At stake, say entertainment players and analysts, is nothing short of the nation’s preeminent form of public entertainment.
“If ‘Tenet’ doesn’t come out or doesn’t succeed, every other company goes home,” said a marketing executive from a rival studio who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the news media. “It’s no movies until Christmas.”
Experts describe two fundamentally different visions of what the next few months will look like.
In one, audiences eager to leave the house after months of isolation pour in (social distantly) to see the Nolan film, which appears to focus on an agent attempting to prevent a global catastrophe (plot specifics remain, unsurprisingly, vague). Every auditorium is filled with “Tenet” moviegoers; many theaters stay open late to accommodate them. Other studio films, such as “Mulan” and “Wonder Woman 1984,” then follow. The summer consigns the spring quarantines to a place of surreal memory.
The other scenario is bleaker: Continued covid-19 fears either prompt Warner Bros. to delay “Tenet” or consumers to stay away, resulting in a flop. Other studios that have been cautiously scheduling post-“Tenet” releases pull their movies. The summer turns out to look just like spring — “new” entertainment means old Netflix shows and “going out” is a euphemism for walking around the block.
Like the spinning top at the end of “Inception,” even close observers don’t know which way this could go.
“In some respects opening this movie in July seems like a very smart move because the landscape is so wide open,” said Ira Deutchman, a longtime veteran of film distribution and exhibition, referring to the lack of other major movies. “But anyone who says they know what is going to happen is lying.”
“Tenet,” he and others note, is ideally built to jolt consumers back into moviegoing. It’s an intriguing premise from one of the most financially successful filmmakers in history opening in theaters with zero serious competition.
That gives experts hope — and also makes them think that if “Tenet” can’t work, nothing will.
The feature-film business has lost billions of dollars due to the pandemic. The April-June period in 2019 produced $3.4 billion in box-office receipts. So far in 2020? It’s yielded just $102,000. The summer could see more losses, with numbers well below the $2 billion of last July and August, especially if major markets like New York and Los Angeles remain closed.
But as batches of spring and summer movies began getting postponed in March, Warner Bros. officially left “Tenet” on the calendar. At first it seemed like it was simply delaying the inevitable. Yet it soon became clear that WB and Nolan, a passionate advocate for the theatrical experience in the age of streaming, were planning to use the movie as a kind of reopening lever.
That plan has now come into focus.
Both Warner Bros. and Nolan declined to comment for this story. But those with knowledge of the plans describe how the studio is moving forward. The company has already conducted cast and filmmaker interviews for “long-lead” journalists, monthly magazine writers, by Zoom, and is preparing to drop a second trailer online soon — the trappings of a company preparing a major summer release.
The studio, Nolan and theater owners have also remained in close contact about the measures that can be taken to bring people safely into multiplexes. Everyone has been trying to pull toward the same goal, say those familiar with the conversations who were not authorized to speak about them publicly: support “Tenet” as the movie that reopens America.
For Warner Bros, the upside to this approach is huge: It could capitalize on months of pent-up demand and give the studio theaters all to itself.
Unfortunately, analysts note, there’s a reason the reward is high: no other studio wants to go first.
“We’re going to get a pretty good idea of [our prospects] because there’s a competitive movie that opens up one week before our film does,” Disney chief executive Bob Chapek told investors on a conference call last week, sounding relieved as he described the plan for the company’s “Mulan,” as of now scheduled for July 24.
The industry in recent weeks has been divided on what should be done. In Zoom meetings, virtual lunches and conference calls, the conversation has often turned to “Tenet” and whether Nolan is once again a visionary who can save Hollywood or a man who has quixotically let his belief in theaters blind him to current realities.
Nolan himself has fueled the debate with an op-ed in The Washington Post, in which he wrote grandly of the importance of movie theaters as a country tries to bounce back.
“When this crisis passes, the need for collective human engagement, the need to live and love and laugh and cry together, will be more powerful than ever,” he wrote in the piece. “We don’t just owe it to the 150,000 workers of this great American industry to include them in those we help, we owe it to ourselves. We need what movies can offer us.”
If “Tenet” were to sputter because of the pandemic, it would squander an important opportunity for Warner Bros., which spent as much as $200 million on the film and has been counting on it as a centerpiece of its 2020 profit strategy.
Other studios have decided it’s not worth the risk. Many theatrical releases this year continue to be pushed to 2021, and still others have gone to streaming. Disney this week said it was moving its recording of stage phenomenon “Hamilton” to Disney Plus. Universal is preparing to release its big summer comedy, Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island,” starring and inspired by the life of Pete Davidson, as a digital rental next month.
But Warner Bros. executives privately believe their situation is different. Nolan has an unprecedented track record in modern Hollywood. Known for directing the massively profitable “Dark Knight” Batman movies, it’s his other films that have become eye-catchers — original concepts that succeed at a franchise level.
Nolan’s last three non-Batman movies — “Inception” (2010), “Interstellar” (2014) and “Dunkirk” (2017) — have collectively grossed more than $2 billion in theaters worldwide, making him the most bankable director brand of the past decade. Like Steven Spielberg in an earlier era, moviegoers buy tickets simply because his name is on a film. If his films have showed a new path in previous summers — they disproved tropes about original stories, about character-driven superheroes and about period movies — why, Warner Bros. executives wonder, can’t he do it again?
Some theater owners, though, say appetite may not be enough when capacity is so limited.
Many theaters run on narrow margins even when they’re selling out weekend shows. Operating screens at 20 or 30 percent to abide by social distancing rules, they say, will all but guarantee losses.
“You’re talking about a business where many of us normally lose money five out of seven days of the week,” said Andrew Mencher, programming director for Washington’s Avalon Theatre. “And now you’re taking the two days of the week that you hope to turn a profit and saying you can only let in 30 percent of the people?”
Even if “Tenet” could end up in the black, Mencher said, he thought it a long shot that the film could reopen theaters for anyone else.
“For this to have a chance to work you need to make sure it has a lot of screens at each multiplex over many weeks,” he said; that would help the movie compensate for reduced capacity with a lot of showings. “So you basically have to make sure it would be the only movie in theaters for months.”
Housed in a nearly 100-year-old venue, the Avalon is a linchpin of the Northwest Washington cultural scene, showing a mix of studio, independent and classic films. But like other theaters, including some in recently reopened Georgia, the Avalon has made no concrete plans to reopen as it tries to figure out the new economic and public-health realities.
Those health concerns could potentially throw a monkey wrench into “Tenet,” too. Warner Bros. executives acknowledge they will release the film only if the country’s two largest markets, New York and Los Angeles, are fully open. That prospect is still uncertain. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has said movie theaters can unlock their doors in the fourth phase, the final one, of the state’s reopening on an as-yet unknown date.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has said movie theaters will come in the state’s Stage 3, but that date also hasn’t been set, and will vary by region.
Adding a further wrinkle were comments Tuesday from Los Angeles County public health director Barbara Ferrer, who said stay-at-home orders in the county, the hardest hit in California, could go well into the summer.
Warner Bros. has some time to pivot should the coronavirus situations not improve. While “Tenet” marketing must begin in the next few weeks, it is mainly what Hollywood terms “awareness” marketing — more general and lower-cost spots just meant to put the title into consumer consciousness. More expensive “purchase-intent” marketing would not begin until late June, giving Warner Bros. time for an about-face. (Another movie, the independent thriller “Unhinged” starring Russell Crowe, has also been scheduled for July.)
Upping the stakes for Warner Bros. is that the movie comes at a time of transition for the studio and its parent company.
WB named a new chair and chief executive, Ann Sarnoff, last summer while parent company WarnerMedia named a new CEO, Jason Kilar, last month. Later this month WarnerMedia will launch HBO Max, an attempt by it and owner AT&T to take on the streaming competition of Disney Plus and Netflix. A summer release would put the movie on the service in time for Christmas and could be a subscription driver; a delay would remove a key tool to attract customers.
There has been no talk, multiple WarnerMedia insiders say, of releasing the film on streaming early.
But some wonder if that shouldn’t be part of the strategy.
John Sloss, a film producer, is among a small but growing group of industry players asking if a hybrid model might make sense.
“If theaters tried playing the movie for a few weeks and people were not coming out, I’m not sure Warner Bros. couldn’t turn it into” a digital rental, he said, suggesting a third way the “Inception” top could go. “Especially if you brought theaters into revenue-sharing. It could be a pretty good backup plan.”