As 'Tenet' Arrives, U.S. Box Office Recovery "Won't Be Instantaneous"

ONE TIME USE ONLY-THR_24rep_page3_W_main-Illustration by Jiaqi Wang- H 2020
Jiaqi Wang

Christopher Nolan's feature, which opens over Labor Day weekend, is a critical test as theaters reopen after a five-month shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A sigh of relief swept through Hollywood on Aug. 28 when Warner Bros. reported that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet grossed more than $53 million in its international debut from 41 markets. The number came in well ahead of expectations as the domestic box office braces for a long and slow recovery amid the ongoing pandemic.

Tenet is the first major test in terms of how many moviegoers are willing to return to theaters in the U.S., where the $200 million film lands Sept. 3.

The country lags behind much of the rest of the world in terms of cinema reopenings because of the rising number of novel coronavirus cases in many states. And cautious health local authorities still won't let cinemas in Los Angeles and New York City hit the restart button. In normal times, it would be unthinkable to unfurl a tentpole without the country’s two largest moviegoing markets in play. Combined, they contribute 15 percent or more of all grosses on average.

“I don’t think anybody knows how much Tenet will do in the U.S.,” says MKM Partners analyst Eric Handler. “Consumers are looking for a reason to get out of the house, but the recovery won’t be instantaneous. And it won’t go in a straight line.” Pre-pandemic, Tenet might have debuted domestically anywhere from $50 million to $70 million. Now, $20 million to $25 million would be considered decent.

U.S. cinemas began opening in earnest in preparation for Nolan’s film. This week, the list of states where movie theaters can reopen welcomed both New Jersey and Maryland. And in California, counties meeting certain criteria in terms of the number of COVID-10 cases can authorize theaters to reopen (for now, that only includes San Diego in terms of major cities). The three states still entirely off limits in terms of moviegoing are New York, North Carolina and New Mexico.

The first new release to hit the big screen was Solstice Studios’ Russell Crowe indie thriller Unhinged, which went out over the Aug. 21-23 weekend in roughly 1,800 locations and opened to a solid $4 million. By the weekend of Aug. 28-30, when 20th Century/Disney’s New Mutants debuted, more than 3,000 of the country’s 5,500 indoor theaters were reopened. The genre superhero pic’s $7 million debut was considered a good launch despite being the lowest opening ever for a title in the X-Men series.

The nature of moviegoing has changed radically, and industry observers agree that its resurgence will be based on word of mouth — although not the traditional word of mouth about how a particular movie plays but rather about how safe a consumer feels in a cinema. Theaters, which are operating at reduced capacity, have instituted a raft of safety and social distancing protocols that include requiring patrons and employees to wear masks.

“We are optimistic about a return to moviegoing. In our research, the more [moviegoers] know about these protocols, the more safe they feel about returning,” says Disney distribution chief Cathleen Taff.

Opines box office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations: “In terms of opening films in the middle of a pandemic, the U.S. must realize that many overseas territories have dealt with COVID much better than we have. Thus, audiences [abroad] are much more willing to go to theaters.”

The country's major circuits — AMC Theatres, Regal,  Cinemark and Marcus — have all pegged their reopenings to Tenet. On Sept. 1, AMC announced that 70 percent of its circuit will be back in operation by the end of this week, while 70 percent of Cinemark's sites will be open by Sept. 11.

Analysts and studio heads will be watching carefully to see how Tenet plays out. “There may be a huge rush to theaters opening weekend and a bigger drop-off than normal over the next three to four weeks as many people are still in two very distinct camps — willing to go into enclosed spaces during a pandemic and those that absolutely will not,” says Bock. “That’s going to be a very interesting component to watch over the next few weeks.”

Others believe that Tenet and other films daring to open this fall and winter will play for months in a return to the era of the road show, when one title would run for an entire year. “Studios still believe in the exhibition window,” says Handler. “The management teams want to see how a film performs over weeks, not just opening weekend.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.