Hollywood’s Tenet Experiment Failed

Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster was supposed to save U.S. theaters. Now the future looks bleaker than ever.

A billboard, showing the actor John David Washington, next to palm trees and against a blue sky

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was supposed to be a boon for movie theaters, a light in the darkness after the coronavirus pandemic shut down cinemas for months. Here was an original film from a beloved director, one of the biggest titles of our postponed summer-movie season—surely this would be enough to lure people back to the big screen. Around the world, that’s proven largely true: Over three weeks, Tenet has made more than $207 million globally, a healthy number given the circumstances. But in the United States, the Warner Bros. film has grossed less than $30 million since August 31—a number so low that it’s scaring other major movies off the release schedule. Now the question isn’t whether theaters can return to normalcy, but whether they can survive this pandemic at all.

Tenet’s lackluster overall performance has started a domino effect. Wonder Woman 1984, a much-anticipated superhero sequel, bumped its release date from October 2 to Christmas, a clear sign that its studio, Warner Bros., was shaken by Tenet’s underwhelming box-office receipts. Universal’s buzzy horror remake Candyman was also delayed—until sometime in 2021. October is now devoid of tentpole releases, and November has only two: Marvel’s Black Widow (set for November 6) and the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die (November 20). Assuming those dates hold—and they may very well not—U.S. cinemas now have two months to keep their doors open with Tenet as the only blockbuster on offer.

When Warner Bros. announced its final plans for Tenet in July, I wrote that Hollywood was prioritizing worldwide grosses and treating American viewers as an afterthought. After all, many theater chains across the U.S. remained closed, as they had since March. But most states jumped at the promise that Tenet symbolized, and 44 out of 50 allowed their cinemas to resume operations, albeit with capacity restrictions. Against all odds, Tenet got a wide U.S. release, showing in nearly 3,000 theaters this past weekend. Yes, cinemas in major markets such as New York and Los Angeles remained closed, but after Tenet made a reported $20 million two weekends ago, the hope was that it’d post a similar number last week—a sign that audiences were returning to the movies en masse.

Instead, it seems Tenet has only been enough to attract die-hard film fans—people like myself who were happy to rent a whole theater to themselves just to enjoy a movie again. The shiny $20 million number that Warner Bros. reported for Tenet’s opening Labor Day weekend turns out to have been a heavily padded figure. The film actually made just $9.4 million over the three-day weekend; the rest of the grosses came from early preview screenings and sales in Canada. In its second weekend, Tenet made just $6.7 million. Normally, a drop of only 29 percent would be regarded by studios as a sign of excellent word of mouth. But Tenet cost $200 million to make and needs to gross more than double that to break even; Warner Bros. might be able to eke that number out worldwide over the next few months, but very little of it will come from the U.S.

Tenet was the cinema industry’s guinea pig—a way for studios to gauge audience willingness to return to theaters in every country amid a pandemic. The reality is that most of the world has handled the coronavirus far better than America has: China averaged 26 daily cases over the past two weeks, Japan 543, and Canada 681. Given that Hollywood can no longer count on one of its biggest markets—the U.S.—it’s hard to know what course studios should chart next. Releasing movies on demand, even at a marquee price, to try to recoup costs isn’t workable for a film as expensive as Tenet or Wonder Woman 1984. Disney recently attempted a hybrid approach for Mulan, putting it in theaters internationally while charging Disney+ subscribers $30 to watch it at home. Its opening in China was underwhelming ($23 million), and although Disney hasn’t provided official data on streaming grosses, industry estimates have them pegged at around $33 million over Labor Day—not nearly enough for a movie budgeted at $200 million.

If things were already looking bleak for American cinemas, the immediate future now looks catastrophic. This past weekend, the total domestic box office was less than $15 million—Indiewire estimates that sum amounts to $5,000 per theater, which isn’t enough to pay for basic operating costs. As studios grow more skittish about releasing major films, those numbers will only dwindle. Tenet was supposed to be the industry’s lifeline; for now, Hollywood has nothing else to pin its hopes on.