Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet': 3 Big Challenges for Warner Bros’ $200 Million Gamble

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing WB to release Nolan’s original blockbuster in uncharted territory

With two months to go, Warner Bros. appears to be moving forward with plans to make Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending original film “Tenet” the first big studio film to hit movie theaters since the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to close worldwide. But releasing a film like “Tenet” under the shadow of a pandemic still comes with risks… and three big ones stand in Warner’s way.

Though there’s reason for optimism given Nolan’s enormous fan base (and track record), many question marks still surround the box office hopes of “Tenet.” Other would-be blockbusters still hoping to find success this summer — including Disney’s “Mulan” and Warner’s “Wonder Woman 1984” — can rely on recognizable characters to bring in audiences. But “Tenet” is an original sci-fi film that promises to be even more complex than previous Nolan head-scratchers like “Memento,” “Inception” and “Interstellar.”

Warner Bros., which has a long and deep relationship with Nolan, has such trust in the filmmaker that it has given “Tenet” a reported $200 million budget. The studio recently released a new trailer with an exclusive debut on “Fortnite,” and individuals with knowledge of the studio’s plans tell TheWrap that the studio is still set on releasing the film on July 17.

Prior to the pandemic, Warner was coming off several months of box office struggles on films like the Stephen King-based “Doctor Sleep,” adult dramas like “The Goldfinch” and “Motherless Brooklyn,” and most recently, “Birds of Prey,” a DC film that failed to reach $100 million in domestic grosses before theaters closed nationwide. That puts greater pressure on “Tenet” to be a hit, and its status as the first big-budget film to hit theaters after months of lockdowns could help it find a unique place in box office history.

But these are the hurdles Warner must jump first:

1. Will the theaters be open?

Warner’s current commitment to the July 17 release date is a sign executives are confident that enough movie theaters will be open by then, and rival studio distribution heads, and theater owners who spoke with TheWrap say that confidence is well-founded.

For major chains, the general plan is that theaters in core markets that permit their reopening will do so on the weekend of June 26, rolling out social distancing and safety measures, such as deep auditorium cleaning, greater emphasis on online ticketing and concessions, and removal of common food areas like popcorn butter dispensers and soda fountains. The chains will then steadily open locations in secondary markets over the following two weeks with hopes that the majority of theaters will be open again in time for the release of “Tenet.”

This plan comes with the assumption that this time next month, COVID-19 infection rates will have continued to decline to the point that governors will give theaters permission to reopen. While the specifics of reopening plans can differ from state to state, movie theaters have generally not been included among the likes of retail and public parks as the first places to start up business again. That’s fine with the theater industry for now, since there are no new movies coming out, but a sudden resurgence in infections could put a major snag in both Warner and theater owners’ plans.

That is particularly true for the nation’s two biggest markets, New York and Los Angeles, which can combine for up to 20% of a major release’s opening weekend total. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is overseeing a steady reopening of New York City’s economy, but movie theaters are in the last group of businesses allowed to resume along with Broadway theaters and museums. The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) is currently lobbying to get Cuomo to allow theaters to become part of an earlier phase of his state’s reopening plan.

Meanwhile, L.A. is lagging behind the rest of California when it comes to getting COVID-19 under control, as Gov. Gavin Newsom has given over 50 other counties clearance to reopen nonessential retail stores, while those in L.A. are confined to curbside pickup only. The good news is that L.A. County health officials said on Thursday that virus transmission rates in the city have hit their lowest since the pandemic’s start in March, offering promise that more businesses could reopen by the July 4 target date that the L.A. County Department of Public Health set this week.

But if theaters aren’t open in those two major cities by July 17, it puts “Tenet” and Warner in a difficult position.

Does the studio move forward if the majority of the rest of the country has theaters running, hoping that New York and L.A. can open a bit later and help the film leg out at the box office? Or does Warner delay the release to prevent spoilers for a plot that, judging by the trailers, Nolan wants to have shrouded in mystery until moviegoers see it for themselves? And that’s before we even get to overseas markets, many of which are resuming business, as countries like China and Japan have reopened theaters, while plans are in motion for Italy and other major European countries. For now, approximately 90% of the global theatrical market is expected to be running again by mid-July, but any major outbreak could undo those plans and make things more difficult for Warner. As with all things COVID-related, no one can be completely certain.

2. Dealing with demand

When it comes to whether people will go back to theaters in a world of social distancing, owners seem very confident based on what they’ve seen from the public so far.

“It may take a warming-up period, but people will go out if they know that there are efforts being done to ensure their safety,” Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabdian said. “Theater owners can absolutely do that by making clear that they are doing their best to keep every auditorium clean.”

But the changes needed to maintain safety will change how much money films may profit. In addition to restricting maximum capacity for each screening to 50%, the time that will be needed to deep-clean each auditorium between screenings will mean less of them and, therefore, less intake per day. This may be an issue for studios if and when Hollywood goes back to the usual business of releasing multiple wide releases in a single weekend.

“If we get to the holiday season, and we’re releasing films as usual but still have the 50% limit, I think you might see some smaller films get squeezed out,” one distribution executive said. “If COVID requirements reduce the number of screenings theaters can make, those theaters are going to lean towards playing the most popular blockbusters, especially ones that don’t have a lot of screens.”

The good news for “Tenet” is that if it does, indeed, become the first big film back in theaters, it won’t have to deal with that problem. Even if demand exceeds expectations and some screenings fill up to the 50% maximum, the lack of new competition simply means that theaters can dedicate more auditoriums to it. The same can be said for Disney’s “Mulan,” which was pushed from its original March 27 release to July 24, one week after “Tenet.”

“It’s rare for a big film to fill up every single seat at a theater on an opening weekend. Of course, there are some exceptions like an ‘Avengers’ movie, but it’s not as big an issue as some may think,” Dergarabedian said. “And it’s something that may not hold ‘Tenet’ back if theaters stagger screening times between the majority of their auditoriums since there won’t be anything else new on opening weekend.”

3. Marketing in a COVID world

The biggest challenge for Warner Bros. will be how it markets “Tenet” at a time when so many of the tools studios usually use to market summer blockbusters are not at their disposal.

All films, but especially tentpole ones, rely on the advertising that moviegoers see as a part of going to theaters. In a non-COVID world, hundreds of millions of people worldwide would have seen a trailer for “Tenet” attached to films like “F9” and “Wonder Woman 1984,” both of which were expected to be surefire $1 billion-plus hits. Blockbusters also use live sports as a key marketing outlet, and ads for “Tenet” likely would have aired during events like the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals, along with the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

But those sources are gone, as “WW84” has moved to August and live sports remain shut down with the exception of UFC and NASCAR. While MLB and NBA are working on plans to resume play, there’s no telling right now whether they would restart in time to run ads for “Tenet.” And with TV now firmly in its annual summer period of reruns and game shows, there are no major event shows left for the film to attach ads on.

This could force Warner to think outside of the box as it transitions to digital marketing. Last Thursday may have provided a glimpse of that, as the studio debuted the second “Tenet” trailer on “Fortnite.” It’s the first time a studio has used a video game as a promotion platform for a blockbuster trailer, coming at a time when gaming has been thrust into the spotlight as one of the few industries that has been able to get through the pandemic economy crash mostly unscathed.

Warner may also try to take advantage of other COVID-19 online trends, such as the rise in popularity of online movie watch parties. The studio announced the 2021 release of the long-demanded Snyder Cut of “Justice League” on HBO Max earlier this week via a watch party of “Man of Steel” hosted by Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill. With a long list of acclaimed works from “Dunkirk” to the “Dark Knight” trilogy, don’t be surprised if Nolan hosts a watch party of his filmography soon to promote his latest film.

And also don’t be surprised if Nolan becomes the center of the entire marketing campaign. While “Tenet” stars John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman”) and Robert Pattinson (“The Lighthouse”) have earned critical acclaim with some of their recent films, they don’t have the box office draw of actors like “Inception” leading man Leonardo DiCaprio.

Nolan is one of the few remaining directors in Hollywood with significant notoriety among casual moviegoers, and the latest “Tenet” trailer shows Warner recognizes it, as it includes shots of his past films. Nolan has spoken in editorials about his desire to protect the moviegoing experience, and if “Tenet” brings back a locked down world to theaters, it would be both a huge addition to his legacy and may make Hollywood rethink how it markets its biggest blockbusters.

Jeremy Fuster

Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • [email protected]


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