Is this the movie that can save Hollywood? Theaters, studios look to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ as summer’s best hope

Hollywood’s summer movie season typically kicks off the first week of May — though it’s crept into late April the past two years with the mid-spring launches of the Marvel blockbusters Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). The Disney-owned studio again staked out the choicest real estate in 2020, with the season’s first big box-office bang slated to be Black Widow, the Avengers prequel originally set to bow May 1 before the coronavirus pandemic pushed it to November. Other May, June and July releases, films, including F9 (Fast and Furious 9), Wonder Woman 1984, In the Heights, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Soul were moved further back on the calendar.

But there is one notable title that has stood its ground among all the theatrical musical chairs: Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Not much is known about the project from the filmmaker behind the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Dunkirk. Based on limited intel, the mysterious thriller stars John David Washington and Robert Pattinson and apparently has something to do with a time traveler attempting to stop World War III? (Only Nolan could release a two-and-a-half-minute trailer that reveals next to nothing about the film’s premise… and still stokes the rabid excitement of movie junkies worldwide. Even IMDb uses “possibly” in its plot description.) In early 2019, Warner Bros. set the release date for July 17, 2020 and it has yet to budge, even as events like San Diego Comic-Con, which was set to begin a week later, have been forced to cancel altogether.

Nolan and Warners appear confident that we’ll be safe to return to cineplexes by mid-July. And perhaps more importantly, so do movie theaters, some of which have already reopened in Texas.

As a rep for one popular exhibition chain told Yahoo Entertainment this week, they’re focused on reopening for business in time for Nolan’s sci-fi mind-bender. Experts confirm that Tenet‘s release date has become a rallying call for movie theaters nationwide — and perhaps even across the globe.

“The goal, nationwide — every theater, every chain, gold standard, circle it on the calendar — is to be ready for Tenet,” Insider senior entertainment reporter Jason Guerrasio tells us. “That’s 100 percent the goal.”

John David Washington in ‘Tenet’ (Warner Bros.)

Of course, a cloud of uncertainty dwells over all facets of society as states grapple with how and when to reopen non-essential businesses. “You’re still basically going have to pitch a perfect game to get to that goal with all these slow rollouts and [the threat] of new spark-ups,” Guerrasio says. “But everyone from the big chains down are trying to open full-blast for Tenet.”

Internationally, theaters appear to be circling the same date. The U.K. Cinema Association is proposing its government late-June reopenings. “Exhibitors are keen to have systems testing and new safeguards in place in time for the release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which is expected to galvanize cinema chains in July,” Variety notes. Australia’s National Association of Cinema Operators are specifically targeting Tenet as well: “Nolan’s film Tenet is like a totem guiding the industry towards its reboot,” CEO of Australian circuit Cinema Nova Kristian Connelly told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Nolan, whose breakout indie thriller Memento premiered 20 years ago this month, purportedly remains bullish. “Chris really would like to be coming out with the film that opens theaters,” Imax CEO Richard Gelfond said on a recent earnings call with analysts, according to Variety. “I don’t know anyone in America who is pushing harder to get the theaters reopened and to get his movie released than Chris Nolan.”

Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian says the filmmaker wants to ensure that his film is experienced in cinemas. “Christopher Nolan wants to open that movie even if it’s not going to make as much as it would have in normal times because he’s such a proponent of the movie theater,” the long-time box-office analyst explains.

LONDON, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 19: Director Christopher Nolan after he was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) following an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace on December 19, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Andrew Matthews – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The filmmaker, who plans to release Tenet in Imax, 35mm and 70mm, has long been a staunch supporter of the big screen format as the ascent of streaming services threatens the exhibition business and his fellow auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuarón strike deals with Netflix. In March, he penned an opinion piece for the Washington Post in which he argued for their role as “a vital part of American social life.”

There remain major risks, though for Nolan, Warner Bros. and their $200 million-plus movie: With moviegoers skittish over returning to enclosed public places and cinemas reconfigured into social-distanced seating with potentially longer cleaning time between showings, the capacity and frequency of screenings could be significantly lowered per theater. What if Tenet can’t come close to recouping the money it needs to succeed?

But as Guerrasio and Dergarabedian both pointed out, if Tenet remains a go in July, it will own every theater in the cineplex. There will be no sharing screens with early year holdovers like Onward and This Invisible Man. It’s going to be a one-movie world — at least for a week until the next major release, Disney’s live-action Mulan reboot (which was moved from March 27) rides in to claim some of that real estate. (After Mulan, the next major blockbuster scheduled is WB’s Wonder Woman 1984 on Aug. 14, moved from June 5.)

“There may be fewer people in each theater watching the screens, but the capacity may be made up for by the sheer number of that devoted within a complex to those films,” Dergarabedian explains.

Variety critic and columnist Owen Gleiberman sees Warner Bros. and Disney pushing their mega-budgeted tentpoles into theaters as “a revolution, a kind of declaration of war against the conundrum. Tenet has a reported budget of $205 million; Mulan, a budget of at least $200 million. According to the profit model I’ve just described, these movies will have an uphill battle at the box office, to put it mildly.”

Nolan “has made himself the bard of theatrical,” Gleiberman writes, viewing Tenet as “the kind of movie that carries event status, its release on July 17 now symbolizes something. It says to the world: On that day, the dream of movies lives.”

The third weekend of July has historically been kind to Nolan. Four of his previous films — Dunkirk (July 21, 2017), The Dark Knight Rises (July 20, 2012), Inception (July 16, 2010) and The Dark Knight (July 18, 2008) — were released in the same frame, and all were box-office smashes.

Time will tell if enough theaters are able — or allowed — to open in time for July 17, 2020. “If they can make that date, great,” Dergarabedian says. “If not, discretion is the better part of valor. And it’s better to wait than to go too early and have an issue. That’s my personal opinion. Just in terms of any business out there.”

But unless or until that date changes, it’s up to the beloved British filmmaker’s hotly anticipated next entry to get people excited to go to the movies again.

No pressure, Mr. Nolan.

Tenet opens July 17. We hope.

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