To be fair, when the film touches down in the U.S. over Labor Day weekend, it’s unclear where exactly in the country the movie will be able to play. Many cinemas, particularly of the indoor variety, are still closed due to coronavirus.
But two weeks ahead of its domestic debut, scheduled for Sept. 3, Warner Bros. offered some clarity to exhibitors about its plans for Nolan’s latest. The studio issued strict guidelines to drive-in operators across the country, mandating that “Tenet” can only play in outdoor venues if indoor theaters in that particular market are open.
Since traditional brick-and-mortar theaters have reopened in Chicago, for example, drive-in locations in the Windy City will be permitted to play the film. But in New York City and Los Angeles, where hardtop cinemas are still closed, drive-in exhibitors won’t have access to “Tenet.”
However, given the rapidly changing nature of the pandemic, sources familiar with the situation stress these plans could be flexible. It’s possible the studio’s posture on drive-in theaters could soften in the coming weeks and that the film could screen on outdoor venues, even where indoor theaters are closed.
Exhibitors were told that Warner Bros. wants to keep “Tenet” from areas where traditional venues are still shuttered in order to help preserve the twists and turns of the plot, which has been shrouded in secrecy. But theater owners are concerned that audiences could resort to seeking out the movie elsewhere — like pirating it online.
“Tenet” isn’t hitting U.S. theaters for another two weeks, and there’s a chance that additional states could be given permission by officials to reopen theaters by then. For now, theaters have reopened in 44 states — but major metropolises like New York City and Los Angeles remain closed. Currently, 1,738 theaters in the U.S. and 2,152 in North America have resumed business, according to Comscore. There are over 6,000 theaters in total.
As moviegoing has cautiously started to resume in the U.S., drive-in theaters in Los Angeles, San Fransisco and Sacramento have been among the biggest moneymakers for new releases, as was the case last weekend with Solstice Studios’ road-rage thriller “Unhinged.” But per Warner Bros. guidelines, “Tenet” wouldn’t be able to play in any of those markets because indoor theaters there still remain dark.
Some exhibitors were surprised that Warner Bros. would forgo the chance to have “Tenet” on as many screens as possible, especially for a film that carries a budget around $200 million and will need robust ticket sales to get out of the red.
“There’s no predicting what’s going to happen with theaters reopening,” one exhibitor told Variety under the condition of anonymity. “Studios do things all the time that don’t make sense.”
Even though they’ve been a lifeline to the movie business during the pandemic, drive-in theater owners said they recognize their venues might not be of the highest priority to studios since there are so few of them in the country.
“It would be more meaningful if there were 3,000 drive-ins in the country,” the theater owner said. “With only 300 venues, it’s not significant enough.”
In the meantime, drive-in operators aren’t entirely devoid of new content to show. Disney’s superhero thriller “New Mutants” and “Bill & Ted Face the Music” with Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter will open on both indoor and outdoor screens this weekend. And classic favorites like “Jurassic Park,” “Harry Potter” and “Indiana Jones” have been reliable draws at times when there aren’t fresh titles to play. Exhibitors, in any case, feel confident that people still love going to the movies.
“Everyone wants the pandemic to be over with,” the theater owner said. “It’s going to take a lot of patience.”