Will ‘Tenet’ revive U.S. movie theaters as it’s finally released?

September 3, 2020, 6:00 PM UTC
Updated September 3, 2020, 8:11 PM UTC

Christopher Nolan’s new film Tenet opens in U.S. movie theaters this weekend, arguably the first major theatrical release since movie houses shuttered in response to the coronavirus starting in late March. The film’s financial performance is being treated as a bellwether for the movie business’s prospects, and even the entertainment industry as a whole, but it faces major headwinds in the form of coronavirus fears, theater closures, and extremely high U.S. unemployment.

Tenet, a time-travel spy thriller starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, was originally slated as a summerlong “tentpole” release, expected to be among the highest-grossing movies of the year. In late July, Warner Bros. announced that the film would instead open internationally starting Aug. 26, then in select U.S. cities on Sept. 3.

The film earned $53 million during last weekend’s international opening, a result considered surprisingly strong by movie business watchers. But the coronavirus has been contained much more effectively in markets such as Germany, France, and South Korea than in the U.S. Meanwhile, more than 25% of global box office revenue last year came from North America.

Most U.S. movie theaters have been closed for months, but are beginning to reopen with heightened safety protocols including enhanced surface cleaning and requiring patrons to wear face masks. Still, U.S. unemployment sits at 10.2%—worse than at the peak of the Great Recession—and the U.S. legislature has deadlocked on the renewal of added relief funds for laid-off workers.

Tenet’s Labor Day weekend release, then, faces a tangle of uncertainty. Are people hungry enough for a theater experience to risk illness and even death—or would they rather keep on Netflix and chilling? Even if they do want to see Tenet in the theater, is it showing near them? And finally, how many can lay out $10 or more per ticket in the midst of a historic recession?

There are at least a few positive indicators for ticket sales. Despite continued high infection rates in the state, movie theaters in New Jersey will be allowed to reopen in time for Tenet’s release. However, they will be capped at 25% occupancy, and major chain AMC is unlikely to reopen any of its locations in the state, according to IndieWire.

Regal Cinemas, on the other hand, announced this week that it will reopen theaters in New Jersey, Maryland, Southern California, and Alaska in time for Tenet’s opening. That will add to the 62% of U.S. theaters reopened as of last weekend, according to Variety.

Several lower-profile films, including troubled X-Men spinoff The New Mutants, opened last weekend. Ticket sales were modest, but showed audiences’ willingness to return to theaters despite epidemiologists’ warnings that they remain a serious risk for coronavirus spread. The coronavirus is transmitted largely by exhaled droplets that can float for hours, and the risk is increased by prolonged sharing of indoor space.

Many Americans appear to be taking those warnings seriously. A survey conducted in late June found that 65% of Americans said they are “very unlikely” to return to theaters immediately after they reopen.

Major Hollywood movie studios largely shut down film production in March. Production has already restarted on a handful of major releases, including Jurassic World and Avatar sequels, all of them shooting outside the U.S. and often more reliant on CGI than real locations or large casts. Warner Brothers announced on Sept. 3 that another highly anticipated tentpole film, The Batman, would shut down production after someone on set, possibly star Robert Pattinson, tested positive for COVID-19.

The ongoing production slowdown will likely mean fewer new releases into 2021, until a coronavirus vaccine is expected to become available, making a return to something close to normal likely. But solid U.S. opening returns for Tenet this weekend could motivate studios to restart production more aggressively, despite continued risk.

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