The opening of a big summer movie is, in normal times, a Super Bowl-level event. Around the world, splashy premieres fuel media hype and, hopefully, ticket sales. Box office analysts begin crunching the numbers right away, culminating in Sunday morning headlines and bragging rights. Did the film cross the $100 million mark? Is it on track to make a billion? Come Monday, studio executives are either popping champagne corks or packing up their office belongings as everyone collapses in exhaustion.
Of course, the playbook is being rewritten in the age of coronavirus, as studios experiment with new approaches to profitability. With many of the world’s movie theaters still shuttered and audiences understandably cautious about entering those that are open, studios have had to rethink distribution in a major way. Some, like Universal and Disney, have shifted movies over to SVOD services. In the case of Hamilton, Disney traded a theatrical release for a subscription drive via its streaming service, Disney Plus in early July; it’s doing the same with the upcoming Mulan, though it will charge subscribers $30 to see the live-action remake. Sony has sold films to streaming companies such as Netflix and Apple. Paramount and Universal have pushed their films into the new year.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros., MGM, Disney (for a 20th Century Fox title) and Solstice Studios are trying to jump-start the game of theatrical releases, hoping that their films—Tenet, Bill and Ted Face the Music, The New Mutants, and Unhinged, respectively—can revitalize the suffering movie exhibition business and draw audiences in areas where theaters have been declared safe. But the rollout of these films is nothing close to normal.
Consider Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-twisting thriller, set to be released in the U.S. today after multiple delays. Normally the American premiere of a film by one of Hollywood’s most heralded and successful directors (Inception, The Dark Knight, Dunkirk) would be a blockbuster event. All the more so given that Warner Bros. has at least $200 million riding on the film in the midst of a pandemic. No surprise, then, that Tenet has assumed mythical proportions as a litmus test for whether moviegoers will leave their couches. As J.P. Morgan wrote in a note earlier this year, Tenet‘s release is “the de facto restarting point for the North American exhibition industry.”
Yet its release in the U.S. today is hardly an explosion. Because only about half of U.S. movie theaters are currently open, Tenet was first released last weekend in 41 international territories, including Canada, the U.K., and South Korea, giving the film’s rollout a drip-drabby feel. Indeed, box office numbers are rolling in piecemeal, making it hard to deduce whether the film is a success.
Tenet made $54 million in its overseas weekend haul, which beat projections but is still hard to unpack considering the COVID-19-limited capacities of most theaters. (In a sign of just how confusing these new numbers are, when Unhinged opened to $4 million in the U.S. late last month, the figure was touted as a win.)
“This pandemic has upended not just the movie industry, but it’s upended the traditional analysis of box office and the traditional expectation of box office,” explains Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “It’s changed what the trajectory is for films. Lest anyone look at a three-day release and make a big pronouncement about the potential revenue-generating ability of [a] movie—that would be misguided.”
As for predicting what a good box office run might be in this climate, Dergarabedian was “loathe to say.”
Warner Bros., for its part, is crowing. “We are off to a fantastic start internationally and couldn’t be more pleased,” Warner Bros. Picture Group chairman Toby Emmerich said in a statement that was blasted out to the press earlier this week. He added that the studio was “running a marathon, not a sprint.”
Indeed, the term “30-day opening” is being stressed by Warner executives, as is the fact that Nolan’s movies tend to be “leggy.”
Which points to another aspect of the new normal—for now—in movie releases. Tenet will remain in theaters far longer than the typical two- or three-week run. Warner is requiring that multiplexes show the film for up to 12 weeks, a time span that could stretch longer given the dearth of new releases. That should ultimately help its box office in the U.S., where the country’s two biggest movie theater markets—New York and Los Angeles—remain on lockdown. In the pre-COVID-19 world, opening a movie like Tenet without New York and L.A. would be unthinkable.
“It’s a return to the old days when movies had legs and played for weeks and even months” in a theater, says Dergarabedian. “It’s a product of a bygone era.”
But if Tenet is the ultimate litmus test for the future of theaters, it also underscores how individual studios are charting divergent distribution strategies, each decision guided by different North Stars. Disney, for example, is making long-term bets on its streaming platform, Disney Plus. Universal, too, is using COVID-19 to push forward with digital distribution channels. Earlier in the year, it released Trolls World Tour and The King of Staten Island on digital platforms, and in July, Universal made an industry-shattering agreement with AMC to shorten the theatrical window, meaning that Universal movies that play at AMC theaters can be made available on premium video-on-demand platforms just 17 days after their theatrical release.
Warner’s decision to release Tenet, meanwhile, was influenced by its relationship with Nolan. A staunch advocate of the theatrical experience, Nolan also happens to be the studio’s most valuable filmmaker. The Dark Knight Rises grossed $1 billion globally; Inception made over $828 million around the world. Nolan’s ability to attract critical acclaim and drive box office receipts makes him a unique player in Hollywood. According to The Hollywood Reporter, in early June, Warner executives had a video meeting with Nolan to talk about the release strategy for Tenet, which was then set to open on July 17. In the meeting, Warner executives laid out economic scenarios for the film being released on various dates. When Nolan was presented with the idea of releasing the film on August 7, when it was then assumed COVID-19 would be more under control, Nolan voiced his desire to have his film be the first studio film back in theaters as a way to revive the ailing theater business and the livelihoods of the non-stars who keep it chugging, an issue he wrote about passionately in a piece for The Washington Post. The studio concurred with his thinking.
But as COVID-19 numbers began to spike in pockets of the U.S.—including L.A.—over the summer, Warner pushed the film to July 31, and then into August, and ultimately early September.
In the end it will be difficult to judge whether Tenet is a success. What constitutes a strong box office in such a murky landscape? And does the film really need to topple any records at this point? On a symbolic level, Tenet has already emerged as Hollywood’s biggest sign of hope for a return to business as usual, and a call to arms to go out and see a blockbuster as it’s meant to be seen. Stars such as Tom Cruise and Chance the Rapper have made mask-wearing videos in support of the film and posted them to social media, and Nolan fans are reportedly flying across the country in order to see it in markets that are open.
No matter what happens with Tenet, however, it’s hard not to see the coronavirus as a turning point for Hollywood. For as much as Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan extol the pleasures of the big screen, audiences are becoming habituated to an on-demand world where mid-budget movies go straight to Netflix or become rentable earlier at premium prices. Rather than heralding the return of traditional theatergoing, Tenet could mark the beginning of an era in which only the biggest, most spectacular blockbusters have the power to get Americans off the couch.