Tenet: might it be time to abandon the simultaneous global release?

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As California cinemas close their doors for the foreseeable future, the idea of a global film release seems even further away – and that may have ramifications for Tenet.

Count me very much in the camp of people applauding writer and director Christopher Nolan for what he and Warner Bros have been trying to do with their upcoming blockbuster Tenet.

Nolan’s new film is – along with Disney’s Mulan – just about the last blockbuster standing on the cinema release schedules for the next few weeks, and it’s little secret that all concerned want to position it as the big movie to lure people back into cinemas. That after months where cinema doors have been shut around the world, here’s a film that has a big screen feel about it, and that has been very much put together with the big screen in mind. Something, too, that we can look forward to seeing.

However, you probably know the story so far. That Tenet was originally set for release in the middle of July. Then it’s had to shift back to July 31st. Now it currently stands on August 12th here in the UK. Yet if Warner Bros is continuing with the idea of a global release for the movie, it seems there’s precious little chance of that holding.

Overnight, it was announced that cinemas in California will be closing in line with safety guidance being issued by the American state. Governor Gavin Newsom has ordered the statewide closure of bars, restaurants, museums and cinemas as attempts continue to get Covid-19 cases under control. It goes without saying that human lives and safety must come first.

For film fans, there is a knock-on. California is, of course, the home of Hollywood. Furthermore, it’s worth noting too that at the time of writing Florida has become one of the epicentres of this awful virus on the planet.

In terms of the broader movie business, this means that a nationwide rollout of a big new film in the States – never mind a global one – is pretty much impossible for the time being, even accepting the ridiculously mixed messages coming from the country’s president over the handling of the disease. That were Warner Bros to release Tenet tomorrow for example, there’s a major chunk of American business that’s not going to be available for it. It seems all but certain that most movie studios will be waiting until California gets on top of its Covid-19 cases before releasing a big film in the US alone, let alone the rest of the world.

I’ll say it, then. How about a more staggered release? That there are places around the world – and in America – where cinemas are opening their doors, for better or worse. In New Zealand, for instance, cinemas are up and running. In New York City, there was for the first time in months no new Covid-19 death yesterday. And in the UK, multiplexes have started lurching back into operation, with the majority expected to be open by the end of this month.

It’s clear that in the case of Tenet in particular, there’s been a desire for a full global release at the same time, and it’s easy to see why. The film’s spoilers are currently very much under wraps, there’s an air of mystery about the movie, it’s much easier to market a film in one go around the world, and such a huge release would make a big, positive statement for cinema too.

However, I think we’re coming to the point where Warner Bros is running out of options. On its current strategy, it’s hard to see the film now getting a release until September, which in turn will likely knock on every other major film release by a good few weeks and change. Even then, who can say for certain that the bulk of global cinemas will be ready? Just yesterday, Hong Kong shut down its cinemas again as a third Covid-19 spike hit the area. Most scientific experts are predicting some form of second wave of this beastly virus, and there’s a sporting chance that at some point, cinemas will be shutting their doors again, to be on the safe side.

To get to a point where even 80% of the world’s cinemas are in alignment, able to safely open and attract people with confidence to a new release feels like, in truth, something a little far off at the moment. And I think the cinema industry has to accept that, and adapt to that. I wouldn’t for a minute think to tell Nolan and Warner Bros what to do with their film, and I’m eagerly awaiting my chance to see it. I just think that the plates have shifted, and it’ll be a long time until things get back to quite near where they were.

The danger now is that by holding back huge releases until America is ready, it’s hurting cinemas desperate for new movies elsewhere in the world. Multiplexes in the West Midlands here in the UK for instance may not be high on the agenda for Hollywood studios, yet at the moment, there’s no confidence of them getting a major new release – the kind that gets lots of people through their doors – for at least another month. I’d have to say that even a month feels on the optimistic side, too. What’s happening here is being replicated in many localities around the planet. And as the wait goes on, cinemas face more business uncertainty.

We’re getting to a point where if Hollywood wants to hold back Tenet, Mulan et al, that’s entirely its right to do so. But – and I very much see the upside of this – it leaves cinemas programming weeks, if not months, of re-releases to fill their screens, and that’s just in the UK.

And I can’t help wondering if it may be time to bite the bullet, accept things aren’t going to be the same, and start staggering release schedules again. Because, right now, who’d like to gamble too much – yet alone a $200m blockbuster – on when it’ll be possible to do a huge simultaneous global release of a film again?

Some imagery: BigStock


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