Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ Lands September Debut in China

Tenet Christopher Nolan
Melinda Sue Gordon

Chinese moviegoers are set for a Christopher Nolan bonanza on the big screen: the director’s sci-fi epic “Tenet” will launch in Chinese theaters on Sept. 4, a week after an Aug. 28 re-release of his 2010 film “Inception” and a month after a re-run of “Interstellar.”

“Tenet,” starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, is expected to be the first China release for a major new Hollywood title — that the rest of the world has not already had access to for months — since the country shut theaters in January.

The film will not have a traditional global day-and-date release. Since theaters in the U.S. haven’t opened to a significant degree, Warner Bros. opted to begin rolling out the film in international markets starting on Aug. 26. It will open in select U.S. cities over Labor Day weekend on Sept. 3. However, theaters in major domestic markets like Los Angeles and New York are still closed and there’s no sign of when they might be able to safely reopen.

Overseas, “Tenet” will premiere in over 70 countries, including Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and France. It was approved for release in China last week, but there remains some uncertainty around how cinemas will program the title.

Current Chinese guidelines for operating during the pandemic request that exhibitors refrain from playing films that exceed two hours in length. Yet contradicting that directive, authorities have approved numerous films (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Wolf Warrior 2,” among others) that run far over 120 minutes — including “Tenet,” which clocks in at just over 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Cinemas in some regions have been asked to program a five-minute intermission into longer titles, including “Interstellar.” Others, afraid to contradict a directive from a national-level authority, have decided it’s not worth the risk of accidentally doing so by programming longer movies.

The confusion has not stopped most cinemas from playing these films, and there will likely be greater clarity on the matter long before “Tenet” hits in September.

Authorities will want to resolve the issue in time for Nolan’s hottest competitor, the long-anticipated Chinese blockbuster “The Eight Hundred,” to make a proper splash. After its release was abruptly pulled last summer due to censorship concerns, that title, the biggest local film to announce a theatrical run post-COVID to date, is set to release Aug. 21, but runs long at 165 minutes.

Three other major U.S. titles and one Japanese one also announced China release dates Thursday. Disney and Pixar’s animated fantasy adventure “Onward” is now slated for Aug. 19, while Universal and DreamWorks’ family film “Trolls World Tour” is set for Aug. 21. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Women” will launch on Aug. 25, while writer-director Ryota Nakano’s lighthearted drama about elderly dementia, “A Long Goodbye,” will hit Aug. 28.

Neither “Onward” nor “Trolls World Tour” had strong theatrical runs elsewhere because of the pandemic, meaning that their China run will likely be their most significant globally. “Trolls” made headlines in April for being the first movie to forgo its planned theatrical outing for a digital release due to the coronavirus. After a short stint in theaters, “Onward” premiered early on digital and Disney Plus.

A number of Hollywood blockbusters originally scheduled to hit China in February, including “Dolittle” and “Sonic the Hedgehog,” have premiered since authorities re-opened cinemas on July 20. Despite technically being new to the China market, these films have seen lackluster sales, in part because they were released elsewhere months before and many viewers interested in them have already seen them pirated online. For that reason, the release of “Tenet” is welcome news for Chinese exhibitors.

In the meantime, Nolan’s past movies are already drumming up solid receipts in China. The theatrical re-run of “Interstellar” is blasting past competition at the box office as the top film nationwide since it hit cinemas on Sunday, bringing in $7.6 million after five days.

China is far and away the most important foreign market for Nolan’s films. For almost every movie he’s made, as either director or executive producer, the Chinese box office has blown away earnings from other territories by a large margin. The only exceptions are “Dunkirk” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” for which China was the second-largest market globally behind the U.K., and “Batman Begins.” And that was all the way back in 2005, when the Middle Kingdom’s box office was still comparatively nascent.

Of the Nolan-directed films, “Dunkirk” made $51 million in China in 2017, while “Interstellar” grossed $122 million there in 2014. The “Dark Knight Rises” earned $52.8 million in 2012 and “Inception” reeled in $68.4 million in 2010.

Films executive produced by Nolan have also seen strong showings in the country. They include “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” with $96 million, “Justice League” with $106 million, “Transcendence” with $20 million and “Man of Steel” with $63 million.