The Labor Day holiday has never launched the most important box office weekend of the year. That changes this year, and none in history (Labor Day or otherwise) has ever looked like this one.
Shortly after Warner Bros. set the Tenet U.S. release date in stone for September 3rd, Disney decided to make things very interesting, not just in setting the first head-to-head showdown between major studio tentpoles since the COVID-19 pandemic first struck, but in how that showdown would occur: on the two biggest competing platforms for film distribution, theatrical and streaming.
For something that could (and likely will begin) to define the future of distribution, the battleground couldn’t be more lopsided — but also unproven, on both counts.
In theaters, there’s Tenet. It opens on 2,800 screens nationwide (about 2,000 less than it would have in a normal world) following a start-stop-start-stop-start marketing rollercoaster, and does so in a pandemic world in which audience willingness to go to theaters is still impossible to gauge.
As a result, not only is an opening weekend gross impossible to estimate but one can’t even entirely quantify for certain what would be considered a solid opening haul under these circumstances. Suffice it to say, Warner Bros. has been very public about the fact that they’re looking at Tenet‘s box office run as a marathon, not a sprint, as well they should.
Then there’s Mulan, exclusively opening on the Disney+ streaming platform. With 60 million-plus subscribers worldwide, that screen count absolutely dwarfs the 22,000 that Tenet will be playing on globally. But how many of those 60 million will pay the extra $30 to gain access to Mulan, especially since in exactly three months (Dec. 4) it will be available for free in the Disney+ catalogue?
The other key distinction, too, when it comes to defining box office success is that Tenet will have to share grosses with theaters while Disney’s Premier Access earnings to view Mulan will be pure profit — or, at least, all theirs. Whether enough people purchase Premier Access to make the $200 million Mulan profitable remains to be seen.
These are all important questions, issues, and factors at play, but unlike your typical opening weekend in which the entire financial trajectory of a movie can be determined, the Labor Day haul for both of these movies will only offer a hint as to where they could end up. Why? Not only has this kind of major “theatrical vs. streaming” head-to-head never happened before, but we’ve never had movie attendance tested under such irregular, potentially dangerous extremes before either.
And that’s why it’s all so crazy and fascinating: everything about this Tenet vs. Mulan showdown is unprecedented, and yet how it plays out could set the course for the entire future of film distribution.
We won’t know what that future holds by this coming Tuesday (although it’ll be interesting to see what’s reported, from Tenet‘s actual box office to, hopefully, some viewing data for Mulan), but it will be the start of a conversation and a debate — with ongoing real-time analysis — that lasts at least a month and possibly deep into the fall.
One of the first signs to look for as to which route is winning: what other studios do with their big blockbusters currently slated for 2020. Does a Tenet success embolden studios to stick with their current 2020 theatrical release dates, or does a windfall of streaming dollars to Disney for Mulan cause studios to pivot to PVOD streaming options of their own?
Or does a third (and possibly more likely) result emerge, where the results are so cloudy, so hotly debated, and deemed so similar given their results that studios remain as confused as ever about what the present and the future may actually hold?
Honestly, if both do well in their respective platforms, that may be the best outcome of all.