Christopher Nolan seems keen on releasing Tenet this summer; why the desperation may turn out to be costly

A longtime champion of the theatrical experience, Christopher Nolan surely hopes Tenet will pump money into the depleted coffers of movie theatres.

The New York Times July 18, 2020 12:40:20 IST
Christopher Nolan seems keen on releasing Tenet this summer; why the desperation may turn out to be costly

I am dying to see Christopher Nolan’s new film Tenet. But would I actually die to see it?

These are the things we must mull about movies now that the pandemic has turned Nolan’s $200 million spectacle into a high-stakes test case. After months of being shuttered, movie theaters in many states have begun the tentative process of reopening. Still, with the number of coronavirus infections rising in the US, it is unclear whether those theaters can safely launch a would-be summer blockbuster like Tenet in just a few weeks.

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A time-bending sci-fi flick starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, Tenet was long scheduled to come out on July 17, right in the middle of Hollywood’s most lucrative season. Then the pandemic hit American shores, states like New York and California began issuing stay-at-home orders, and spooked studios started shuffling their blockbusters out of the summer corridor. Only Tenet held firm to its date, the rare tentpole that would not pull up stakes.

But as that 17 July release drew closer, Warner Bros finally blinked, moving Tenet back two weeks to 31 July. This date would prove temporary too: As coronavirus cases continued to climb over the summer, the studio hit Tenet with another two-week delay, this time shifting the movie to its current release date of 12 August.

I am skeptical that date will hold, and curious what the studio thinks will significantly change during those two weeks. Infections are still going up in many states, and there is no federal plan in place to halt that spread. Simple acts to contain the coronavirus , like wearing a mask or staying at home, have now become so hopelessly politicised that it is all but impossible to imagine our country flattening the curve by 12 August, and analysts expect that discouraging trend line to prompt more states to keep their movie theaters closed.

If Nolan expects some miracle to occur between now and then, I am afraid the science-fiction filmmaker is erring more on the side of fiction than science.

It is not hard to imagine where he might be coming from: A longtime champion of the theatrical experience, Nolan surely hopes that a major action film like Tenet will pump money into the depleted coffers of movie theatres, while also luring back the audiences that have flocked to streamers like Netflix and Disney+ during the pandemic. “Movie theaters are a vital part of American social life,” read the headline on Nolan’s The Washington Post op-ed this spring. “They will need our help.”

In that article, Nolan made special mention of B&B Theatres, a family-owned, Missouri-based chain that had to lay off thousands of employees when its theaters closed. Those employees, Nolan wrote, were among the hardest hit by the pandemic, and deserved our consideration.

Christopher Nolan seems keen on releasing Tenet this summer why the desperation may turn out to be costly

John David Washington in a still from Tenet

But in a Los Angeles Times article published just last week, B&B Theatres’ executive vice president Brock Bagby said that the delay of films like Tenet had left 16 of his recently reopened theaters in dire straits. Without brand-new summer movies to show, Bagby had to halt his plan to reopen the rest of his theaters, and the workers who had counted on those jobs were now high and dry.

In his attempt to come to the rescue of movie theaters, then, did Nolan give them false hope? And as he dangled the gleamingly expensive Tenet, for which he will receive 20 percent of the first-dollar gross of the film, did Nolan encourage theaters to reopen before we were ready to go back?

It has become increasingly clear that people are most susceptible to the coronavirus when congregating indoors, and a recent chart from the Texas Medical Association deemed moviegoing an even higher-risk activity than traveling on a crowded plane. We simply cannot do communal things at this point in the pandemic, and to keep pretending that we soon could is at best unrealistic, and at worst irresponsible.

Yes, movie theaters have touted new health and safety measures like disinfectant sprays and reduced audience sizes, but major chains like AMC and Cinemark tipped their hand when they initially announced that wearing a mask would be up to moviegoers. After a social-media outcry, the companies reversed course, and promised to mandate mask-wearing, but their initial message remained loud and clear: Safety is not guaranteed.

With that in mind, it is hard to imagine a large-scale return to moviegoing anytime soon, and Warner Bros is unlikely to release Tenet if many major markets continue to keep their theaters closed. (In New York, Gov Andrew Cuomo will not even include movie theaters in a phased reopening plan.) A roadshow strategy, where Tenet would make its way through states and countries as they conquer the coronavirus , is just as unrealistic: A film this anticipated would surely be pirated in its early weeks of release, while the theater-rich China has so far pledged to show no film longer than two hours. Tenet exceeds that by 30 minutes.

Christopher Nolan seems keen on releasing Tenet this summer why the desperation may turn out to be costly

Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in a still from Tenet

So what is the best move of this movie? Though some medium-size summer flicks have opted for a digital debut, that is not a route Tenet is likely to take: Blockbusters that cost as much as Tenet aspire to a billion-dollar worldwide gross that simply is not possible with a digital release. It is far more likely that Warner Bros will delay Tenet yet again, but the time for half-measures is past. If Nolan and his studio are committed to doing the right thing, they will push Tenet out of the summer season altogether.

Delaying the film by several months, or even pushing it all the way to 2021, would have major consequences for the already diminished release calendar of this year: Other big movies like Mulan (21 August) and A Quiet Place Part II (4 September) have largely been taking their cues from Tenet, and without Nolan’s film leading the charge, they might be inclined to move too. With an all-but-barren August and September ahead, it is possible that movie theaters would have to close once again, a potentially devastating situation for a business sector still trying to claw back from the brink.

Still, in his laudable attempt to aid theater owners, Nolan and his studio have only kept prolonging their pain. With the summer movie slate wiped clean, perhaps a more realistic rescue plan can finally be forged. It will not be easy, but if Hollywood hopes to truly grapple with this pandemic, it is going to take a lot more than two-week delays to figure out what to do next.

Kyle Buchanan c.2020 The New York Times Company

All images from Facebook.

(Also read — A summer without the summer blockbuster: A pop culture staple is lost amid closed theatres, social distancing)

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