Tenet Failed to Save the Box Office, Now What?

Tenet recently arrived in theaters offering a possible lifeline to the movie industry after months of a near-total shut down of movie theaters in the U.S., as well as throughout much of the world. Unfortunately, things haven’t panned out to the degree that Warner Bros. and theater owners probably would have liked. While Christopher Nolan’s latest has earned the heftiest box office total we’ve seen in months, the movie has failed to save the industry and live up to the lofty expectations that were placed upon it. Now comes a simple yet difficult question to answer; what happens now?

As anyone who enjoys movies is surely aware, theaters were shut down in mid-March in the U.S. in the interest of public health. That led to most big movies that were on deck for 2020 to either shift to much later in the year, or move to potentially greener pastures in 2021. Yet, Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan seemed adamant in keeping Tenet in 2020, reluctant to even move it from its original release date at first. Nolan is big on the theatrical experience and this was never going to be a direct-to-streaming option. Instead, Nolan hoped his latest time-bending thriller could be the first glimmer of hope that would help get movie theaters back on their feet. That’s not exactly how things have panned out thus far.

RELATED: Tenet Rises to $200M+ Globally Despite Sluggish U.S. Box Office Numbers

With what the movie brought in over the weekend, Tenet, as of this writing, has earned $207 million globally, including $29.5 million at the domestic box office. Again, that is far and away the most we’ve seen any movie bring in since late February/early March. That having been said, there are some huge caveats. Tenet carries with it a $200 million budget. Warner Bros. also has to pay to market it around the world, which is tremendously expensive. Not only that, but Christopher Nolan has a unique deal worked out that sees him taking home a huge chunk of the box office earnings. Point being, the movie is nowhere near turning a profit and, what’s more, these are not the kind of numbers that theaters are used to seeing for big, event blockbusters such as this.

Case in point, Sony’s Broken Hearts Gallery also opened last weekend and brought in just over $1 million. Though not a blockbuster, a movie produced by Selena Gomez, in more typical times, undoubtedly would have performed far better. Even as theaters have started to open, it’s clear that moviegoers don’t feel the need to rush out and see what is being offered right away. The hope was that Tenet would become that first must-see movie. Disney, for what it’s worth, also released The New Mutants at the end of August. However, the Marvel flick didn’t have much in the way of financial expectations placed on it, as it had been delayed for years and, to date, it has earned just shy of $30 million worldwide. But it is still a Marvel comic book movie and adds a bit to the case that “big” movies aren’t going to make what they need to make in the current marketplace.

So, we’re back to the question, now what happens? What are studios going to do with the growing number of blockbusters they have collecting dust? What are movie theaters going to do if studios keep delaying major releases, leaving them with nothing to show? At least nothing that can drive major traffic, that is. Unfortunately, for the time being, there are no easy answers. Though there are some indications as to what isn’t going to happen.

Warner Bros., for better or for worse, chose to bite the bullet, making Tenet the canary in the coal mine, as it were. Some studio was always going to have to be the first one out of the gate and risk releasing a blockbuster in unprecedented times. But the experiment is over and, no matter how Warner Bros. wants to spin it, this was not a success. That being the case, they are not going to risk taking a loss on another major blockbuster, such as Wonder Woman 1984, which has already been delayed yet again to Christmas. Will things truly be different a few months from now? It seems unlikely but that appears to be the hope for the time being. This to say, expect more delays. Don’t expect another big, expensive movie to hit theaters any time in the immediate future.

Sony has already made it clear that they aren’t going to risk releasing any big movies until things return to normal. Or at least closer to it. The fact of the matter is, whatever emerges on the other side of this for the movie industry, on all fronts, will be a new normal. More VOD offerings. More non-franchise fare heading to streaming services. Only surefire moneymakers getting wide theatrical releases, in whatever theaters manage to make it through this.

To that point, it is hard to know how many theater chains will be able to weather the storm. AMC has been on the verge of bankruptcy for months. All major theater chains that have reopened are operating at reduced capacity. Don’t be surprised if one or more of the major chains declares bankruptcy or, perhaps worse, goes under entirely if this rages on much longer. As we’re seeing with the Tenet numbers, there is no reason to believe we’re anywhere near normal yet.

On the flipside of Tenet, Disney recently released Mulan in certain international markets while offering it to Disney+ subscribers for $30. It remains unclear how well that panned out for Disney but Trolls World Tour seemed to do well on premium VOD for Universal Pictures earlier in the year. Expect to see more VOD and streaming releases, perhaps with experimental strategies. Studios, like theaters, need revenue coming in and they will need to get creative to make that happen.

Perhaps a bright spot for those who enjoy a safe theatrical experience is drive-ins. Even as traditional movie theaters have resumed operations, drive-ins have continued to thrive. These relics of the past were all but extinct just six months ago. Now? They are a safe haven for moviegoers and have helped prop up the box office even when most theaters were closed. Expect to see drive-ins remain a big part of the equation for the foreseeable future.

Another thing to expect is a lack of transparency with box office earnings from movies that are released. Multiple reports have confirmed that Warner Bros. isn’t providing the usual level of insight on Tenet‘s earnings and they are not sharing data with rival studios. Other studios may well follow in their footsteps and box office reporting as we know it may change, at least for a while. That could leave lingering questions regarding the financial success or failure of other big movies coming down the pipeline.

So, the simple answer to the question of what now? It is back to the drawing board. Black Widow, Dune and what few big movies are left on the 2020 calendar are probably moving to 2021. This year is a wash. All the industry and movie fans alike can hope for is a vaccine, sooner rather than later, that will allow normalcy, or something like it, back into our lives. Until then, traditional releases and big box office debuts are probably out of the question.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Movieweb.

Ryan Scott at Movieweb

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