Mediocre ‘Tenet’ Grosses Likely Factor in Expected ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ and ‘Dune’ Delays

"Tenet" probably grossed just $10 million in its opening weekend, as the figure released by Warner Bros. included far more than a three day weekend.
Wonder Woman
"Wonder Woman 1984"
Warner Bros.

“Tenet” gave theater owners (and the rest of the industry) hope that “Wonder Woman 1984” would stay on October 2 and keep momentum going. However, sources tell IndieWire they expect that not only will “Wonder Woman 1984” be delayed, but also Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” currently set for December 18. While “Dune” released a trailer September 8, it came with no release date.

“Tenet” and “Wonder Woman 1984” each cost around $200 million in production, before marketing. “Dune” is likely in that range, given that “Blade Runner 2049” was $150 million. Even if the studio conveyed that the business for Nolan’s film was encouraging, any delay would suggest not enough to justify releasing these titles into a still-shaky theatrical ecosystem on the schedule planned.

The pushback suggests long-term concerns about theaters’ survival. New York and Los Angeles, the top two markets, are still not guaranteed to be open by early October. Even with seating limitations, exhibitors haven’t faced sold-out theaters. “Tenet,” with its staggered openings and three days of sneaks in the U.S. before a Thursday opening, may have lacked the major impact of a communal event that can build excitement.

The widely repeated report was “Tenet” opened to $20.2 million in its first North American weekend. While Warners announced that number at the end of the film’s first weekend in the U.S., the actual total represented a Thursday opening, three days of sneak previews, as well as an additional nine days in Canada and Labor Day in both countries.

Warners did not break down the $20.2 million total by days, or by country. However, according to multiple sources, Canada’s initial Wednesday-Sunday grossed $2.6 million. Based on normal play, Labor Day likely brought in about $2.5 million. In the U.S., there were limited shows August 30-September 2, followed by a full day on Thursday, September 3; a fair guess for that period is $5 million. That comes to around $10 million, leaving “Tenet” about the same for its actual opening three-day weekend in North America.

After early openings, weekends generally reflect lower grosses; on top of that, about 25 percent of the North American population can’t see the film. Optimistically speaking, had all theaters been open and the opening number reflected a three-day weekend, the gross might have been closer to $30 million. That is far short of what it might have done in a normal world. “Tenet” was touted as perhaps the most anticipated summer release with a prime mid-July date and little competition. It might have opened to $75 million.

Among initial international openings, “Tenet” had normal second weekend drop offs. But for a film and industry that hoped to see smaller than usual drops as more were encouraged to return to theaters, these holds might not justify taking further short term risks.

Losing “Tenet” and “WW 1984” would be a body blow to struggling theaters, but Warners did a major service to exhibition by releasing “Tenet” — more than any other studio. However, by delaying dates Warners would behave as studios always do: It wants to own the dates where its movies can have maximum impact. From Warners’ perspective, those dates aren’t guaranteed to exist in the final quarter of 2020.

“Dune”Warner Bros.

The environment for movies may improve in upcoming weeks, but there’s no assurance that all markets will open, theaters will reduce seating limitations, or that consumer resistance will decline. The theatrical release model remains under threat, and delaying top films increases the risk of permanently damaging the paradigm.

The next one in play is Disney’s “Black Widow” November 6, with new rumors it might be delayed. Then comes James Bond installment “No Time to Die” from United Artists November 20. It is expected to do 75 percent or more of its business foreign, so it seems less likely to face disruption. Speculation remains high that if Disney is happy with “Mulan,” now on Disney+ at $29.99, it might consider that route for Pixar’s “Soul,” currently set for November 20.

Warners’ anticipated decision could discourage key theaters to further delay reopening. Industry sources suggest it will be November — at the very earliest — before the exhibition landscape can restore a sense of normalcy. That could be deadly for struggling theaters, especially in the specialized world. They need New York and Los Angeles in play to launch top titles.

A representative for Warner Bros. had no comment.

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