Collectively, the moves dim Hollywood’s broader hopes that it could salvage its important summer season after a pandemic wiped out its spring.
The “Tenet” postponement signals the first crack in a studio, and filmmaker, that had previously remained steadfast in its belief that audiences would return to theaters in mid-July, even as nearly every competitor was scrambling to push movies deeper into the summer or later.
In a statement, WB did not specify reasons for the movie’s postponement. “We’re especially thrilled, in this complex and rapidly changing environment, to be bringing Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet,’ a global tentpole of jaw-dropping size, scope and scale, to theaters around the world on July 31,” said WB Motion Picture Group chairman Toby Emmerich. “It’s been longer than any of us could’ve imagined since we’ve seen a movie on the big screen.”
But concern has been rising in recent days that the kind of mass audience needed for a release of this scale would not be ready to return to theaters in just five weeks. The news comes as some states, such as Arizona, have seen a rise in covid-19 hospitalizations and many California counties have been embroiled in controversy over how to impose safety measures like mask-wearing. Los Angeles County this week recorded its highest single-day total of new cases.
And New York City, the country’s largest movie market, does not have a set date for the reopening of movie theaters.
“Tenet,” starring John David Washington, is a $200 million action-adventure from a director with a strong box-office record — Nolan’s “Inception,” “Dunkirk” and the “Dark Knight” movies generated billions of dollars in receipts around the world. As theaters begin to reopen, they have placed their hopes on the filmmaker to rescue them from a disastrous 2020.
Publicly, at least, the National Association of Theatre Owners that represents theaters endorsed the “Tenet” delay.
“Over these last months we have been keeping Warner Bros. closely informed of our work towards reopening our theaters in accordance with governmental health and safety requirements, and we are looking forward to audiences enjoying Tenet in our theaters all around the world on July 31st,” it said in a statement.
But the move is likely to create a domino effect that goes well beyond Warner Bros.. “Mulan,” the Disney action-adventure reboot, is scheduled to open July 24 after being postponed from its initial March date. Yet Disney chief executive Bob Chapek said on a conference call with analysts last month that he was grateful not to be going first, and many in the industry believe “Mulan” will now move as well and come out after “Tenet,” no earlier than Aug. 7.
With that move, others parts of a carefully orchestrated sequence would also be upended. Paramount Pictures is scheduled to open “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run,” on Aug. 7. The film could now get pushed to late August or out of the summer entirely; studios are reluctant to go head-to-head with other films at a time when it is unclear there is a broad audience for even one film.
A canceled summer would have a broad financial impact on Hollywood. Theaters have lost billions since movie theaters closed on a wide scale in March with the outbreak of the pandemic, as studios pushed all major movies coming out before July 4. Last year, the April-June period brought in $3.4 billion in box-office receipts. This year, it’s generated just $2 million, largely from a smattering of reopened theaters showing classic films.
Another domino already fell Friday as “Unhinged” — an action-thriller starring Russell Crowe from the independent Solstice Studios that had been scheduled as a warm-up act of sorts on July 1 — was moved to July 10 in the wake of the “Tenet” news. Solstice chief Mark Gill says the company remains on track for the July 10 date despite Warner Bros’ action.
Meanwhile, the push from some studios to release movies digitally during the pandemic remains strong. This weekend sees Universal Pictures put out “The King of Staten Island,” a much-anticipated new movie from Judd Apatow inspired by the life of and starring “SNL” personality Pete Davidson. Universal decided this week not to put the film even in the few theaters that are open so it could be made available exclusively on digital rental platforms.