The movie industry is holding its breath at the moment, waiting for a headline that seems more and more inevitable: Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, intended to be the ceremonial reopening of the American film and theater industry, is most likely going to be pushed back.
Warner Bros., the film’s distributor, is setting up expectations that the theater industry must hit in order to stick with Tenet’s scheduled July 17 release, and those expectations seem infeasible at best. According to Deadline, Warner Bros. wants to see no less than 80% of ALL WORLD THEATERS open and operating by that release date, including theaters in metropolises such as New York, L.A. and Chicago. And that’s asking a whole lot of the theater industry, which has made no promises to be widely open and operational by the point. Indeed, it may not be up to the theater chains at all, many of which are at the mercy of state or city requirements to remain closed. A city like Los Angeles, for instance, may not even have lifted its shelter-in-place order by the time July 17 comes around, which would render theater openings quite impossible.
And even if enough theaters DO open by that point, will audiences really feel safe cramming themselves into a packed theater in order to see a new film? One has to imagine that the reticence of at least a large percentage of consumers to expose themselves to additional danger would make for low levels of attendance, even if the theaters were open.
You can see why Warner Bros. would be especially concerned about Tenet, especially with a budget that was reportedly more than $200 million. Even if we weren’t in a global pandemic, this film might have struggled to turn a profit regardless of its quality. It’s not based on an existing, well-known IP; it has a very high budget and few recognizable stars; and director Nolan reportedly has a deal in place for a 20% cut of all its first-dollar grosses. That all equals up to Tenet needing to make monstrous amounts of money at the box office, and the film hasn’t even had a proper advertising campaign yet to reach rank-and-file audience members. As it stands right now, the people excited about Tenet are solely the film geeks in the audience, those of us who have followed the career of Christopher Nolan for years. The film has drawn favorable comparison to the likes of Inception already, but that’s not much compared to having something like “Batman” in the title.
Thus, Deadline reports that Tenet would reportedly need a domestic release in at least 3,500 theaters, and more than 30,000 screens worldwide to hope to make the kind of money it needs to make, and that seems blatantly impossible by July 17. One has to assume that Warner Bros. is already aware of this, but hesitant to make the announcement official, for fear of further deflating the film industry.
If the film is delayed, Deadline reports it would swap into the Wonder Woman 1984 date of Aug. 14, 2020, but would that additional month even be enough to get theater numbers to where they need to be? And will any marketing campaign for Tenet be able to generate enough excitement to make people put their own safety at risk? The future for this film looks anything but certain.