There’s no shortage of social-media naysayers, but Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” has many reasons to keep its September 3 domestic opening. Granted: If Warner Bros. had to wait for New York and Los Angeles to open, that date would be highly unlikely. Those regions are traditionally so key that many films initially open in those two cities alone, but with “Tenet” we can reasonably expect the inverse: It will open almost everywhere except in those major metropolitan areas.
As Warner Bros. announced, “Tenet” will show in “select” cities. Not all. They know it won’t initially play everywhere, including the top two markets in the country. Given COVID-19, all is subject to change — but nowadays that asterisk must follow any long-range planning. Nolan’s film is scheduled to open in 50 territories between August 26 and 28, including Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Korea, and Australia; other major countries like Russia and Japan follow soon thereafter. China’s also approved the film for release, albeit without a date.
Theaters already operate in most of these countries; in the U.S. today, 45 states permit indoor theaters to operate (with safety precautions) in all or most locations. Because of lack of new product, most have yet to do so. To preclude the September 3 opening, governments would have to shut them down — and that’s much more difficult to do than delaying permission to open.
We spoke to exhibition sources in some of the riskier regions who question whether they will make the date, but it’s clear that most of the nation’s cinemas will open as allowed. They are not irresponsible people, but their companies’ survival depends on this. And they will play “Tenet.”
Most of the U.S. population now has indoor theaters in which to see “Tenet” on September 3, and most of those have drive-in theaters as a backup. Even in COVID-19 hotspots like Atlanta and Houston, indoor theaters are open; areas that forbid theater openings today could change.
Of the top three domestic circuits, Cinemark already has opened some locations. Regal’s website gives August 21 as its goal, and AMC has said to expect opening by the end of August for most theaters, if not earlier. Wide releases should start August 21 with “Unhinged” (Solstice), “Antebellum” (Lionsgate), “Words On Bathroom Walls” (Roadside Attractions), and a reissue of “Inception” (Warner Bros.). All are expected to play with major marketing support and wide release — business as usual. Expect other films to be made available.
That’s three weeks from now. Making this date will be the first step to releasing “Tenet” 13 days later, on September 3. More theaters might wait, using that film to reopen September 3. Regions with restrictions will push hard for permission, and we should expect reports of initial practices to influence decisions. The hope is the two weeks leading up to “Tenet” will create forward momentum (also: one of the reasons that foreign territories will get the film first).
We compiled an exhaustive list of the theater-opening rules now in effect; our sources include the extensive research done by the National Association of Theater Owners in addition to outside verification. In addition, reported grosses from theaters open last weekend showed indoor theaters operating in more than 40 states.
Based on this data, only Arizona, California, New Jersey, and New York face indoor theater closings statewide. Arizona has an August 9 reopening date; the others do not have a date. Some urban areas such as Seattle and Detroit also do not have approval.
Most states have capacity limitations. Some range from 25 percent-66 percent, per auditorium; others have a specific maximum, regardless of auditorium size. Various social distancing rules are in play nearly everywhere.
All told, even if all of California and New York couldn’t open and a few other areas besides, more than 80 percent of the population would still have the potential to see “Tenet” in an indoor theater. Not that all of the filmgoers within those numbers will attend; some undetermined part of the audience — likely substantial — won’t return even if this is hailed as the greatest film ever made.
Again: All of this is as things stand now. That’s the rub. The last six months show that making firm predictions is foolish. But so is being certain it won’t happen.