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As ‘Tenet’ and ‘Mulan’ Finally Open, Studios Make It Difficult to Judge Their Box-Office Success

Will Christopher Nolan save theaters? Hard to say; Warner Bros. would rather not talk numbers when normal comparisons just don't work.

"Tenet"

“Tenet”

Warner Bros.

As the entertainment industry watches the Labor Day weekend performances of “Tenet” and “Mulan” with bated breath, there is a legal adage: “Big cases make bad law.” While “Tenet” has been embraced as the talisman for the future of exhibition, and “Mulan” is creating a new paradigm as an ultra-premium VOD, edge cases often don’t illustrate much beyond their own scenarios.

That seems to be the logic that’s driving the Disney and Warner Bros. strategies to provide virtually no performance data for these two major releases. As a PVOD title, there’s no guarantee of any “Mulan” results. Warner Bros. does plan to provide a “Tenet” number, singular: One total, on Sunday, that accounts for 12 days’ release in Canada and August 31 – September 6 in the U.S.

For many reasons, these films are outliers. There’s no New York or Los Angeles market. We don’t know how COVID-19 anxiety may impact audience behavior. Social distancing could force capacity issues. Traditionally, Labor Day is a date that exhibitors avoid — pardon the expression — like the plague.

Also wrapped within the “Tenet” strategy is Warner Bros.’commitment to helping theaters get back on their feet. Of course, judgments will be made, and the results could influence short- and long-term decisions. As for outright declarations of success or failure — those will be all but impossible.

For “Mulan,” we are at the mercy of what Disney wants to tell us. There’s no formal methodology for reporting streaming and VOD results; platforms can present (unverified) ranked charts, but with no information of comparative volume. Netflix does the same for movies, but Disney+ does not.

Beyond that, we are left with anecdote. Studio data doesn’t have third-party verification, but as publicly traded companies any mistatement could have tremendous repercussions. Universal did this for the Premium VOD release of “Trolls World Tour” early in its run, announcing $95 million domestic on an earnings call. It was impressive, but others have not followed suit.


“Mulan”

“Tenet” is far more complicated. Without knowing daily results, there’s no way to gauge the trajectory of audience response, or word of mouth.

Making box-office gross available is a norm, but it’s not a requirement. Studios made the collective judgment decades ago that the reports provide more positive energy for successful films than harm for the bad ones, but the horse-race aspects often create the impression that the immediate response determines a film’s value. For “Tenet,” Warners decided to buck tradition and withhold information, thereby avoiding much of the rush to judgment. It also allows the studio greater capacity to spin.

Based on reactions to international numbers for “Tenet,” the data vacuum may lead to knee-jerk analysis. Certainly, care is justified; Warners would likely prefer that comparisons not be made at all. Nevertheless, other studios, exhibitors, and investors will pore over the available information to make decisions that will affect the future of the business. All of this should factored into the reporting to come.

Of course, these are not normal times. If they were, “Tenet” might have had a mid-summer three-day opening weekend of $75 million or more. The reality of this weekend is we really don’t have a clue what would be “good.” There is good for “Tenet,” but what really matters is what is good for theaters, good for distributors looking to whether they risk releasing top films, and most importantly, good as a signal that there is hope for theaters.

“Wonder Woman 1984”

Warner Bros. / screencap

Even if Warners didn’t release a single “Tenet” data point, there is an unimpeachable litmus test that will tell us if the studio considers “Tenet” a success: Will it release “Wonder Woman 1984” on October 2? The studio has given no indication it won’t; indeed, the release of a new trailer reinforces that it will. The industry seems less convinced that Warners would commit to another $200 million theatrical investment if the first one doesn’t perform as hoped.

A similar case can be made for “Mulan.” Pixar has “Soul” set at Thanksgiving, but if Disney likes the results from “Mulan” well enough, they might make the animated film another Disney+ play. Even “Black Widow” (November 6) is not out of the question.

Theatrical performance in the weeks ahead will be critical. It isn’t too extreme to suggest that the next months will tell us if theatrical release is the best plan for feature films, and if the amount of total business is enough to sustain struggling exhibitors. But it’s not a time for snap judgments.

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