'Tenet' Tosses Playbook: Staggered Rollout May Be New Box Office "Normal"

The $200 million tentpole is planning on opening first overseas as a surge in COVID-19 cases hits the U.S.

In recent weeks, a campaign to begin releasing new Hollywood movies even if it means only launching a title in markets that are able to open safely — whether overseas or in the U.S. — has gained momentum as a global day-and-date launch becomes impossible in the era of coronavirus. Without new product, the box office could remain dark into next year, dragging down cinemas across the world and film studios.

Warner Bros.’ Tenet, directed by Christopher Nolan, is the first movie to announce it will pursue this radical departure from tradition. On July 20, the pic’s Aug. 12 release was delayed because of a surge in COVID-19 cases in such states as California, Florida and Texas (and because movie theaters cannot yet open in New York City). But the more significant announcement was Warners saying it will ignore the modern-day distribution playbook for tentpoles and launch Tenet on a staggered basis.

Studio insiders said the espionage epic will go out first overseas, where cinemas have reopened in many European and Asian countries, and have begun to reopen in China.

Warners isn't yet giving exact dates, but sources elsewhere say the studio hopes to begin opening Tenet in international markets in late August before it arrives in the U.S. in the first part of September, even if only in select cities. They stress the situation is fluid, however.

Just six weeks ago, it would have been unfathomable to imagine debuting a $200 million tentpole without the entire U.S. moviegoing market in play, led by Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco and Chicago. But with COVID-19 cases rising in L.A. and cinemas still shut in Gotham, the thinking has changed despite the risk of piracy. On a global basis, a $200 million tentpole such as Tenet would open at the same time in most territories across the world, although China can be a wild card.

“Our normal for the foreseeable future is some markets open and some closed, which will keep changing over time. We can’t expect this to change for months, so we have to get going,” says Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer at the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Wall Street analysts endorse the shift. “As we believe that a perfect date may never arrive for studios to release films under the traditional day-and-date model, a gradual release plan would allow for the studio to begin monetizing the film theatrically in a way that would not be cannibalistic on potential box office revenues and help to build buzz for when the film opens into other markets,” says Eric Wold of R. Riley FBR, adding that China is particularly key.

In the age of the modern blockbuster, a movie’s North American release has always been the anchor. Some films, including Warners’ Aquaman and several Marvel superhero pics, have rolled out first internationally a week or two before their domestic release, but that isn’t the norm.

As of July 21, there are 35 states in the U.S. where local government and health authorities have said it is OK for movie theaters to reopen with social distancing and heightened sanitary measures. Another eight are partially open. The rest — New York, New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina — are off-limits.

Without new product, most U.S. circuits are choosing to wait to reopen until a few weeks before Tenet or Mulan (Disney currently has the latter set for Aug. 21). Sources say the country’s biggest chains are now amenable to the idea of switching on the lights where they can, versus waiting until every location can reopen.

Internationally, cinemas in Europe and Asia have begun to reopen in earnest and are in desperate need of new fare, particularly in European territories. Theaters in Canada are also preparing to welcome customers once again. 

“While we in the U.S. think we are the center of the world, we are not. We can’t wait for everything to be perfect,” says one Hollywood studio executive. Another executive adds, “There is a real opportunity here to think outside the box and not be constrained by legacy.”

Executives also say a staggered rollout could reduce hefty marketing costs, since it will build buzz slowly. Marketing can sometimes cost more than a movie's budget and isn't uncommon for Hollywood studios to spend $150 million on a global opening for bigger tentpole films.

In 2019, the North American box office hit $11.4 billion, while the foreign box office came in at $30.8 billion. Many Hollywood tentpoles can often make 65 percent to 70 percent of their total box office gross from international (in some cases, it is more). Nolan’s last film, Dunkirk, grossed $337.2 million, which represented 64.2 percent of the film’s global earnings ($525.2 million).

A staggered rollout for a tentpole such as Tenet cannot be compared to a platform release for an independent film, which generally debuts first in New York City and Los Angeles. Nor will is it equivalent to an old-school roadshow release, which saw a movie play for months and months. Piracy and shortened home entertainment windows have altered the landscape. But after months of no revenue, studios and theater owners are willing to take a chance.

“Look, this is a big risk for Warners because they spent $200 million to make this film. There are a lot of unknowns but the industry can’t stand still forever,” says Eric Handler of MKM Partners. “I do think there is pent-up demand. Personally, I think moviegoing will beget moviegoing when people see that it is safe and not causing an uptick in cases. You can eat inside a restaurant in many states. Given the sanitary plans, it could be safer to go to a movie theater than it is to eat in a restaurant."