Bowing to the inevitable, Warner Bros. announced Monday that Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” will not be released worldwide August 12. And, unlike the last two times it moved the date, it did not set a new release date. However, to focus on Nolan, or Warners, is to miss the larger picture: We have reached an inflection point in which studios must consider their own interests, and they may not parallel those of domestic exhibitors.
The production budget for “Tenet” is reported to be $200 million or more. Normal marketing for a release like this could easily reach $150 million. While there are multiple revenue platforms after a theatrical release, the studio is counting at least on $400 million-$500 million in ticket sales (traditionally, a little less than half goes to exhibitors).
In an interview with Variety, National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian said he was disappointed with the decision and hopes other studios keep their plans. In effect, he believes studios should open their films in all theaters legally able to open. “They should release their movies and deal with this new normal,” he said. “Studios may not make the same amount of money that they did before, but if they don’t start distributing films, there’s going to be a big hole in their balance sheets. This is a $42 billion-a year business. Most businesses would take 85% of that instead of zero.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. remains the wrong kind of pandemic leader, with a growing number of COVID-19 cases as most of the world continues to flatten the curve. This weekend, Yeon sang-ho’s “Train to Busan” sequel, “Peninsula,” grossed $20 million in its first five days. Two-thirds of that gross came from South Korea, which has seen particular success in containing the virus. The success of Yeon’s film, which was also a selection of the canceled 2020 Cannes Film Festival, is a strong indication of public interest in returning to theaters where possible. Right now, that doesn’t include most of America — but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world has to wait for us.
Here are some possibilities of what could happen with “Tenet”:
Don’t Expect a Same-Day Worldwide Release
In his statement, Warner Bros. Picture Group chairman Toby Emmerich said: “We are not treating ‘Tenet’ like a traditional global day-and-date release, and our upcoming marketing and distribution plans will reflect that.”
Translated: Those parts of the world that are ready to see “Tenet” in theaters will have that opportunity. And if that means the U.S. has to wait, so be it. That’s an extraordinary pronouncement for Nolan’s film, which has global anticipation, a plot that’s largely secret, and a tremendous risk of piracy.
U.S. Cities Might Open at Different Times
Although key markets like New York City and Los Angeles County might be many weeks away from opening, other parts of the country are allowing theaters to open with social distancing. America hasn’t seen checkerboard openings in a generation; “Jaws” ushered in the blockbuster era of national releases and marketing campaigns. However, Coronavirus might inspire its revival.
If this is the strategy, Warners will need to improvise in real time about how to maximize attention without wasting money. Sources suggest that no firm decision has been made; the studio could choose to wait until America can go day and date, or go state by state.
September 9 Might Be the New Date
In making the “Tenet” announcement, Warners also pushed “The Conjuring Part 3” out of the post-Labor Day slot. (“Conjuring” now will go June 4, 2021.) September would normally be a secondary date at best for a film like “Tenet,” but the slot also brought the studio tremendous success with “The Nun” and “It Chapter Two.”
Warner Bros. Wants to Support Theaters
If “Tenet” goes foreign before domestic, it would reflect Warners’ commitment to the theatrical model. That release strategy isn’t ideal for “Tenet;” it might be better to delay, or choose other platforms. It has a ready-made option in Warners’ nascent HBO Max, but a well-placed source tells IndieWire that “Tenet” is 100% certain as a theatrical release in the U.S.
American cinemas might take exception to seeing overseas exhibitors get first dibs (although the top three chains have significant foreign footprints), but the hard truth is major films see anywhere from 65 percent to 75 percent of their grosses outside the U.S. The tail can no longer afford to wag the dog.
Marketing Will Be Different
Much has been spent on advertising that included the August 12 date, but this new and evolving paradigm might be less expensive. Junkets and travel are eliminated; there’s less competition; and there’s already a very high level of awareness.
A Staggered Release is a Positive Sign
If it opens in checkerboard fashion, the huge interest in “Tenet” faces a risk: Word of mouth could unravel the belief that this is a terrific film. The fact that Warners is willing to take that risk speaks well for the project and suggests it expects a great critical and audience response.
And Maybe a 150-Minute “Tenet” Isn’t a Problem After All
Most of Nolan’s films saw their second-best grosses in China, and one state group announced that theatrical features could not be longer than 120 minutes. However, the announcement did not come from the country’s film board. The Shanghai Film Festival, which opens this week, includes titles longer than two hours. Also, “Tenet” will be released sometime after August 12; by then, the issue may have disappeared.