating at a loss, making it a real likelihood that some will consider shuttering until this crisis is over – or at least until the holiday season. Far from just seeing a scarcity of films, the rest of 2020 could very well see no big-budget theatrical releases whatsoever. Even if studios wanted to push ahead with planned tentpoles, there’s a chance there might not be any theaters in which to pitch them.

Next: Tenet Ending Explained: All Questions Answered

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