Why ‘Tenet’ Is Limiting Drive-In Screenings: Here’s the Logic Behind the Policy

Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. might have several good reasons, none of which have anything to do with protecting plot twists.
Why Tenet Is Limiting Drive-In Screenings: Here's the Logic
Photo by Mae Gammino

Has there ever been a stranger way to launch a blockbuster? It’s a release that fits the current reality, but every day seems to bring a new wrinkle for “Tenet.” Its international rollout begins August 26, followed by three days of limited sneaks in the U.S. on August 30, followed by a nationwide release that doesn’t include New York and Los Angeles on September 3.

So what to make of Warners’ decision to play select drive-ins only in those regions where indoors have opened? Per reporting in Variety, it’s part of the continuing effort to keep the film’s complicated plot and surprises under wraps. We’ve contacted the studio for comment, but for now that reasoning seems like cockeyed optimism at best. In the meantime, here’s some possible motivations.

Presentation is critical to Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan is passionate about his love of movies, but drive-ins? Eh, maybe not so much. He’s meticulous in his visual and audio design, and outdoor projection and sound will almost certainly lose something in translation. And in those areas where theaters are still closed, drive-in availability would mean that a bigger percentage of the potential audience would see his film in a sub-optimal format.

Pressure to open indoor theaters

Blocking drive-ins will mean little to Warners’ bottom line; in 2019, drive-ins provided less than 2 percent of the domestic theatrical gross. They are much less essential than reopening indoor theaters, many of which don’t have a timetable. Can authorities be pressured into expediting this? The lack of alternatives might lead to fans becoming more vocal.

No pop-up problems

Beyond drive-ins, indoor theater operators have gotten crafty as they invent temporary ways to screen films safely outdoors. The pressure to grant these licenses would increase if drive-ins screened the film in otherwise closed areas, which would be a nightmare for Warners. Operational issues would be daunting, as would be selecting who gets to do this unproven form of exhibition.

Elizabeth Debicki in “Tenet.”Warner Bros.

It protects indoor exhibitors

Many of the top chains rose out of drive-in operations, but today nearly all drive-ins are independents that have no indoor theaters in their circuits (indeed, many are single-unit operations). Playing drive-in would mean drawing in potential indoor customers, and denying them business when they do reopen.

Nolan’s well-established support for theatrical play is focused on the survival of indoor theaters. Drive-ins as a supplement where indoors are open? Makes sense. Instead of, and ahead of, indoors elsewhere? Not so much.

Let the debates rage on.

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