As I get back up to speed after a week without power, I need to register my amazement and total disgust at how badly WarnerMedia fouled up the stateside release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. What was intended as an act of salvation might wind up being the most disastrous attempted rescue since Operation Eagle Claw. How horribly did they botch this? Prior to this weekend, I thought the major theatrical exhibitors in the United States would survive the pandemic. I no longer believe this to be the case. I don’t think this is the death of theatrical exhibition full stop, but the landscape will be greatly changed in the very near future, and not for the better.
As of today, Tenet has grossed $29,500,000 on 2,810 screens over two weeks in domestic release. Last week, Warner Bros. reported $20,200,000 over the four-day Labor Day weekend; this was either respectable or concerning depending on the analyst. When it became apparent that the actual weekend number had been fudged via grosses from preview screenings, and that Tenet’s actual four-day take was $9.5 million, alarms went off all over the industry. Even with the IMAX markup on many tickets, Tenet’s per screen average was in the $2,000 - $3,000 range. Thirty years ago, Ghost grossed $10 million on 1,766 screens over Labor Day weekend in its eighth week of release. Post-Labor Day weekend, it made $6.5 million – i.e. what Tenet made in its sophomore frame. Not great, Bob!
Caveats abound, but I guarantee you WB didn’t convince theater owners to throw open their doors for, essentially, one film pulling down ho-hum 1990 numbers – especially when said film is from the modern day master of big-screen sensations. Exhibitors would rather stay closed than pile up more losses with near-empty houses and sluggish concession sales. But they’re open now, committed to a film with a “B” Cinemascore (Nolan’s worst polling film since The Prestige) that was supposed to pack ‘em in responsibly until the next big release took the baton.
Ghost is an apt comparison for the kind of week-to-week business WB was hoping for out of Tenet. Ghost played from mid-July to March of the following year. It rarely won its weekend at the box office, but performed steadily thanks to excellent word-of-mouth and repeat viewings. With the calendar cleared of tentpole competition, the idea was that Tenet would have multiplexes to itself until at least mid-October (when Candyman was slated for release) if not early November (the new date for Marvel’s Black Widow). But Tenet is not Ghost. It doesn’t end with an ethereal Patrick Swayze kissing Demi Moore goodbye as he heads off to heaven. It’s cerebral. The viewers that go gaga for a film like that tend to reside in urban areas like New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles – where theaters are closed for the foreseeable.
There’s a spin-war coming over the next few weeks, and I’ve no idea how it’ll play out because WarnerMedia is in the midst of tremendous upheaval. Ann Sarnoff appears to have the film/network/streaming helm after the Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly were axed in August, which is a very full plate. I used to have a clear sense of how Warner Bros. operated as a film studio, but the AT&T merger changed everything overnight. A couple of months before these firings, when the release date of Tenet was getting kicked down the schedule every two weeks, I reached out to folks who know shit for insight as to the state of play at the studio. I was disappointed but not surprised to learn that Nolan was insisting on a theatrical release in the U.S. while the country was proving itself utterly incapable of flattening the coronavirus curve. His focus was, as it always has been, on promoting the sanctity of the theatrical experience. But his evangelical zeal for celluloid and epic filmmaking were at odds with his fiercely pragmatic nature. If anyone should understand the danger of encouraging moviegoers to congregate in a theater for three hours, where people would be encouraged to take off their masks and scarf down popcorn, it was Nolan. But it seems like he wanted to save cinema more than he wanted to save lives.
I’ve talked to enough people with insight into the company’s decision making to confidently state that the studio was initially loath to open Tenet because they didn’t want the PR nightmare of states contract-tracing coronavirus fatalities back to a screening of their film. But maintaining their relationship with Nolan, one of the most bankable filmmakers working today, meant a great deal to them – and no one wanted to be the executive that drove him to another studio. At some point, WarnerMedia, prodded by their AT&T overlords, locked in on Labor Day weekend, gambling that moviegoers would flood back to their local theaters for a brainy blockbuster sans superstars or a clear hook. Oops.
This is puzzling to me for a number of reasons. Though Nolan is press shy, I’ve never heard a bad word about the guy. When the faux-scandal hit about him not letting actors sit in between takes, people were incensed by the misrepresentation of how he runs a set. He’s prepared and efficient, which crews love. On a personal level, I chatted him up at a cocktail party for The Dark Knight in 2008, and he was lovely. By all accounts, he’s not a reckless man. But opening Tenet in the U.S. when we’re still logging tens of thousands of new coronavirus cases a day is the height of irresponsibility, and not something a practical man like Nolan would typically sanction.
If his sole intent was to save exhibition, well, I suppose he’s blown some wind under the sails of theater owners outside the U.S. But when WB, the studio that released Tenet, is bumping its next big tentpole, Wonder Woman 1984, to December because Tenet is performing so poorly, the exhibitors that reopened on the promise of steady, break-even business have to be swallowing their pride and wondering when they should sell off their theaters to Disney or Netflix. Now that the 1948 Paramount Decrees have been terminated, this might be their only move – because if Disney boots Black Widow to 2021, many of these chains will be declaring bankruptcy. There will be a shareholder panic.
There’s going to be a load of finger pointing and ass covering over the next few weeks, and it’s going to be agonizing. I love movies. I love going to movies. I dearly miss going to movies. But this pandemic hit at a time when exhibition was entering crisis mode, and I can’t logically see how this system survives as is. Your local multiplex will probably become a Netflix or Disney screening center where you can pay to see each company’s movies months ahead of their streaming release, and the terms will be so advantageous for the studios that I expect the exhibitors to quickly cash out. I can’t say for sure that Nolan caused this, but it sounds like he found sympathetic partners at AT&T and sure as hell hastened it. Michael Cimino would be proud.