Tepid ‘Tenet’ Box Office Reflects U.S. Audiences’ Fear of Theaters

Cheyne Gateley/VIP

The early box office results for Warner Bros.’ “Tenet” are in, and they don’t inspire a great deal of confidence for those who were banking on witnessing pent-up demand being unleashed once U.S. theaters opened up with a blockbuster title.

Since launching Sept. 3, “Tenet” has grossed $29.5 million domestically (U.S. & Canada) and $178 million globally. Domestically, the film generated $6.7 million this past weekend, a figure down 29% compared with its opening weekend. 

But there are some big asterisks that go with those figures: “Tenet” opened to a U.S. market where about 35% of theaters were closed, including major markets New York and Los Angeles, and open theaters were operating at reduced capacity. Making comparisons to pre-COVID openings is pointless because “Tenet” rolled out amid an unprecedented global pandemic.

Regardless, tepid sales last weekend looked especially bad for Warners considering 100 more movie theaters opened, while “Tenet” was able to open on more screens per multiplex than Warner Bros. could typically command, because there are so few new movie titles available.

WB also spun the opening weekend tally of “Tenet” to make it seem bigger than it actually was. If that didn’t speak volumes about how the studio is doing, the fact that Warners last Friday pushed the theatrical release of “Wonder Woman 1984” to December from October, when “Tenet” will still be vying for ticket sales, further implies the studio is giving the latter movie every chance to maximize profits.

When a hotly anticipated title from a name-brand director in Christopher Nolan flops, U.S. consumer sentiment toward theaters in the COVID era tells the whole story. 

Morning Consult found that 18% of those surveyed September 10-13 reported feeling comfortable returning to cinemas. That figure is up from 12% in late April but steadily trending downward from 23% in mid-June.

But American consumers are also seeming to become less fearful of contracting COVID-19. According to YouGov, 61% of U.S. consumers said they were afraid of contracting COVID-19 on Aug. 19, down from 71% on March 25, around the time when many states first instituted stay-at-home orders. 

You might expect that change in mindset to help spur a release of pent-up moviegoing demand during these first two weekends of the theatrical run of “Tenet.” But unfortunately for studios and exhibitors, moviegoing seems to be a low priority among U.S. consumers in this stage of the pandemic.

In an Ipsos survey of U.S. adults fielded at the beginning of the month, just 21% said they were likely to go to an indoor entertainment center in the next month. Meanwhile, 61% said they were likely to go inside a friend’s home, and 44% said they were likely to shop at shopping centers or malls.

That speaks in part to a consumer fear of catching the virus in a dark indoor space where mobility is limited. Though to be fair, the low numbers also speak to the pre-COVID disinterest a good segment of the U.S. audience feels toward theaters even in the best of conditions. A growing supply of top-shelf film options at home via SVOD and PVOD will only expand that audience segment. 

Still, some people never being into moviegoing doesn’t change the fact that many consumers have seemed torn over whether or not they were ready to see a movie in theaters in recent months. 

Consider that 13% of U.S. survey respondents said they had rented or purchased a movie costing $20 or more, such as “Trolls World Tour,” over the past six months, YouGov found in a separate survey conducted on Sept. 1.

Releasing “Tenet” via PVOD domestically was never an option for Warners. The film cost too much to make, and a theater proponent like Nolan was too important to the studio to displease.

But not waiting until COVID-19 fears potentially abate will make this a costly gambit for all involved.