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‘Tenet’ Previews Make a Mark, But Virus Flareup Crushes Korea’s Box Office Revival

Tenet Movie Warner Bros
Courtesy of Warner Bros./Melinda Sue Gordon

Two days of previews for Warner Bros.’ much-anticipated “Tenet” showed a sign of promise over the weekend. But a rising tide of coronavirus infections is now crushing the life out of the South Korean box office.

Korea was the first place in the world to screen “Tenet” commercially. The Christopher Nolan-directed “Tenet” earned $368,000 on Saturday and a further $347,000 on Sunday from previews on some 590 screens. On both days it ranked second behind “Deliver Us From Evil,” a local hitman thriller in its third week of release, but with more than two times as many screens.

Over the three days from Friday to Sunday, “Deliver” earned $1.41 million for a cumulative score of $30.6 million. Korean comedy, “OK! Madam” earned $812,000 for a two-week cumulative of $8.58 million, with “Tenet” third on $715,000.

But the box office careers of all titles now look to be affected as measures to control the latest virus resurgence take effect. The cumulative nationwide total was down 73% to just $3.54 million, compared with some $13 million for each of the past two weekends.

After Aug. 14 saw the first new case in the (huge) capital city, Seoul and national health authorities have increased social distancing and other control measures, These limited the maximum meeting size in Seoul to 50 people.

The impact on the cinema industry was felt immediately. Korean-made, action comedy “The Golden Holiday” halted its planned Wednesday release. “Deliver Us From Evil” cancelled a marketing event on Monday (Aug. 17), and pre-launch marketing for upcoming “Space Sweepers” was switched from real world to virtual events.

The Korean Film Council also halted issuing another round of discount vouchers, that had been intended to encourage cinema visits.

New directives issued on Sunday put Seoul on the equivalent of a new level of alert. Cinemas will be closed from Monday (Aug. 24), and mask wearing anywhere other than at home becomes mandatory. Seoul typically represents 35-40% of Korea’s national box office.

The latest wave of the COVID-19 virus appears to have been transmitted or accelerated through churches. Korea is predominantly Christian. But several of its many church denominations are secretive and have been unwilling to share names of their congregation members, thus hampering contact tracing.

The past week has seen over 1,000 new cases in Seoul, compared with only 1,800 between January and August. On Monday (Aug. 24) the city reported a further 97 cases, raising its total to 2,986. “Some of the latest infections include bus drivers, workers at a government complex in central Seoul and groups of people who were infected after attending a mass rally in mid-August,” reported the Korea Times newspaper.