Christopher Nolan Will Have ‘Tenet’ Ready to Open July 17 — Unless Theaters Are Closed

Warners is eager to get Nolan's tentpole into global theaters, even if they're half-full, at the height of summer when demand could be high.
Warner Bros.

When it comes to the release plans for Warner Bros.’ “Tenet,” I think of a former film buyer colleague who liked to say, “See you Sunday, if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.” Unlike other would-be summer 2020 titles “In the Heights” and “Jungle Cruise,” Christopher Nolan is holding tight to his July 17 date until and unless circumstances force it from his grasp.

Nolan is renowned for his passionate support of the theatrical experience, and the symbolism of being the last blockbuster standing — if not the only new film in theaters — if and when theaters reopen this summer is symbolically powerful. Financially, that’s anyone’s guess; while the film is hotly anticipated, it also cost over $200 million and would need the support of theaters around the world — especially if social distancing rules reduce per-screening attendance.

While the studio has revamped much of its release schedule due to pandemic theater closings, “Tenet” is still locked on its original release date. Nolan accelerated the film’s editing schedule, sending his editors home on March 20 to tie up loose ends. There was never any question of the movie not being finished.

All that said, we’ll bet that “Tenet” won’t leave that date unless the theaters aren’t open. Here’s why:

It’s a summer event film — especially this summer

Nolan’s films are perceived as more adult and upscale, and might not score as well among the most frequent domestic audiences, but they open huge with strong reviews (“Dunkirk” actually had the top Metacritic score for 2017). It’s the perfect kind of film for a studio to declare: “Theaters are back, and this is what we offer that is different from home viewing!”

No director supports theaters more

Many filmmakers would be happy to have someone else’s film go first post-pandemic; Nolan wants that assignment. Making a stand could elevate him to the role held by Steven Spielberg for decades as the face of his profession as a brand and creative force.

Warner Bros. backs his stance

This is Nolan’s ninth straight film with Warner Bros. (“Interstellar” was a Paramount coproduction). In a changing world, the studio still treasures close ties to top creatives, and no one is more important to them than Nolan. Any studio anxiety would likely by mollified by Nolan’s single-minded passion. Second-guessing is a primal sport in Hollywood, but here they’d likely be secure.

“Tenet” is go big or go home

It is expected to have 70mm, 35mm, IMAX, as well as standard digital presentation. Its thriller/action plot has been kept under wraps, but its time-travel/spy element/war themes as well as its massive location shoots around the world suggest the scope of a film maximized by theatrical experience. Throw in what appears to be a typically epic Nolan story and it ticks all the “wow” boxes that could herald the theaters’ return.

First-mover advantage

Even if theaters start opening in June (Georgia’s aggressive early plan could permit openings in early May, but NATO has stated it prefers a nationwide, concerted rollout), few will attend without new films. Going before other big films would allow “Tenet” to play on virtually every screen in the country. There would be as many seats as needed for social distancing (though the excitement of seeing a film in a full theater would be lost). And with so many titles jammed into upcoming weeks, whoever is first will stand to benefit greatly from the lack of competition.

It could mean an Oscar

Nolan already has the “overdue” factor, and decent reviews plus box-office success are a boost, but saving the industry as well? The script just writes itself.

Warner Bros. already made a slew of changes

Warner Bros. this week shifted several titles (including the next “Batman” film) and shifted “Scoob!” to premium VOD, among other changes. Not touching this reinforces the idea that this is the plan, and they hope to stick to it.

It’s still three months away, and we have no idea what the world will look like. But unlike other key properties like “No Time to Die” (United Artists) and “F9” (Universal), which pushed back their dates early on, Warners has stayed firm. It doesn’t guarantee the opening. It does tell us that they will do everything they can to achieve it.

Additional reporting by Anne Thompson.

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