Box Office: ‘Tenet’ Absolutely Failed To Save Movie Theatersby Scott Mendelson
Soft box office for Tenet caused delays for Wonder Woman 1984 and Candyman, putting movie theaters in grave danger.
Universal just announced that they will release the Jennifer Lopez/Owen Wilson rom-com Marry Me into theaters over Valentine’s Day weekend 2021. The film is “packed with original songs from Jennifer Lopez and Latin music sensation Maluma” and features Lopez as “musical superstar Kat Valdez.” That seems to imply that it’ll be the kind of live action (and human-centric, sorry Cats) musical that has performed so well (La La Land, Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, The Greatest Showman, etc.) over the last several years. Moreover, it joins Blumhouse’s body-swap comedy Freaky (slated for November 13, 2020) as an honest-to-goodness new theatrical release being dated for theaters by Universal. But after a disastrous weekend at the box office, with Tenet topping with just $6.7 million, will theaters as we know it make it to Valentine’s Day?
First, it’s entirely possible that Universal is slating these two comparatively smaller-scale flicks in order to test out their new deal with AMC. The deal reached over the summer as AMC hemmed-and-hawed about Trolls: World Tour going to PVOD, allows theatrical releases to go to PVOD after 17 days if the studio chooses as much. Since No Time to Die and Candyman (recently pushed to sometime in 2021) are both MGM flicks, Universal won’t make the call on those, and I’m guessing such a scenario won’t be in play for their mid-2021 mega-movies (F9, Jurassic World: Dominion and Minions 2). A splashy musical rom-com and a colorful high-concept horror comedy are films that would have been commercially viable in a standard theatrical environment, so they would (theoretically) make interesting test cases for the AMC deal. That presumes that theaters are still around.
Tenet is not exactly kicking butt at the domestic box office. Beset by merely “good” reviews and merely “okay” buzz, the $200 million sci-fi actioner has earned $29.5 million in North America after (counting Canada) 17 days of release. The film dropped just 29% from its $9.5 million Fri-Sun frame (from a $20.2 million Thurs-Mon Labor Day launch), with yet another weekend of strong overseas holds in the territories in which it opened prior to its American launch. If this were a normal tentpole with normal tentpole numbers, I’d be over-the-moon about a 29% second-weekend drop. This is a perfect example of how the variables (weekend rank, the hold, etc.) are irrelevant if the raw numbers aren’t big enough. Right now, the numbers for Tenet in North America aren’t big enough. They may be big enough for Tenet, but not the entire theatrical industry.
It is entirely possible that Tenet will continue to post 25-35% drops (or better) over the next two months as theaters in New York and California (among other places) slowly reopen (it’s still playing in just 70% of the country). Moreover, the overseas numbers are decent, with $177 million outside of North America and solid holds almost across the board. It plunged 66% in China, but that’s normal for a Hollywood flick and Tenet isn’t the only game in town. It’s contending with Mulan (which stumbled with a $23 million Fri-Sun debut) and The Eight Hundred (which grossed $21.4 million in its fourth weekend for a $387 million Chinese cume). Nonetheless, Tenet’s $50 million-and-counting cume is about on par with Dunkirk ($51 million in 2017), The Dark Knight Rises ($53 million in 2012) and Inception ($68 million in 2010).
At this current rate of play, it stands to reason that Tenet will end its theatrical run with around $300 million worldwide, although it’s entirely possible that the film could truly leg out for something closer to $400 million. That would be a face-saving total for Tenet even if $450 million was generally viewed as the break-even point. The issue isn’t just that Tenet is underperforming theatrically, or that the willfully cryptic and cold puzzle box, with intentionally hard-to-hear dialogue and a narrative that almost requires multiple viewings, may have been the wrong movie for welcoming nervous moviegoers back to theaters. The problem is that Tenet so underperformed in its American debut that Wonder Woman 1984 fled to Christmas while Candyman fled to sometime next year. Theaters that reopened are now left with a single underperforming tentpole at least until November.
As noted by Tom Brueggemann over at Indiewire, the entire domestic box office this weekend was just $15 million, or around $5,000 per theater. Considering the theaters are sending 50% of that (63% for Tenet) back to the studios, the theaters that reopened are now in a situation where they are making less money than they need to actually operate. The Broken Heart’s Gallery earned just $1.125 million in over 2000 theaters for around $500 per theater. Combined with Unhinged ($13.8 million in 24 days) and The New Mutants ($15 million in 17 days), that’s not nearly enough to justify the expenses related to reopening or the challenges that theaters now face in terms of debt and bills compared to if they had remained closed for public health reasons. And now theaters have Tenet and only Tenet until late October.
If Tenet had kicked off a slew of big movies, as theaters expected when they reopened in August, then it could have been a “died to save us” hero. But, thanks to Tenet’s (comparatively) weak domestic showing, the next batch of biggies (The Kings Man, Wonder Woman 1984, Candyman, etc.) have fled elsewhere. I liked Greenland (September 24) well enough, but this isn’t 1998 and it’s not going to do Deep Impact business. Even Kenneth Branagh and Disney’s Death on the Nile, presuming it sticks to October 23, was an overseas-centric release (Murder on the Orient Express earned 71% of its $353 million cume overseas). Yes, MGM and Universal’s No Time to Die seems very much committed to the November release (November 12 in the UK, November 20 domestic), but that’s 66 days away even if Black Widow does stick with November 6.
While I understand studios not wanting to release huge or must-hit movies into a theatrical environment that may guarantee underwhelming grosses, the result is still essentially a bait-and-switch. The theaters that reopened in America will now have to somehow survive on a single underwhelming tentpole. Moreover, the overseas markets, that comparatively got their acts together in terms of combatting coronavirus and could probably justify new tentpole movies, are now going to get hosed because New York, California and the rest of America failed to contain the pandemic. Whether Chris Nolan really pressured Warner Bros. to release Tenet by summer’s end or whether the AT&T-owned company merely used him as an alibi, the result may be the same: Chris Nolan’s Tenet, the movie that was supposed to “save” theaters, directed by cinema’s self-proclaimed champion, may be the very thing that dooms them.