A week ago, I predicted that Tenet would be bumped from mid-August to October 2.
Boy, I was way off.
In a normal world, the Tenet news we’d be hearing today are reports of its boffo opening weekend box office. Instead, Warner Bros. announced that they have indefinitely delayed the release of director Christopher Nolan‘s latest blockbuster.
Even so, they teased that a new release date would be announced soon, and that it would be for this calendar year. Per a statement from WB chairman Toby Emmerich:
- “We will share a new 2020 release date imminently for Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s wholly original and mind-blowing feature. We are not treating Tenet like a traditional global day-and-date release, and our upcoming marketing and distribution plans will reflect that.”
That last bit — “We are not treating Tenet like a traditional global day-and-date release…” — is particularly intriguing. It suggests that Warners will go ahead with a slow, platforming global roll out, one in which North America would inevitably be the last territory to get a theatrical run.
I find that very hard to believe, for two key reasons:
- Piracy and Social Media. That two-headed dragon (one illegal, the other unstoppable) will essentially spoil the film for audiences in North America and elsewhere, i.e. the markets that have to wait the longest for theatrical play. One of those places could be Nolan’s U.K. home, where theaters are currently open but struggling due to lack of attendance and the British nation remains one of the world’s worst hotspots. For Warners, not knowing when Tenet will be able to play in major English-speaking countries seems like too big a risk for such a major investment, especially if that North America play has to be delayed until summer of 2021.
- The international theatrical landscape is proving to be as uncertain as North America’s. Even as some global regions have begun to reopen theaters, new spikes are starting to see those re-opens abruptly re-close (Hong Kong closed theaters last week after a third wave of COVID-19, then Barcelona, Spain followed this past weekend due to a second wave). Ones that are reopening are seeing sluggish results; in China, small market attendance is low and their biggest cities — like Beijing — have yet to allow theaters to reopen at all. After an initial one-week boom, theaters in France are also falling off (and therefore desperate for something like Tenet). Expect more abrupt re-closings to continue around the world, thus creating a volatile atmosphere that makes an extended theatrical run look iffy and, therefore, way too risky.
The fact that Warners is still publicly committing to some kind of 2020 release strategy suggests to me that, at this point, Nolan remains unwilling to raise the white flag on the entire year. Given that Nolan is the WB’s most valued artist and brand relationship, they’re going to keep making plans for 2020 until events unequivocally cancel 2020 completely and Nolan finally comes to terms with that.
Indeed, to see how Warners really views the theatrical potential of 2020, one need look no further than the other delay they announced today: The Conjuring 3 has been bumped from September 11, 2020 to next summer, June 4, 2021.
That move confirms how Warners actually sees 2020. Nolan, however, isn’t quite there yet. Given that, the charade of a 2020 Tenet run will continue, at least for now. When Warners does get around to announcing their strategy for a 2020 global Tenet release, take it for what it’s worth: not much, and something that will most likely change once Nolan finally realizes that there’s simply no other choice.
Regardless of what that strategy may look like, don’t expect other studios to wait to see if they can mirror it. On the contrary, expect the ripple effect to begin immediately on every remaining movie that’s currently slated for 2020 (Mulan, Black Widow, No Time To Die, Soul, etc.). By the end of this week, I’d wager that all studio releases through November 2020 at the very least will announce further delays, and the lingering December releases will soon follow.
As necessary as all of this is (given the unlikelihood that audiences will be willing to return to theaters en masse anytime soon), it’s a very disturbing development. By the end of 2020, the landscape of movie theater venues could look tragically different, with mass permanent closings being left in its wake.
That’s what Warners and Nolan are still trying to avoid. That’s why they’re constructing a 2020 plan for Tenet: they’re trying to save the entire global theatrical industry — which is increasingly hanging by a thread — by throwing it a blockbuster lifeline. I admire the effort, but I’ll be stunned if events allow them to actually pull it off.