When ‘Tenet’ Opens on September 3, Theaters Will Confront Their Future

Today, the virus spikes across America; in five weeks, Christopher Nolan will be in theaters. What happens next will determine their survival.
Warner Bros.

Warner Bros. kept its promise and quickly made good on announcing “Tenet” release plans: If you live in the U.S., expect to be able to buy a ticket to Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” on Labor Day weekend. At worst, it will be available within a few hours’ drive. And, much of the world will have the chance to see it before you do.

Although the new date brings answers, it also inspires a lot of questions.

How many theaters?

Select cities will open Thursday, September 3 for a full day, not just evening previews. In film distribution parlance, “select” is more than “limited” (which suggests a handful of cities), but less than nationwide. Per a Warner Bros. source, drive-ins will be offered the title on a case-by-case basis.

That said: We are in unusual times. “Select” is an uncommon delimiter, one that’s more often used for VOD releases. More loosely translated, it means “We’ll take what we can get.” And that applies here: “Tenet” will take as many theaters as COVID-19 safety measures will allow. At this writing, the number of theaters that are actually available for “Tenet” could be around 3,000 — tantamount to a wide release.

Currently, brick-and-mortar complexes are open in more than 40 states. However, they don’t include top metropolitan areas like New York; all indoor theaters in California and Arizona are closed. Most of Chicago is closed (although there are some theaters in suburban areas); many are open in Georgia and Texas.

Of course, September 3 is still five weeks away, and no one knows exactly what we’ll face by then. COVID-19 has fiercely resisted any attempts at prediction; one weekend into Major League Baseball and the season is already threatened by the diagnosis of two ballplayers.

“Tenet”Warner Bros.

“Tenet” means pressure to open

AMC Entertainment and Regal Theaters, the country’s two largest circuits, already announced that they expected to open by late August, if allowed. It’s important to clarify that the chains remained closed largely for lack of product — but we can assume that individual companies and NATO, the exhibition trade association, will apply a full-court press in states and cities that currently forbid theater operation. Also, theaters will expand their efforts to get public backing; already NATO is promoting a congressional campaign called #SaveYourCinema. (It creates a form letter that urges Congress to pass “the RESTART Act (S. 3814/H.R. 7481), which will give movie theaters access to partially forgivable seven-year loans covering six months of expenses.”)

Theaters in 70 Countries Will Open August 26

In addition to the U.S., the current exceptions are China, Brazil, and Mexico. Currently scheduled are Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Russia, Spain, and the U.K.

Here is a complete list of the initial schedule with firm dates:

Wednesday, August 26:
Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Holland, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Italy, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom
Thursday, August 27:
Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Israel, Lebanon, Malaysia, Middle East, New Zealand, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, United Arab Emirates
Friday, August 28:
East Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Norway, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Vietnam
Thursday, September 3: United States, Kuwait and Qatar
September 10:
Azerbaijan, CIS Others, Kazakhstan, Russia
September 17: Cyprus
September 18: Japan
Dates TBD: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Uruguay, Venezuela

This very staggered schedule is not without precedent, but it’s unusual for a top title. Japan often lags, and China is usually a last-minute date.

“Unhinged.”Skip Bolden

Other films should follow

Already, “Unhinged” (Solstice Studios) had reset the release of its Russell Crowe film to August 21. Expect other distributors to to also date their secondary titles accordingly. And don’t be surprised if Disney gives “Mulan” a new date in September. If Warners’ “Wonder Woman 1984” can hold to its October 2 release, it could be a sign of box-office normalcy.

The Unknowns

Christopher Nolan always insisted on a full theatrical play for “Tenet,” and was happy to let it take the risk of being first. Presumably, that will now happen September 3 — and if it does, there’s a number of things we’ll learn beyond what his movie is about.

We will get a sense how much the virus damaged audience desires to watch movies in theaters.

Lower grosses would increase second guessing and concerns over exhibitors’ long-term viability.

If U.S. grosses are weak and international looks strong, that could encourage more domestic home-platform releases while continuing to release in theaters overseas.

Opening September 3 ticks the theatrical box. At that point, the marketing is spent; if the film is forced to lose theaters, or doesn’t perform, Warners can now take advantage of streaming whether it’s HBO Max, VOD, or both.

And finally: Is any of this truly viable? Does opening risk further damaging theaters if they’re viewed as sparking outbreaks?

Of course, there’s no right answer; the only alternative is holding back until (or if) a vaccine is available. By then, theaters could be in terminal — so for now, even that uncertain future is better than the alternative.

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