First it was James Bond. Peter Rabbit and Mulan soon followed. These films were the some of the very earliest to flee their theatrical release dates as it became clear that the novel coronavirus would force theaters closed for an extended time. That emptying of the 2020 release calendar only accelerated, forcing studios to weigh the costs of full year delays against premium VOD drops. Although no film escaped the reality imposed by a global pandemic, one film has consistently led the charge to reopen theaters: Tenet.
Unlike the rest of the transient films displaced by COVID, Warner Brothers just kept shifting Tenet back, two weeks at a time, angling to be the first blockbuster to welcome back crowds. Driven, in part, by Christopher Nolan’s personal sway at WB and his bullheaded desire to gather crowds at the cinema again, Tenet held on and released as soon as enough US theaters opened to theoretically sustain it.
In all fairness, Tenet is a film that demands a big screen viewing. Defined by its action and visual wizardry, the movie would really suffer at home. Even the plot — already convoluted to a fault — would be that much more difficult to follow with the distractions of watching from home. I saw it at a drive in and even there the action seemed too far away to engage in the way Nolan likely intended. And yet, it’s absolutely inexcusable that Tenet was released the way it was.
Nolan films are a big deal. He is one of the few directors who can fill seats, sight unseen, for films outside the superhero genre (ironically because of a reputation largely built on his own superhero trilogy, but I digress.) Let’s set aside the quality of Tenet until more people can safely see it — although I can quickly say it’s not very good. This time the film’s quality doesn’t matter, more important is the near criminal danger its release posed.
Although less than anyone involved had hoped, thousands across the country went to see Tenet. Thousands stepped into full or partially full, enclosed rooms that elevated their risk catching a deadly airborne virus. Thousands put their personal health at risk so they could see a confusing action movie by the guy that made that Batman movie they are still obsessed with. Worse than that though, those thousands of moviegoers didn’t only put their own health at risk, they put their families, coworkers and friends in danger too.
It didn’t have to be this way. An ounce of self reflection by Nolan or WB might have convinced them that Tenet could wait and kept cinephiles and Nolan fans from being forced into a difficult choice. Instead they rushed a release and everyone, including Tenet, paid a price.
Early returns have not been good. Almost a month in, Tenet has grossed about $250 million on a $200 million budget. After marketing and distribution costs, estimates of the film’s break even point are around $400 million. It seems likely that Tenet will end up losing money for Warner and others are taking notice.
Disney has all but cleared it’s 2020 calendar. Black Widow and the Eternals have moved their release dates to 2021. West Side Story, Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated Oscar contender, has been moved back a full year to December 2021. The only big movies left for this year are Kenneth Branagh’s Agatha Christie adaptation Death on the Nile and Pixar’s Soul, which many suspect will get the Mulan treatment on Disney+. Other studios are sure to follow suit, Tenet was the test case and they failed.
Tenet’s lackluster box office is probably a good thing for public health, but nobody should be celebrating. The shelving of highly anticipated films is a disappointing consequence albeit a minimally important one. Lots of midsize and independent theaters were relying on the gate revenues and concession sales from Tenet to keep them afloat. Rent is still due and these theaters will undoubtedly struggle to pay it.
What does a dying theater industry mean? It’s hard to say while they’re on life support but it likely includes major changes to how we see movies. Big streamers and studios may start snapping up theater chains, something that will likely be allowed again after a recent court ruling. That could mean Amazon or Netflix owned theaters exclusively showing their own films to their subscribers. Video on Demand could expand the pandemic trend of snapping up smaller indie films that no longer have a home in vertically monopolized theaters. The only certainty is that things will feel very different when people return to theaters safely next year.
Unfortunately there aren’t any good options right now, just less bad ones. Studios are always going to be profit driven. They’ll release films as soon as they think it will be profitable, safety be damned. As someone who loves movies this is really disappointing. There’s almost nothing I want to do more than go back to the theaters for The French Dispatch or No Time to Die. But we have to face the reality that people are dying. This pandemic does not give a fuck about whether Tenet makes money or not. At a certain point these corporations are run by people and those people have a moral obligation to keep people safe. We all do.
After Tenet, the coming year for film is less clear than ever. My hope is that studios find a way to provide more home releases and that film lovers find it in themselves to resist the urge to go back to the movies too soon. Find a drive in or watch an indie film at home. The sooner we can stop the spread of COVID, the sooner we can gather at the cinema again. I’m looking forward to when we can do that, but for the sake of public health, I can wait.
Tenet — this is sort of a review after all — is not good enough to warrant the health risk. 5/10
Tenet is currently playing in select theaters across the US. If you do decide to see it, please be safe.