With ‘Tenet’ at $53 Million, Believe the Hype: Initial International Box Office Is Strong

Warners is being stingy with its box-office figures for "Tenet," but available data suggests the studio chose the right release strategy.
Warner Bros.

Warner Bros. reported that Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” grossed around $53 million in 41 territories outside the U.S., including Canada. Initial reporting largely reflects a five-day take, with most screenings starting on August 26. It’s a good start; initial lowball expectations were around $40 million.

In a statement, Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman Toby Emmerich took pains to represent the “Tenet” success (“an event worthy motion picture that demands to be seen on the big screen”) as a testament to theatrical viability. “Thank you to our exhibition partners for their tireless efforts in reopening their cinemas in a safe and socially-distanced way,” he said. “Given the unprecedented circumstances of this global release we know we’re running a marathon, not a sprint, and look forward to long playability for this film globally for many weeks to come.”

Advance U.S. screenings of the film begin August 31, with the full opening September 3. Expecting reporting to follow September 4, at the earliest. In the meantime, Warners did not report numbers from Canadian dates (which are part of the North America’s domestic gross) and went so far as to block them on Comscore.

International numbers are far harder to compare than domestic: Rarely does one film open everywhere, and there is no standard opening day. Factoring in COVID-19 impact makes this even trickier, given each country’s level of recovery as well as inconsistent social distancing standards that impact capacity.

Some context: Warners is being at the high end of cagey in releasing “Tenet” numbers. It only announced totals for the top four countries, with no dailies. That makes it impossible to know the film’s trajectory among audiences.

These are the numbers for the four best countries:

  • United Kingdom: $7.1 million
  • France: $6.7 million
  • South Korea: $5.1 million
  • Germany: $4.2 million
Michael Caine
“Inception”Warner Bros.

That said, here’s the best comparisons we can make under the circumstances with three other Nolan opening weekends: “Dunkirk” (2017), “Interstellar” (2014), and “Inception” (2010). These grosses are unadjusted, opening weekends are variable, and they reflect a pre-COVID world.

In the U.K., “Tenet” is below the $13 million opening for “Dunkirk” (which overperformed there) as well as under “Interstellar” ($8.5 million) and “Inception” ($8.5 million).

For France, “Tenet” is actually better than those three, which ranged from $5.2 million- $5.6 million. South Korea, which is experiencing a COVID rebound, saw “Tenet” lower than all three. “Interstellar” was the best at $12.4 million, “Dunkirk” $8.8 million, and “Inception” $6.0 million. For Germany, “Tenet” was behind “Inception” ($6.8 million) and “Interstellar” ($4.5 million), but ahead of “Dunkirk” ($2.1 million).

Based on that “Tenet” top four, it would mean Canada grossed, at most, something below $4.2 million. How much, Warners isn’t telling. Blocking the Comscore grosses is an unprecedented move (though, given the current theatrical sensitivity, arguably justified). This leaves us with deductions and anecdotal data.

For the sake of argument, we’ll say “Tenet” grossed $4 million in Canada. To judge what that would mean for North America (U.S. + Canada), that would project to around $40 million for five days. Given resistance and distancing restrictions, that would be a quite good result.

In the U.S., Nolan’s last three films opened with domestic grosses between $47 million and $63 million. Apart from the other unique factors now in play, all of these films opened against much stronger competition. So while “Tenet” does face obstacles, it will have a huge advantage of being the only game in town.

Captain Marvel
“Captain Marvel”Disney/screenshot

“Captain Marvel” is another case study to note, which ended up with $427 million domestic and $701 million foreign. That might be been a target for the best possible case for “Tenet.” (It’s about what “Inception” did, based on adjusted totals.) “Captain Marvel” had the advantage of opening a franchise; Nolan’s films traditionally have longer play with smaller starts. “Marvel” opened to $153 million domestic, with foreign taking in $302 million; that was with everywhere but Japan opening. “Tenet” does not yet include China, Japan, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, India, and Argentina. With “Captain Marvel,” China alone opened to $89 million.

Of course, we don’t know how “Tenet” will hold. How much of its international opening stemmed from a surge of desire to return to theaters? What was the word of mouth? Will resistance to movie going decrease?

Initial figures show Warners was right to keep this for theatrical release, and open foreign ahead of the U.S. It is way too early to predict what the ultimate total will be; the range at this point might be anywhere from $250 million to perhaps as high as $600 million. “Captain Marvel” made over $1.1 billion.

Here’s what we do know: “Tenet” response is good enough to encourage other theatrical releases. The real concern was weak numbers might make Warners pull back on “Wonder Woman 1984” (October 2) or force Disney to reconsider “Black Widow” (November 6). For now, that worry is at bay.

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