Finally, there’s some good news for Hollywood: Yesterday, Warner Bros. announced that Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated action thriller, Tenet, will debut next month following multiple delays. As the pandemic has shut down cinemas across the globe, Tenet has been widely regarded as the film that could revive a depressed theater industry, and now it has its chance. Starting August 26, the movie will screen in more than 70 countries, including South Korea, Australia, Canada, and much of Europe. But not the United States. Instead, Tenet will arrive in “select” American cities two weeks later, in time for Labor Day—and given the country’s ever-growing coronavirus caseload, that “select” list is likely to be very, very short.
A $205 million globe-trotting production whose plot has been kept secret, Tenet was given a July 17, 2020, release date before it even had a title. Like other major studios forced to change their blockbuster-release schedule, Warner Bros. tried to nudge Tenet down the calendar by two weeks at a time, in case the COVID-19 situation in the U.S. improved and theaters could reopen. With its latest Tenet announcement, Warner Bros. finally acknowledged reality: The U.S. is simply not ready for big films to return, and the country has lost its position as the most important movie market in the world.
Back in the spring, it still seemed somewhat plausible that by July or August, Americans might be able to safely return to theaters, albeit in reduced numbers and while wearing masks. That’s what’s happening in China right now, where cinemas in low-risk areas (about 40 percent of the country’s total screens) have resumed operations. There have been heartening signs of consumer demand so far—even warmed-over Hollywood offerings from earlier in the year, such as Dolittle and Bloodshot, made millions last weekend. South Korea, Germany, France, and Australia are also selling hundreds of thousands of movie tickets every weekend, with cinemas operating at similarly limited capacities.
Premiering a film like Tenet only overseas is virtually unprecedented in the internet era, in which it’s common for big movies to launch simultaneously around the world, if not in the U.S. first. With Nolan’s film debuting abroad, it will be hard for Warner Bros. to prevent pirated copies from making their way online, and essentially impossible to stop details about the movie’s secret plot from being revealed to anyone doing a quick Google search.
Unfortunately, Americans are likely months away from their own theaters reopening under similar circumstances as the countries where Tenet is premiering. As of this writing, China has reported 231 new cases over the past seven days, and South Korea 404; the United States reported 463,109. Though the country’s biggest theater chain, AMC, says it wants to open venues in mid- to late August, it’s not certain that the biggest markets, New York and Los Angeles, will even permit such a thing. Where exactly the movie could screen in the U.S. come Labor Day weekend is unclear.
The state of movie theaters in the U.S. remains dire. Currently, about 250 American cinemas are reporting box-office totals every weekend, many of them drive-ins; almost all the new movies released theatrically this summer have been low-budget efforts. If Tenet sticks to its August 26 release date, it’d be a huge test for Hollywood. Many critics see the movie as cinema’s potential savior—an original, big-screen blockbuster that could compel anxious audiences to pay money to sit in an enclosed room with a bunch of strangers. AMC has said that it plans to spool up operations a few weeks before Tenet’s release, to get staff and audiences acclimated to socially distanced theaters.
Tenet’s rollout will be closely watched by other studios that are mulling what to do with their own blockbusters. Disney’s remake of Mulan has been pulled indefinitely until theaters reopen widely, although that studio could follow Tenet’s lead if things progress safely. Every other major film planned for this summer has been pushed, including Wonder Woman 1984 (to October), Pixar’s Soul and Marvel’s Black Widow (both to November), the latest Fast & Furious (to April 2021), the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical In the Heights (to June 2021), Disney’s Jungle Cruise (to July 2021), and many more. Meanwhile, some smaller films have had their theatrical plans abandoned entirely.
But Tenet is quite intentionally being positioned by its studio as the hinge point, the beginning of a return to normalcy. If the film opens internationally and makes real money, expect more studios to follow suit and bypass America until U.S. caseloads have dropped. The cinema industry has waited as patiently as it could for its flagship market to get its coronavirus spread under control; instead, things have only gotten worse. Just as the American passport has lost its luster around the world this year, so too has the American movie theater.