Tenet: The Saviour of Cinema?

No-one can doubt Christopher Nolan’s commitment to the theatrical experience — but can the release of “Tenet” be judged a success? Helen Budge examines the facts


IN THE PAST FEW MONTHS, there’s been only one word on the lips of those in cinema exhibition — even more than “closures” (and associated expletives). The word is “Tenet”, Christoper Nolan’s
time-warping espionage blockbuster starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson. Shot predominantly on IMAX cameras, the sweeping cinematic landscapes and plentiful action sequences show exactly why this film was always intended for the big screen. But after its staggered release, initially internationally then followed by the US, has Warner Bros.’ gamble paid off? And has the film that so much was pinned on done enough to convince Studios to remove the massive bung in Hollywood’s content pipeline?


The long road to the big screen
CV19 made “Tenet”’s journey to its theatrical release a tortuous one. Originally scheduled for 17 July, it was rescheduled three times and was, at one point, taken off the release schedule
entirely. But Warner Bros.’ (WB) determination to find the right time and strategy to release it prevailed. Ann Sarnoff, WB’s. CEO and chair (and recently appointed head of WarnerMedia’s
Studios and Networks Group), is clear in her view that the strategy wasn’t a “leave it to chance” approach. She commented to “Deadline”: “We’ve been analysing numbers and consumer behaviour, so we’ve been studying this since Covid began. We crunched the numbers and figured out a way to make it work. Don’t spend all your money up front! Pace yourself, it’s a marathon and not a sprint. Release it, don’t expect a huge opening weekend, but as you know, even though there’s reduced capacity, we’re getting more theaters per location.”


As illustrated by Sarnoff’s comments, WB has repeated many times that with this film under these circumstances, “Tenet” is in it for the long haul, rather than the usual frontloaded release model of pre-Covid. “Variety” chipped in that “Sarnoff said she’s encouraged by the returns from the film’s international debut last week. Moreover, Warner Bros. is committed to keeping “Tenet” in U.S. theaters for a good stretch in order to give prospective ticket buyers time to get comfortable with the idea of returning to multiplexes.”


The studio has also commented on the lack of a frame of reference, stating “Domestically, while our results show positive like-for-like theater indicators compared to previous films such
as “Dunkirk,” there is literally no context in which to compare results of a film opening during a pandemic with any other circumstance. We are in unprecedented territory, so any comparisons to the pre-Covid world would be inequitable and baseless.” To be fair, they have a point.


There was little upcoming competition for “Tenet” to fight off after its release, however sustained success over a longerthan-usual tail does place reliance on “Tenet” having legs and
filmgoers maintaining interest, post-debut, to keep numbers going up. But being a Christopher Nolan film, famed for headscratching, mind-bending plotlines, repeat viewings may well
be common, as well as first time attendees.


First out of the blocks
For industry outsiders looking in, the huge pressure placed on “Tenet” — and, indeed, on WB — comes from it being the first tentpole put out by a major studio after cinemas closed across
the world. A spate of new movies originally intended for a theatrical release instead went straight to online while “Tenet” stayed faithful — to the relief of the beleaguered international
cinema exhibition community.


Needless to say, Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” heading straight for Disney+ was not warmly greeted by exhibitors, many of whom had kitted out their theatres with merchandise ready for the release of the remake of the 1998 classic. Despite Disney CEO Bob Chapek saying this was a “one off” move, many exhibitors held strong opinions on this with one theatre owner in France making it quite clear how he felt about the news, uploading a video to social media in which he destroyed a “Mulan” pop-up poster with a baseball bat. But for Nolan and WB straight-to-streaming was never an option, having always been particularly vocal about how essential the cinema experience is to the fabric of society, not least because it provides viewers with the most impressive version of his (and others’) movies. His advocacy — and “Tenet” — come at a much-needed time as cinema everywhere have been left in the middle of a content drought, with precious little to lure
back apprehensive audience members.


Robbie Collins, film critic at “The Telegraph” explained the situation most eloquently: “As a high-profile advocate for the theatrical experience over the years — and the primacy of projected film prints in particular — only Quentin Tarantino comes close. So it makes sense that in cinemas’ hour of direst need, and when the rest of the studios’ output is nowhere to be seen, it would be a Nolan film that comes to the rescue…”


What happens next?
Realistically, a significant element of the pressure on “Tenet” is because the success of its theatrical release — both in the US and internationally — will determine what happens next for the wider industry. All of Hollywood has been nervously watching the box office figures — only if “Tenet” performed well enough would confidence return to Hollywood executives in levels high enough to stick to dates for releases intended for the rest of 2020 and early 2021.

Tessa Street, general manager at the ODEON Leicester Square, reflected the exhibition view when she said, “It’s vitally important that “Tenet” is successful and that we deliver a great experience to our guests so they want to come back.” For exhibitors, the bottom line is that they need a — relatively — steady stream of new films that audiences are excited about seeing. And one film,  however suited to the big screen it is and however famous its director and cast are, sadly won’t keep movie theatres afloat on its own.


Crunching the numbers
To look at the flip side of the coin, while the film started well, “Tenet” still has a way to go to make up the necessary financial ground, as explained by Gene del Vecchio in “Forbes”. Possibly slightly
harshly, he noted that “The positive headlines [around “Tenet”’s performance] are less a reflection of financial viability and more a reflection of extremely low expectations and exuberance that some theaters are actually open.”

That’s not to say that believing harder will help change the box office figures — ultimately the numbers are what count — but is it short-sighted to look only at these opening week/weekend figures and say, in del Vecchio’s words, that “Only a fast pivot to streaming may keep [“Tenet”’s] head above water.”? A forced streaming strategy hasn’t proved a massive success elsewhere. To refer back to WB’s own statement about the release, no-one has experienced a release like this, there is no playbook for what to do and how to do it. So surely only the benefit of hindsight will allow us to
judge whether “Tenet” on its own was sufficient to convince viewers who may have been wavering about heading to the cinema as soon as it opened? After all, there’s no going back for WB now.

While a positive mindset might not make a difference in hard revenue, there needs to be a supportive response, given the figures and how much worse it could have been, rather than simply putting WB out on a limb after they jumped in head-first with the first post-pandemic movie. Given the oftdecried “death of cinema”, measuring whether a film performed well in post-Covid times demands more than just an opening week/weekend’s figures. Doesn’t it?


A View from the Director Christopher Nolan, on “Tenet” as the “saviour of cinema”
“All I can really take responsibility for is making the best film that I can. I think cinema is bigger than any one film one way or another, and I think people tend to simplify things a bit, particularly in a time like this. I’m just very pleased that the studio feels they can let the film play in places where theaters have been able to open. Obviously, that’s not the release we imagined when we were making the film, but then, the world is not as we had imagined it would be when we made the film, and we had to adapt like everybody else. I’m just very, very pleased that audiences around the world are beginning to be able to respond to the film, because, for me as a filmmaker, the film is not finished until the audiences gets to see it and tell me what it is that I’ve done.” (Interview, CNA News, 25 August)


The definition of “success”
So was the release of “Tenet” a success, or a flop? Plenty of commentators have gleefully called the latter, but considering that movie industry analysts couldn’t agree on what the box office benchmark would be for a certified hit, it’s clear there’s no set formula this time around. As senior Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian said, “Just to have it open, that’s how I define success […] To me, that’s the win.”

What “Tenet”’s theatrical outing does firmly prove is that for the right film, audiences want to and will return to (sanitised) theatres to enjoy the full theatrical experience. And given the terms WB wrangled with exhibitors — as much as 60% in some cases — this was a win-win situation for them too. The hope is that “Tenet” will start the movie ball rolling again. The film needs to be seen on a big screen with all the trappings — a small screen at home simply doesn’t do it justice.

It is early days, considering Sarnoff’s comments about a significant long-tail post-debut interest, but if Disney, Universal et al are watching the figures unfold and garner a degree of confidence that a theatrical release is justified, it bodes well. We can hope… No matter what knockbacks we get in the next few weeks, “Tenet” should be cause for celebration and is the first step in getting the movie and cinema business back to where it should be. And let’s not forget that if “Tenet” were to be released theatrically in normal times it would undoubtedly have been a smash hit, with “Mulan” following in its footsteps.


Warner Bros and Christopher Nolan were there when they were needed And let’s celebrate what we can when we can in the “new normal


International first… the right move

Just how will did “Tenet” perform on its opening? From 26 August onwards, the film opened throughout international territories before opening on US soil over the Labor Day weekend, with the latter grossing $20.2 million over a ThursdayMonday spread. As noted in Box Office Pro’s Global Report, it’s important to remember that the market turmoil of the past few months in the US means these figures were achieved while only roughly 68% of the Domestic market was actually open to screen the film. Most of California and New York were still closed, with both considered to be key national exhibition markets. Baltimore, Detroit, Miami, San Francisco and Washington D.C. also all remain closed with Maryland, New Jersey and San Diego reopening after the film’s opening weekend. Despite doubts at releasing internationally first, territories outside the US were the success story. With the global total nearing $150million by 6 September, the staggered approach to the release was clearly the correct one. Sure, in pre-Covid times these figures would be pretty underwhelming, but in this climate only the hardest-hearted critic would say anything other than “it started out well”.


Jim Amos, former president of domestic distribution for Sony Pictures said of the release strategy, “When the international market accounts for 65-75% of global box office, then formulating a release plan around foreign markets makes perfect sense. I know that those who follow Domestic box office like to believe that North America is the gold standard for a film’s success, however those days have long since passed.”


Quoted by Forbes, he went on to say that this probably won’t be the new normal, depending on the pandemic easing in the US, “Facing several distribution options, none of them ideal, Warner Bros. picked the “least worst” option of releasing “Tenet” internationally, then a week later to domestic. As we’ve seen over the past few months, the global landscape changes by the minute and it would be foolhardy to employ a one-size-fits-all plan or to proclaim, that a cinema-first release is no longer a viable business approach.”