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Millions come to see ‘Tenet,' bolstering hope theaters will survive the pandemic

Whether crowds will return in the United States, where covid is still rampant, remains to be seen

Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington in a scene from "Tenet." (Melinda Sue Gordon/AP)

After months of delays, concerns, handwringing and re-setting, a Hollywood studio released a major film in theaters around the world during a global pandemic.

And millions of people came to see it.

“Tenet,” the time-bending Christopher Nolan thriller that Warner Bros. had been hoping would kickstart the movie business after a months-long hiatus, grossed $53 million in countries around the world over the weekend. Filmgoers from South Korea to France, from Canada to Taiwan, turned out wearing masks in socially distanced theaters, transforming the most significant film release since lockdowns began in March into an early hit.

Many analysts had been expecting about $40 million from the roughly 40 territories where the movie opened.

“It’s a very impressive result, frankly,” said Bruce Nash, an expert at box-office site The Numbers. “You needed three players to come together in this dance to make it happen — Warner Bros., theaters and moviegoers. And you have to credit each of them for doing their part.” The studio, prodded by Nolan, had decided to bring the movie out even as many of its rivals have moved their films to 2021 or to digital platforms.

And the news defies what had been the expectation of some observers: that even if theaters and cities were open, many moviegoers, fearing contagion, would stay home.

But the initial success also raises questions about where the business goes from here. It remains to be seen whether demand has been exhausted overseas, with all those interested in visiting theaters coming out this first weekend. A

Also in doubt: whether the U.S., where theaters in many cities remain closed, can come close to approximating the feat. For an American sector that has been battered by the pandemic — in August, domestic box office dropped to $13 million from more than $700 million in the same month in 2019 — a rebound is essential.

The numbers are undeniably strong overseas. “Inception,” Nolan’s summer 2010 film with a related premise, was a major smash abroad, grossing $535 million internationally. In France, South Korea, Germany and the United Kingdom, the movie totaled $36 million on its opening weekends. For “Tenet” this weekend, those four territories brought in $23 million, suggesting business upwards of 60 percent of normal times, a ratio much higher than many analysts had forecast.

Experts say the pent-up demand helped; most moviegoers have not seen a new Hollywood film since the spring. So did the buzz about the movie re-opening theaters.

But they also note that the $53 million opening could be misleading.

“One of the ‘Tenet’ factors is that it has no competition; theater owners pretty much don’t have anything else to play,” said Nash, noting how the film was often on three, four or even five screens at a given multiplex. “The real question becomes: can you have two movies at the same time that do OK?”

That’s a lesson Disney will seek to learn with "Mulan” as it opens the much-delayed action-adventure in foreign countries beginning this week. (It will be available for a $30 premium fee to Disney Plus subscribers in the U.S.) And “Wonder Woman 1984,” the animated film “Soul” and new James Bond picture “No Time to Die” will test the premise when they open later this fall. Smaller releases, including the independent ”Unnhinged” and much-shuffled Disney-Fox superhero picture “New Mutants” opened to $4 million and $7 million last weekend and this weekend respectively.

Theater owners say they need all these movies to do well so they can pay lenders and landlords, to whom many have been unable to send checks since the spring, when theaters shut down and revenue dried up.

In the meantime, Warner Bros. is attempting to make sure “Tenet,” which cost $200 million to produce and additional tens of millions to market, continues to play well.

That is true in Europe and Asia, where there are fears that all consumers willing to come to the movies already have done so. And it is true in new markets.

The U.S. and China are among the places where the film will open this week. The latter has proved an extremely fertile area for covid-era moviegoing, with new war epic “The Eight Hundred” grossing $277 million since opening several weeks ago

The U.S., where theaters in markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. are still closed, is a different story. And with other markets such as Chicago open but in danger of shutting down if outbreaks occur, few are hugely optimistic about the film’s American prospects.

Covid-19 cases are now approaching six million in the U.S., with deaths surpassing 180,000, and the pandemic spiking in the Midwest.

Still, owners are trying to stay upbeat.

William Barstow, chief executive of Main Street Theatres in Nebraska, said his summer’s box office was previously about 10 percent compared to its usual figures but has been rising an additional 10 percent each week lately.

If “Tenet” performs as well as it did overseas, he said, he could reach 50 percent of his typical box office dollars over Labor Day weekend.

“Just another step to normal,” he said, then added, “It’s a long journey.”