When they said imminent, they meant it.
Last Monday, Warner Bros. announced that they were indefinitely delaying the release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Along with that, however, they stated that a new release strategy was imminent, suggesting it would involve an initial international rollout that would platform globally as nations and territories became available.
Today, Warners announced that plan. It is surprisingly ambitious.
Tenet is now schedule to debut internationally on Wednesday nAugust 26, 2020. Nine days later, it will then open in select cities in North America on Thursday September 3 for Labor Day weekend. The 70 international territories include Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United Kingdom.
The big notable exception from the rollout: China. Its absence is due to that country’s current restriction that no movie with a run time longer than 2 hours can be screened; Tenet exceeds that length.
If this date sticks, it likely means one thing: Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan have made the mutual decision that they’re okay with losing a lot of money.
With most movie theaters still closed in major U.S. metros (including the three biggest chains: AMC, Regal, and Cinemark), it’s difficult to imagine how circumstances that have kept them closed will change that dramatically — and positively — within one month.
Yes, those chains and theaters will likely have begun to reopen (although perhaps not nationally, and it may exclude states like California and New York), but even so it’s difficult to imagine that a big enough cross-section of the public will be ready to return to theaters at a level that allows Tenet to haul in a profit.
But of course, that skepticism assumes traditional box office patterns.
Warners, however, is gambling that a profit is possible but in a completely different paradigm.
With Tenet likely owning the bulk of the screen space nationally, the competition for Tenet will be next to none. That volume alone could off-set the capacity reductions for each screen that will likely land around 30% to 50%.
Also, Warners won’t be judging success by opening weekend numbers. Neither will they define it by opening week numbers or possibly even the first full month.
If this strategy for Tenet succeeds, and Warners is able to make a profit (or even a reasonable loss), it will be because Tenet is the first movie to do so since the pre-blockbuster era, a time when release strategies were strictly by platform (i.e. gradual rollout) rather than mass day-and-date saturation.
(In addition, any financial loss may be buoyed by Tenet becoming an unstoppable Oscar favorite in a very-thin Awards Season.)
In the age of COVID, every studio is praying that it actually works.
The big wrench in that? Social media.
A generation ago and more, it was more difficult to spoil a movie than it is now. Today, in the age of Twitter, et al., the success of a secrets-driven mystery thriller like Tenet is entirely dependent on audiences going in fresh. Platforming a release puts that in jeopardy.
Not to mention the dangers of piracy.
Which brings me back to my fundamental point: if Warners sticks to this, it’s because they and Nolan have made a joint decision to accept the worst-case scenario, should it happen.
If they are, then that alone should tell you just how dire the situation is for movie theaters worldwide. If they don’t get a major draw like Tenet — and soon — then they won’t be around in 2021 for Tenet or anything else.