Tenet Box Office Opens at $20 Million, Raises Questions About Industry’s Future

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is the biggest movie in the U.S. But even as it nears $150 million globally, the state of the industry remains ambiguous.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet
Photo: Warner Bros.

This holiday weekend, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet captured nearly 70 percent of the U.S. market share of movie theater tickets across the country. In normal circumstances that news would accompany a staggering box office figure—a Labor Day record-breaker to go along with the No. 1 debut. But during the current coronavirus pandemic, more than 50 percent of the market accounts for $20.2 million in box office receipts over four days.

Is this the “new normal” or the first tentative step toward moviegoers slowly returning to theaters? It’s hard to say right now, but it’s just part of the story for Warner Bros. and the Nolan epic. Indeed, the $20.2 million across 2,810 locations—notably none of which included the biggest moviegoing markets in the U.S., Los Angeles and New York City—was notably dwarfed by Tenet’s other opening this past weekend in China. The second largest moviegoing market in the world is now a bigger source of revenue for Tenet. Grossing an estimated $30 million in the Chinese mainland, Tenet now holds the record for the biggest Chinese opening of a Christopher Nolan movie ever, as well as the title for biggest Chinese IMAX opening in 2020.

Coupled with the film dropping soft at 36 percent in the other international markets it already opened in, including earning another £2.1 million in the UK, Tenet grossed $78.3 million around the world this past weekend, bringing its global cume to $146.2 million.

Given the last film to open over $20 million in the U.S. was Disney and Pixar’s Onward on the weekend of March 6—and even then earning a relatively tepid $39.1 million—Tenet’s limited debut marks a needed respite for the North American movie theaters with their doors open. Still, it is hard to gauge how satisfied Warner Bros. or Nolan can be with their experiment to restart moviegoing when the opening weekend is smaller than the second weekend of Nolan’s last film, Dunkirk.

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To be sure in addition to opening in a pandemic and without major costal city markets, which also include closed theaters in San Francisco and Washington D.C., Tenet also faced the challenge of theaters only filling between a quarter and a third capacity due to social distancing measures. The film also faced what might be relatively mixed word of mouth. Its aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes is 74 percent, the lowest ever for a Nolan movie. And while also positive overall, Tenet’s CinemaScore is lower than expected, with the grad of “B.” By comparison Dunkirk earned an “A-” and Interstellar a “B+.” Granted CinemaScore tends to poll from coastal cities, but there seems to be a larger degree of disappointment in regard to Tenet than previous Nolan efforts.

But then there is a lot of lofty expectations being placed on the film, including by its director. A movie Nolan reportedly lobbied behind-the-scenes to get released as soon as possible, Tenet was viewed by the filmmaker as a chance to jumpstart moviegoing, which it may yet do. Warner Bros. wants the film to play for a long seasonal period, closer to how adult-leaning movies could find steady audiences for months in the 20th century after a debut, instead of two or three weekends.

In fact, the movie’s intended rollout appears modeled on a reversal of the studio system before Jaws’ colossal success in 1975. Until the stunning grosses of that wide release (the second ever conceived), movies would open in major cities before eventually having rollouts throughout the country. The goal of Tenet is to reverse engineer this older model, with the movie potentially opening in cities like San Francisco or New York City down the line if COVID-19 infection rates remain low in those areas.

However, there is a lot of ambiguity in that, just as there is even more ambiguity about how this opening will affect future Hollywood wide releases still scheduled for 2020. Warner Bros. has two of them alone, with Wonder Woman 1984 due out Oct. 2 and Dune coming in December. Based purely on my own speculation, $20 million in the U.S. would be astonishingly beneath studio expectations and needs for a superhero tentpole. However, conditions may yet change between Labor Day and October. One should also consider that Tenet’s smaller box office cume could also be part of a larger strategy to wring what there is to be found in the fragile theatrical market before releasing the film on some form of PVOD streaming potentially as soon as November or December.

When contrasted around the complete cloud of shadows encircling Disney’s PVOD release of Mulan on Disney+, there is a lot of unknown out there about the state of movie exhibition, for both audiences and studios alike.