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Christopher Nolan Wants ‘Tenet’ to Revive Movie Theaters. Will It?

Tenet Christopher Nolan
Melinda Sue Gordon

For movie theaters shuttered by coronavirus, it’s become something of a mantra: “Just wait until ‘Tenet.'”

The science-fiction epic that’s shrouded in secrecy isn’t just hotly anticipated because it’s the latest film from Christopher Nolan, the preeminent practitioner of a certain kind of blockbuster entertainment that is popular with critics and general audiences alike. There’s certainly the hope that “Tenet,” like “Inception,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Dunkirk” before it, will prove to be a box office smash when it debuts on July 17.

But in this case, “Tenet” is more than a movie. It’s the spark that cinemas are counting on to ignite a moviegoing revival in the U.S. and beyond. Nearly every blockbuster set to debut this year has shifted after the coronavirus pandemic prompted cinemas nationwide to close. While tentpoles like Universal’s “Fast and Furious” installment “F9” and Disney’s “The Eternals” were pushed into 2021, “Tenet” has been one of the few films to hold steady on the release calendar. When movie theaters do reopen, Nolan wants his big-budget espionage thriller to be the first to greet moviegoers on the big screen.

“Chris really would like to be coming out with the film that opens theaters,” Imax CEO Richard Gelfond said on a recent earnings call. “I don’t know anyone in America who is pushing harder to get the theaters re-opened and to get his movie released than Chris Nolan.”

And that’s certainly the message that Nolan has relayed to the exhibition community. He has pledged to finish the film’s extensive post-production and visual effects work in the coming weeks and is fully committed to delivering the picture in time for its mid-July release date, despite the fact that social distancing has left many crew members fine-tuning things remotely.

Nolan, who penned an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that movie theaters represent “a vital part of social life” and must be preserved, has assured exhibitors that he will do anything he can to help get them back on their feet. Plans are still being worked out, but theaters are hoping to mount an advertising campaign utilizing A-list filmmakers urging the public to return to multiplexes. Nolan could be one of the people featured in those spots and materials.

However, some insiders still think that a July release is overly optimistic, pointing to the fact that coronavirus cases are still rising in many parts of the country. There’s also fears that the decision to loosen social distancing restrictions in states such as Georgia and Texas and reopen certain businesses will fuel new waves of infections, setting back plans for a nationwide return to cinemas. For now, most movie theater chains don’t expect to reopen before June. AMC and Cinemark, two the world’s largest circuits, suggest July sounds more realistic.

With a production budget around $200 million, “Tenet” can’t afford to play in just the few areas that are less affected by coronavirus. In particular, it will struggle to make a profit if theaters aren’t open in New York City and Los Angeles, the country’s two biggest filmgoing markets. Ticket sales in those locations can account for 10% to 20% of a film’s domestic earnings. “Tenet,” with its elaborate effects, is also geared at overseas crowds. Movie theaters have begun to slowly reopen in countries such as Norway and the Czech Republic, but most major international markets will have to be back in business before Warner Bros., the studio behind “Tenet,” moves forward with its release.

Insiders expect that the studio will make a decision within a week about whether to hold “Tenet’s” planned debut on July 17 or push it back deeper into 2020. That’s because Warner Bros. will need to start revving up its marketing campaign for the film, and it won’t want to spend tens of millions of promotional dollars only to have to move it.

Ideally, “Tenet” will kickstart a belated summer season that includes major movies like Disney’s Mulan (July 24), Paramount’s “SpongeBob” sequel (Aug. 7) and Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman 1984” (Aug. 12) in subsequent weeks. But those dates remain uncertain. The hope is that movies, in particular the kind that feel more like cultural happenings, will be able to galvanize patrons.

“A high-profile blockbuster will the biggest draw for movie theaters,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst at Comscore. “People have been watching older movies at home and rewatching TV shows. To have something brand new like ‘Tenet’ or ‘Mulan’ is going to be hugely important to get people incredibly excited to go.”

But there’s a sense that even Wonder Woman doesn’t possess the powers needed to convince some audiences to venture back into cinemas when stay-at-home measures are lifted. Before studios can roll out their flashiest titles, theater owners will have to convince the public that it’s safe to go to the movies. Exhibitors will also have to make sure employees feel comfortable returning to work.

“I am concerned business is going to be sluggish whenever it re-starts,” David A. Gross, who runs movie consultancy FranchiseRe. “Aside from the loud minority who are protesting the lockdowns, people and moviegoers are apprehensive, especially in large cities.”

Movie theaters are moving forward to come up with new guidelines for operating safely in a pandemic. Ideas being discussed include requiring audience members to wear masks, instituting contact-free concessions, and limiting crowd size so people can sit six feet apart in theaters. And like many businesses now attempting to reopen, theaters are implementing health checks, including temperature screenings. People with high temperatures, or anyone who has recently experienced flu-like symptoms, will be turned away.

“The big movies are essential to bring people back, but safe conditions are equally essential. The exhibition business knows this — they are talking about it and putting all of their resources on it,” Gross said. “If someone became sick and it was clearly traced to a theater, frankly, it would be devastating.”

In any case, cinema owners know that foot traffic will be lighter given limitations on capacity and understandable hesitancy to return to public spaces. The prospect of selling fewer tickets could discourage studios from putting their blockbusters on the line. But exhibitors note there’s still an incentive. Since there won’t be many new movies playing, there will be less competition on the marquees for the films that forge ahead. Under normal circumstances, venues have to allocate screens to many different films. Now, multiplexes can dedicate essentially all available auditoriums to the limited offerings — meaning every time slot might be reserved for “Tenet.”

“They can make up for the social distancing protocols with the sheer number of screens they’ll have available,” Dergarabedian said. “That’s going to be really important.”