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Christopher Nolan Breaks Silence on ‘Tenet’ Release: Thrilled by Gross, Worried by Studio Reactions

"I am worried that the studios are drawing the wrong conclusions from our release," Nolan says about "Tenet."

John David Washington and Christopher Nolan on the set of "Tenet"

John David Washington and Christopher Nolan on the set of “Tenet”

Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan is finally talking about Warner Bros.’ polarizing theatrical release of “Tenet,” which has so far grossed just under $350 million at the worldwide box office. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times to promote his involvement in Tom Shone’s new book “The Nolan Variations,” the director explained why the global rollout of “Tenet” has left him both thrilled and worried. While “Tenet” would have grossed far more than $350 million in non-pandemic times, Nolan believes the movie performed strongly enough in global markets to warrant the rebuilding of the exhibition market.

“Warner Bros. released ‘Tenet,’ and I’m thrilled that it has made almost $350 million,” Nolan said. “But I am worried that the studios are drawing the wrong conclusions from our release — that rather than looking at where the film has worked well and how that can provide them with much needed revenue, they’re looking at where it hasn’t lived up to pre-COVID expectations and will start using that as an excuse to make exhibition take all the losses from the pandemic instead of getting in the game and adapting — or rebuilding our business, in other words.”

Nolan added, “Long term, moviegoing is a part of life, like restaurants and everything else. But right now, everybody has to adapt to a new reality.”

“Tenet” has succeeded better than expected at the international box office ($293 million), but it was considered a huge failure in the U.S. as the first major studio tentpole to open amid the pandemic. After three release delays (July 17 to July 31 to August 12 to September 3), Warner Bros. opened “Tenet” in U.S. theaters over Labor Day weekend. The film took in around $20 million during its first week and has since gone on to gross $53 million.

The “Tenet” domestic gross suggested U.S. audiences were not ready to return to movie theaters in large numbers like they had been in international markets, and thus major studios pushed the majority of remaining fall tentpoles into 2021 (see “No Time to Die” and “Dune”) or onto streaming (“Soul” moving to Disney+). Movie theaters have since suffered due to a lack of new studio product being released. As of now, the Warner Bros. release for “Wonder Woman 1984” is the only live-action franchise tentpole left on the 2021 calendar. Disney/Fox’s “Free Guy” and “Death on the Nile” also remain in December.

While “Tenet” was not a success story in the U.S., its worldwide total has been strong enough in the pandemic era to make Nolan optimistic about there being a future for exhibition. The director admits the future will be “a new reality,” but it’s a reality nonetheless. For Nolan, the industry should be paying more attention to the markets where “Tenet” performed well and studying the reasons why it succeeded than focusing on just the U.S. box office coming up short.

Head to the Los Angeles Times’ website to read more from Nolan’s latest interview.

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