Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic “Tenet” is charting a new course for blockbusters during the pandemic by opening in foreign territories before it lands in the U.S.
However, many of the factors that make “Tenet” the milestone film in the cinema industry’s post-coronavirus road to recovery are simultaneously elements that expose it to piracy. That runs the risk that a thriller that thrives on keeping its twists under wraps will have its secrets exposed before domestic audiences have a chance to watch it.
“In some ways ‘Tenet’ is a perfect storm for piracy, in that it has raised expectations, both about the film itself and the cinema experience,” one anti-piracy veteran said, speaking to Variety on condition of anonymity. “Also, it has limited availability and suffers from a staggered release.”
The film’s uneven worldwide release pattern — launching in some international territories on Aug. 26 before coming to some U.S. cities on Sept. 3 and China on Sept 4 — is a result of the adventure epic having been rescheduled multiple times. When it does open in the U.S., it’s unclear if moviegoers in major markets like New York City, Los Angeles or San Francisco, where cinemas remain closed, will even be able to see it on the big screen. That could spur more demand for pirated copies.
Though other major tentpoles, like superhero adventure “Aquaman,” generated massive ticket sales despite a staggered rollout across the globe, it’s rare that a movie would open in the U.S. without playing in markets in Los Angeles or New York City. It’s also possible that people will feel unsafe going to a theater during the public health crisis, potentially making them more willing to watch an illegal version of a film they would have otherwise been willing to watch on the big screen. In some foreign markets “Tenet” will clash with local events or other movie releases that it might otherwise have avoided.
“We see piracy can occur everywhere. It happens even in the three hours between East and West coast U.S. releases,” says the anti-piracy veteran.
While professional pirates would prefer to obtain pristine recordings from a post-production facility or a projection booth, camcording in cinemas can be a significant danger in the first few days of a film’s release.
There is believed to be a short-lived black market for handheld-recorded footage, and even a partial recording is useful as pirate editors will try to knit together as complete a version as possible. And an English-language soundtrack is seen as especially valuable in the case of a Hollywood movie.
COVID-19 social distancing could potentially make it harder for a person with a camera to avoid being spotted, especially in the middle of the auditorium, where the visual and audio experiences are optimal.
However, “the employment of security personnel to enforce physical distancing will also facilitate anti-piracy surveillance during ‘Tenet’ screenings,” said one Spanish exhibitor of the film which opens on Aug. 26 in Spain.
The same exhibitor said that he had no knowledge of Warner Bros. issuing anti-piracy guidance to exhibitors in Spain. But he was conscious that, with Latin American cinemas mostly under lockdown, there would be a heightened demand for Spanish-language pirate versions.
The Spanish exhibitor said that the terms and conditions received from Warner Bros. to date largely focused on commercial concerns. They included a requirement that Nolan’s movie should play a minimum eight weeks and occupy each complex’s biggest screens to compensate for limited auditorium occupancy. Warner Bros. is also raising its required percentage of box office gross in comparison to last year’s “Joker,” the exhibitor said.
Other exhibitors in Malaysia, Korea and Thailand said that, as of Wednesday, they had also not heard of any piracy-specific terms and conditions from Warner Bros. Insiders at Warner Bros., as well as executives at rival studios, note that there are careful security measures in place for any theatrical release.
Should illegal copies appear online, there are organizations that work diligently to spot and remove them from the internet. Privately, studio execs say pirated content is sometimes inevitable, but feel there’s less of a risk since “Tenet” is debuting in China fairly soon after it launches in other parts of the world.
“Thai moviegoers are excited for ‘Tenet’ coming on screen. We are very happy with the performance of (recent Korean hit) ‘Peninsula’ and look forward to ‘The Unhinged,’” said Suvannee Chinchiewchan, GM of Thailand’s SF Cinemas chain.
“Exhibitors in Thailand have not been notified by Warner of any specific requirements for ‘Tenet.’ They could ask us to implement measures like walk-throughs or projection booth checks, as have been done in the past,” she said.
Warner Bros. has yet to reach out to U.K.-based exhibitors with specific anti-piracy guidance for “Tenet,” but has begun investing heavily in marketing and promoting the film ahead of its Aug. 26 launch. Tickets went on sale at midnight on Aug. 11, with venues such as the Odeon BFI Imax, shuttered for months, opening in time to screen the film.
“Warner Bros. hasn’t specifically mentioned [piracy], but we’re aware of that and are taking extra steps because Chris Nolan is trusting us with ‘Tenet.’ We’re going to do everything we can to help him out,” said one senior international exhibitor, adding that the steps taken thus far are “within everything we can possibly do.”
A senior studio executive, who asked to remain anonymous, noted while Warner Bros. may not yet have focused attention on piracy, they are “certain to have the full force of their security and policing teams around the world all over whatever piracy links emerge.”
“Every studio has very strong and comprehensive piracy/technical teams all on hot alert as each movie goes to release,” the exec added.
The U.K.’s Film Content Protection Agency (FCPA) was set up in 2016 under the Film Distributors’ Association, and works closely with studios and exhibitors to safeguard new releases. Piracy in cinemas is not rampant in the U.K. and is generally concentrated in small geographic clusters around the country. Recent years, however, have seen an uptick in cases in London, tarnishing a previously clean record.
Simon Brown, director of the FCPA, has been in touch with Warner Bros. and exhibitors, and will distribute a risk assessment for “Tenet” by the end of the week. It is expected that the film will receive a “Vulnerable Release Alert,” known as a VRA, which means extra precautions and guidance are circulated among cinemas. The FCPA will then monitor the situation and decide whether to deploy covert operations.
Technology used in cinemas includes everything from infrared CCTV in auditoriums at chains such as Vue, to portable night vision devices that are used by staff. At smaller independent outfits, such as London’s Genesis Cinema, there are bag searches on entry, regular walk-through screen checks and continuous screen checks from manned projection rooms.
There is, ultimately, a heavy reliance on cinema workers, whom the FCPA incentivizes to report incidents with awards. “We rely so much on the vigilance and awareness of cinema staff,” says Brown, noting that 188 incidents in 2019 were identified and disrupted by staff.
The anxiety this year, however, is how many cinema workers will return to their jobs following the lockdown period. “We are not sure how many will be new staff, in which case we need to make sure they are aware of the basics around anti-piracy. That’s an issue for us because a lot of staff have been lost in this period,” says Brown.
An unforeseen piracy challenge this summer, however, will undoubtedly be the unprecedented surge of drive-in cinemas across the U.K. Drive-ins aren’t the cultural touchstone they are in the U.S,. but a four-month movie theater shutdown has seen more than 40 new outdoor cinemas set up shop across the country. At least one drive-in operator, The Drive In chain, has begun selling “Tenet” tickets for an Aug. 31-Sept. 13 run.
“It’s a big challenge,” says Brown. “We will really rely on members of staff because catching someone in a car is almost impossible.” The FCPA is now in the process of developing best practices for drive-ins specifically, which can be particularly vulnerable to audio piracy.
Laura Elmes, a producer at Drive In London, assures that the venues are taking necessary precautions, with CCTV “all over the site.”
“We’ve also got 20 attendants patrolling the site throughout. We’re pretty well covered, to be honest, because it is not a dark cinema as well, it is quite easy to see if anyone is trying to get away with filming stuff,” says Elmes.
And what if they catch someone filming? “We’d get them to delete anything they’ve got, and then we’d keep an eye on them — depends on what they are doing, they might be asked to leave. Obviously, piracy is our top priority because it is so important. We’d stop them from coming back. It’s definitely top of the list.”
Naman Ramachandran, John Hopewell and Rebecca Rubin also contributed to this report.