Will People See ‘Tenet’ In Theaters?

Local news outlets are replete with reports of shuttered movie theaters reopening in time for “Tenet’s” Friday premiere. Already struggling theater chains have been clobbered by the pandemic shutdowns, losing months of business entirely as public health regulations — and uncomfortable customers — kept most locations closed. Now, Christopher Nolan’s hotly-anticipated thriller will test the waters.

As we reported, “Unhinged” went first, and a few others have followed, but Hollywood is looking to “Tenet’s” performance to see whether there’s a sizable audience for big-budget events. As at-home viewing options proliferate, the theory is that theaters will need big, buzzy films like “Tenet” to survive.

Warner Bros. reportedly spent north of $200 million on “Tenet,” meaning the film will have to sell an enormous amount of tickets to break even. To make up for lost ticket sales, the industry is experimenting with steeper rental charges for films like Disney’s live-action “Mulan.” If that model catches on, it’s bad news for theaters. If, however, anxious moviegoers flock to “Tenet,” the recovery process might seem just a bit more possible.

Even considering the possibility of pent-up demand, “Tenet” will likely have a much softer opening weekend than it would have in pre-shutdown times. AMC announced Tuesday that 70 percent of its circuit will be open this weekend. If people are ready — even eager — to hit theaters again and “Tenet” generates intrigue, steady numbers week-after-week could help the film do alright. It may not have an explosive opening weekend followed by a steep drop-off, but a more consistent run over a longer period.

Is there pent-up demand? Mark Gill, producer of “Unhinged,” predicted as much in an interview with me last month. His film, helmed by Russell Crowe, has pulled in around $7 million since opening on Aug. 21.

Gill cited surveys that found “about 80 percent of moviegoers are comfortable with the safety provisions that are outlined by the theaters,” and about 40 percent of that 80 percent “want to go to the movies, no matter what it is when they open.” More theaters will be open when “Tenet” premieres on Friday, with new provisions to prevent the spread of coronavirus and another major shutdown.

The film has been shrouded in mystery, possibly generating a curiosity that will drive more people to theaters. The film’s synopsis vaguely reads, “Armed with only one word—Tenet—and fighting for the survival of the entire world, the Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real-time.”

“Tenet” stars John David Washington, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki, among others. With early reviews rolling in, the movie currently has a 78 percent score on the Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” and a 92 percent audience score.

If “Tenet” successfully generates the intrigue of Nolan’s other films, it could easily be the kind of movie that people feel compelled to see in theaters — for visual reasons and to participate in the conversation. After months without access to theaters (indoor ones, at least), it’s also plausible that “Tenet” will be what gives people reason to go back.

Not every movie, however, will be “Tenet.” Also, while theaters are finally reopening, some remain closed and many will be operating with reduced occupancy. All that is to say, whether “Tenet” manages to do alright, Hollywood and theater chains still face a very long road to recovery.