Box Office: 'Tenet' Debuts to $20M as U.S. Theaters Reopen, Nears $150M Globally

Tenet- Publicity still 6-H 2020
Warner Bros. Pictures

Christopher Nolan's film is the first Hollywood tentpole to unfurl in the COVID-19 era.

In a key moment for the ravaged box office, Christopher Nolan's Tenet launched domestically with $20.2 million over the long Labor Day weekend as more U.S. cinemas reopened in earnest after being shut for nearly six months due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The tally includes previews both in the U.S. and Canada.

In pre-pandemic times, a domestic start of $20.2 million would be cause for major anxiety (it's Nolan's lowest since The Prestige in 2006). But considering current circumstances — including limited capacity and the fact that only 65 percent of the U.S. market are open — Tenet was always expected to come in well below Nolan's more recent films. And it certainly scored the top gross domestically of any film that's rolled out since theaters reopened.

"Domestically, while our results show positive like-for-like theater indicators compared to previous films such as Dunkirk, there is literally no context in which to compare the results of a film opening during a pandemic with any other circumstance," Warner Bros. said in announcing the grosses. "We are in unprecedented territory, so any comparisons to the pre-COVID world would be inequitable and baseless."

Chief box office analyst Shawn Robbins of Boxoffice Pro agrees: "Having the film open is already a major symbolic success, while the financial bottom lines can't be objectively assessed until we have a better idea of how the global recovery is tracking weeks, or even months, down the line."

The narrative is much brighter overseas where many countries have been able to reopen more quickly than the U.S. Internationally, Tenet has earned $126 million through its first two weekends for an early global total of $146.2 million. In China, it grossed $30 million to come in No. 2 behind local Chinese war epic The Eight Hundred (some had thought Tenet might do more, but it is still Nolan's biggest opening in the Middle Kingdom.)

Warners believes Tenet will have a longer run in theaters than is usually the case, versus boasting a mega-opening weekend.  Most analysts agree, saying the film has a shot at earning $500 million worldwide. If it doesn't, it will likely lose money.

"International holds are very strong so far, and those could provide an early indicator of what to expect from North America as major markets eventually reopen and the film looks at a wide-open corridor with virtually no major competition and the steady return of moviegoers over time, including those who aren't yet aware that cinemas have reopened," notes Robbins.

Nolan's film is the first Hollywood tentpole to brave debuting on the big screen in the COVID-19 era. Releasing a big-budget title at the present moment is a huge gamble for Warners, considering Tenet's $200 million production budget before marketing. Among other challenges, Los Angeles and New York City — the country's two largest moviegoing markets — are still off-limits.

Last week, just as Tenet prepared to open in the  U.S., the list of states fully closed in terms of movie theaters narrowed to three (New York, North Carolina and New Mexico) as New Jersey and Maryland opened. States that are only partially open include California, where cinemas are now open in San Diego.

Tenet, starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh, received a B CinemaScore.

The movie did big business in Imax theaters, where Tenet earned $11.1 million from 43 markets, or 14.2 percent of the total weekend box office.

Warners and Nolan, a noted champion of the cinematic experience and theater owners, wanted to provide theater owners with a high-profile title upon reopening. Tenet was originally set to roll out in mid-July before being delayed several more times. Most Hollywood studios have abandoned the fall corridor in terms of their big-budget fare.

Disney, for example, pulled Mulan from its theatrical release in the  U.S. and select markets, opting instead for a Labor Day premium release on Disney+. Mulan, however, is still opening on the big screen in some international markets, including China (Sept. 11). Over the weekend, Mulan earned a strong $5.9 million from a handful of Asian territories and posted the highest-grossing weekend to date in both Singapore and Thailand.

In its second weekend, 20th Century and Disney's The New Mutants is estimating a four-day Labor gross of $3.5 million for an 11-day domestic total of  $12.3 million through Monday (the film was skewered by critics). Overseas, it took in $4.2 million from a raft of markets.

Solstice Studios road-rage thriller Unhinged is estimating a four-day gross of $1.7 million for a domestic tally of $11.3 million to date. The indie road-rage thriller, starring Russell Crowe, opened three weekends ago and was the first new wide release to get a big-screen release in the U.S. as cinemas began to reopen.