Tenet: has the box office experiment failed?

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The hopes of cinema seemed to hang on Christopher Nolan’s Tenet – and now the numbers are in, big films are being moved around again.

Over the past week, a new bunch of release date changes have been announced, as major studios continue to shunt their big movies out of 2020. Wonder Woman 84 has been put back by Warner Bros to the very end of December, and the confirmation that Dune in turn has been delayed to 2021 is imminent.

Universal, meanwhile, has popped Candyman back into next year – the second delay for the reboot – and several other studios are now believed to be considering their positions. Black Widow is just about holding at the end of October, although Disney hasn’t been releasing new promotional material for a little while now. More promisingly, the next James Bond film – No Time To Die – looks to be holding with its November release date, and more promotional material for that was released yesterday. But those are the last two blockbusters now left standing on the 2020 schedule.

Still, appreciating that companies such as Vertigo and Altitude have been heavily supporting cinemas with fresh films since they reopened, the big studios have been more reticent to do so. All eyes had been on two films: Tenet, from Warner Bros and Christopher Nolan, and Mulan from Disney. Rather unreasonably, these two movies were being relied on to bring masses back to the multiplexes.

In the case of the latter, Disney ultimately opted to cut its losses and has now made the film available – with a premium charge on top – to Disney+ subscribers (with a cinema release in a few territories). What’s surprising in the UK at least is that it hasn’t also made it available to cinemas that show the film. We understand from an assortment of insiders that the UK cinema industry is, well, not best pleased.

Tenet, then, was left standing alone as the big studio film willing to give a cinema outing a try. As such, Christopher Nolan’s latest jigsaw puzzle arrived at the end of August, and performed – let’s be blunt – above expectations. The problem though is that those expectations were significantly reduced due to the Covid-19 crisis, and a $200m movie still needs to bring in a fair amount – appreciating that marketing costs ended up lower than expected – to at least break even. Just because the potential market was smaller, doesn’t mean that Warner Bros didn’t still have big bills to pay. Tenet needed to make a big dent in those costs.

It’s going to struggle to do that, at least on its theatrical release. And the part of the world that’s giving Hollywood studios the biggest concern now that Tenet numbers are in? That’d be America.

Across the world, Tenet’s box office is really quite decent. In the UK it’s done well, for instance, and the global haul for the movie stands at $207m. In the current climate, it’s hard to really grumble about that.

But what appears to have shaken the big studios is how poorly the American release has performed. It’s hardly a big surprise, given that in large parts of the country – Los Angeles and New York for a start – the cinemas are far from fully reopening. But the US take of just under $30m in the best part of a fortnight is what’s now said to be scaring other studios away from keeping their films on schedule.

Warner Bros is behind Tenet after all, and was also the first studio to delay a film once it had its box office results (that’d be Wonder Woman 84). And whilst Tenet is set to play in cinemas for some time to come – not least due to the absence of other blockbusters to programme – the ideal scenario of the film’s performance recharging confidence in the industry has not come to pass.

It’s clearly unfair that so much sat on Tenet’s shoulders, of course. Even if Nolan’s film had been a little easier for people to wrap their heads around (and surely that’s something of an elephant in the room when discussing its box office: the word of mouth on this one we’d suggest is weaker than Nolan’s previous films), one movie cannot be expected to keep blockbuster cinema going single-handedly, and in the absence of Mulan, that felt like the level of expectation. The focus on Tenet too shortchanges the films that have come in and made a splash of their own, such as the Russell Crowe-headlined Unhinged, that’s done decent business.

Yet there’s little getting away from the fact that it felt like cinema’s litmus test, and off the back of its results, those studios have once again played safe when the industry needs them the most. Furthermore, they’ve done so off primarily American numbers. In an era where we’re told worldwide box office is the key for studio cinema, it’s the state of the American exhibition circuit that’s causing the changes we’re seeing now. And if the reliance remains on that, when normality feels so far away, it’s hard to see blockbuster cinema recovering for many, many months to come.

What’s disappointing is that this is being laid a little at the door of one single film, that carried hefty expectations on its shoulders, and was left to do battle almost single-handedly. And because this one film hasn’t eradicated from people’s minds that there’s a pandemic going on in the world, it’s been labelled a disappointment.

To make over $200m in the cinema ecosystem that’s existing right now, I’d suggest, is really something. And I’d also suggest that no big film will launch into a marketplace with such the level of uncertainty as Tenet did again.

The Tenet experiment, I’d further suggest, didn’t fail. That a film has achieved a global release now is quite something, and whilst it may not have been the instant lifeline that the industry was looking to, it has still started tempting people back to cinemas, and will continue to do so as its run continues.

I’d suggest the problem was a degree of expectation management, and the fact that no other major studio stood alongside Warner Bros. And the ramification is that once again, the smaller distributors who live far more hand to mouth will instead be leading the fight for cinema.


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