In a litmus test for American moviegoing in the pandemic, Christopher Nolan's Tenet brought in an estimated US$20.2 million (S$27.6 million) through the holiday weekend in US and Canadian theatres.
The result could be greeted as either the rejuvenation of US cinemas – more Americans went to the movies this weekend than they have in nearly six months – or a reflection of drastically lowered standards for Hollywood's top blockbusters given the circumstances.
About 70 per cent of US movie theaters are currently open; those in the country's top markets, Los Angeles and New York, remain closed. Theatres that are operating are limiting audiences to a maximum of 50 per cent capacity to distance moviegoers from one another. Tenet played in 2,810 North American locations, about three-fourths of what most major releases typically launch in.
Warner Bros declined to split up US and Canadian box office receipts. Theatres in Canada, where COVID-19 cases are much lower than in the US, began showing Tenet a week earlier. The film debuted stateside with nightly preview screenings Monday through Wednesday before the official opening on Thursday. Warner Bros. included all of the above in its estimated gross Sunday, along with expected returns for Monday's Labor Day.
Tenet opened stronger in China. It debuted there with US$30 million in ticket sales from Friday to Monday. Internationally, Tenet has exceeded expectations. In two weeks of release, its overseas total is US$126 million, with a global tally thus far of US$146.2 million.
Warner Bros has emphasised that the usual opening-weekend calculus is out the window. Few onlookers felt it was possible to gauge how Tenet would open. The film, which cost US$200 million to make and at least US$100 million to market, will need to get close to US$500 million to break even.
In the film's favour: It currently has the big screen almost entirely to itself. Some multiplexes played Tenet as many as 100 times over the weekend. With little else on the horizon, Warner Bros is counting on a long run for Tenet.
Not in the film's favour: Audiences didn't love Nolan's latest time-bender. Moviegoers gave the thriller, starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, a "B" CinemaScore, the lowest grade for a Nolan release since 2006's The Prestige. Reviews (75 per cent positive on Rotten Tomatoes) have been good but far from overwhelming.
Warner Bros declined to make executives available to discuss the opening but said in a statement that Tenet had to be judged differently. "We are in unprecedented territory, so any comparisons to the pre-COVID world would be inequitable and baseless," said the studio.
Analysing the film's performance was virtually impossible, said senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian for data firm Comscore. He acknowledged North America remains a more challenged marketplace than Europe or Asia, but called it a solid start in what will be lengthy run for Tenet.
"It's going to take a longer time to assess this," said Dergarabedian. "The win is just to have movies open. To me, that says a lot."
Hollywood is watching closely. With the majority of the studios' top productions delayed until next year, the industry is experimenting with how to release its most expensive movies in the COVID-era. The Walt Disney Co this weekend also debuted its US$200 million live-action Mulan remake, but did so as a US$30 purchase for Disney+ subscribers.
Disney on Sunday didn't share digital returns for Mulan – a practice that's been common among streaming companies and previous anticipated VOD releases like Universal's Trolls World Tour and Disney's own Hamilton. But Mulan is also playing in theatres in some overseas territories. It began with US$5.9 million in Thailand, Taiwan, the Middle East, Singapore and Malaysia. Next week, it debuts theatrically in its most important market: China.
The release of Tenet was also hotly debated, given the health risks associated with indoor gatherings. Several prominent film critics said they wouldn't review Tenet over ethical concerns.
Theatre chains, meanwhile, are struggling to remain solvent. Exhibitors have argued that they need new films to survive. Last weekend offered the first significant opportunity for US cinemas to convince moviegoers to come back. Disney's The New Mutants, a long delayed X-Men spinoff, collected about US$7 million in 2,412 locations last weekend. Dipping significantly in its second weekend, its total is now up to US$11.6 million.
Fittingly in an upside-down year, the palindromic Tenet – a thriller in which time is reversed – essentially began the summer movie season on the weekend it typically ends. Labor Day weekend, this year a historical one at the movies, is usually among the sleepiest weekends of the year at cinemas.