Did the Film Industry Learn the Wrong Lessons From 'Tenet'? Christopher Nolan Thinks So

Nick Pope
·3-min read
Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

From Esquire

Going ahead with the release of Tenet was always going to be a gamble. Making the whole thing completely inaudible, even more so. But director Christopher Nolan was dead set against delaying his film for a fourth time – partly because it would have robbed floundering cinemas of yet another tent-pole feature. It was finally released in the last week of August, to some criticism and much curiosity from studio execs.

In the end, it racked up £350 million worldwide against a budget of £200 million. Well short of the kind of returns Nolan has made with previous films (The Dark Knight Rises topped a billion back in 2012), but still a very respectable and encouraging figure in the context of the pandemic. Problem is, other studios didn’t see it that way.

Disney released its $200 million live-action Mulan remake straight to Disney+, losing $130 million dollars in the process. Universal has catapulted No Time to Die to April 2021, where it will be joined by A Quiet Place Part II, Black Widow, Top Gun: Maverick, Dune, F9, and almost every other blockbuster on the release schedule. Rumours suggest that Wonder Woman, optimistically penciled in for December, will be shifted too.

The reasoning is obvious, but the dreaded question is: if we wait, will cinemas be around to host them? Chains across the world were shutting their doors even before lockdown measures intensified last week. The industry already survives on slender margins. Can it afford to wait, with no real assurances, until mid-2021?

Photo credit: Mike Marsland/Mike Marsland/WireImage - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mike Marsland/Mike Marsland/WireImage - Getty Images

It’s a question Christopher Nolan has clearly wrestled with since the release of Tenet. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times to promote Tom Shone’s new book The Nolan Variations, he spoke of how Tenet’s relative success hasn’t had the impact that he hoped it would.

“Warner Bros released Tenet, and I’m thrilled that it has made almost $350 million,” Nolan said. “But I am worried that the studios are drawing the wrong conclusions from our release — that rather than looking at where the film has worked well and how that can provide them with much needed revenue, they’re looking at where it hasn’t lived up to pre-Covid expectations and will start using that as an excuse to make exhibition take all the losses from the pandemic instead of getting in the game and adapting — or rebuilding our business, in other words.”

Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon - Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon - Warner Bros.

In fairness to studios, Tenet’s performance in the US left a lot to be desired. Opening over the Labor Day weekend, with Covid cases across the nation topping 20,000 on a daily basis, it only made $20 million (and has since reached $53 million). Compare that to Nolan’s last film, Dunkirk, which eventually grossed $188 million in the US and Canada alone – well over the production budget.

So what happens next? Will studios work more selectively with where they release their films, and risk the possibility of piracy? Or, like with Pixar and Soul, are blockbusters destined for streaming services for the foreseeable future? Or, much more likely, will they just wait it out and hope that cinemas are able to follow suit?

Some almost certainly won’t – Cineworld made a £1.3 billion loss in the first half of the year – and that would be a hammer blow to the arts and our communities. “Long term, moviegoing is a part of life, like restaurants and everything else,” Nolan said, before hitting a far more conciliatory note. “But right now, everybody has to adapt to a new reality.”

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