Ever since the coronavirus pandemic closed theaters around the globe in the winter, Warner Bros. has held firm that Tenet would hit the big screen, the clarion call that would summon audiences back to the movies in droves. Over a large network of compromises, that’s happening now. Today is Tenet’s official release date in the U.S., though it’s been running for the past few days and has already made $53.6 million overseas.
You can’t understand a compromise unless you’re taking all interested parties into account, so I wanted to take a minute to jot down everything that’s gone into this decision.
Is it safe to go back to the theater?
The primary question for most people, the reason theaters shut down in the first place, is one of safety – I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a bit of a cough that’s been going around lately, and all public gatherings have been either cancelled or modified to avoid its spread. Theaters in several countries initially tried to stay open by limiting capacity and using assigned seating infrastructure to keep people from sitting too close together, but as the virus completely saturated entire nations, it became clear that the only way to deal with it was to shut down entirely.
After the horrifying murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked waves of international protests in May and June, the exact type of mass gathering that’s been stringently advised against, and after several Republican-governed states began to loosen restrictions around the same time in order to feed president Donald Trump’s ego, we now have significant data on which safety measures do and don’t move the needle with this particular virus. Basically, if you wear your mask, everything’s going to be fine. Consistent and proper mask wearing – that means covering your fucking nose – is such a dominant factor in how this disease does or does not spread that, as long as the virus is relatively under control in your area, other factors are barely worth discussing.
That said, these other factors do exist, one of which is the truism that you should stay at home when at all possible. I am very much not an expert, and what experts are saying about theaters right now is that you should stay home because incurring 0 risk is better than incurring any risk, however small, especially for something as trivial as watching a movie. Indoor gatherings, especially for 150 minutes plus 20-30 for trailers, are also much more dangerous than outdoor ones because of how air recycles in conditioned environments.
Additionally, the safety of being out and about with a mask on decreases as the local saturation of the virus increases. That’s why we had to shut absolutely everything down in the spring, because if the virus is everywhere, even the minimized risk of mask-on interactions are too great and lead to the virus’ continued spread on the macro level. If you are in an area where the virus is spiking, and there still are areas where the virus is spiking, you should be much less willing to incur risks that you plan to minimize through your own actions, because your actions aren’t the only concern here.
So, is it safe to go to a theater? It’s as safe as anything else – wear your mask and follow the rules and everybody will probably be fine, depending on overall virus saturation.
If that’s true, theaters could have reopened in some areas months ago. Why is this happening now?
Theaters could have reopened in a lot of areas months ago, and many did. The problem is content. Theaters can’t open passively, they have to at least cover labor, so without new, exclusive content to ensure that people would actually come through, a lot of that infrastructure has remained closed. Drive-ins have been doing fantastic business, even limited to releases that are otherwise available on-demand, and Cinemark reopened some locations in June showing a choice collection of classics, but AMC, the world’s largest theater chain and the one most jeopardized in this pandemic, has held firm that it would wait on Tenet. The theater has dramatically bound its destiny to the movie, at one point promising that it would play it on every screen if it had to. After spooling up in late August, a full 70% of the chain’s stateside locations will be open this weekend for the film.
It’s also important to note that, while American theaters are only safe-ish on a metroplex-to-metroplex basis, countries with competent leaders have had the virus under control for some time now. Those theaters, despite being much safer from the virus, are just as hurt by the dearth of major content. This is a global industry that was waiting on Tenet, not just an American one.
Warner Bros., for its part, did not want to release Tenet anywhere until it could release Tenet everywhere. This was partially over bootlegging concerns, but was presented as being mostly on behalf of writer/director/producer Christopher Nolan, who conceived the film over the course of a decade and did not want to risk it being spoiled by releasing in different markets at different times. I’ve seen Tenet, and there’s not much there to spoil – there aren’t any major plot twists, there’s barely a plot at all actually – but cultivating mystery around the plot has become an unfortunate part of film marketing in recent years.
What you have is not a single entity looking at safety barometers, but a large game of chicken between two married industries. Theaters were waiting on new content so that opening up would be profitable, and studios were waiting on theaters to open up to prove their investments were safe. Warner Bros. has been eager to shoulder that risk with Tenet, probably the year’s most anticipated film even before it looked like the year’s only film, but Nolan and the studio didn’t want it to release anywhere until it could release everywhere.
So what gave?
What gave was, Warner Bros. told Christopher Nolan “no.”
The thing to understand is that Warner Bros., despite being a multi-million international business, is in the exact same situation as the rest of us – they don’t have “at least three months’ worth of bills” just laying around either, and they certainly don’t have enough to delay their big summer release until next summer. They spent more than $200 million on Tenet, probably at least that much on the marketing and several thousand dollars more every time they push the release date back, and the money they were counting on that investment returning has probably already been spent on 2021 and 2022 productions.
They needed to start reaping now, so day-and-date concerns were overridden and the movie was set to release at wherever was safe to open.
It’s worth noting how significant an override this is. Just about everything Warner Bros. has done in the past 12 years has been an attempt to recreate The Dark Knight – this mostly manifests in the peculiar way it deals with its superhero properties, but also its relationship with Nolan personally. This is why, in a world where more and more great directors are being pushed further and further to the fringes of Hollywood, Christopher Nolan is still able to get a nine-figure budget for a random World War II movie – Warner Bros. always has a blank check ready and waiting for movies “from the director of The Dark Knight.”
Nolan is a big boy who I’m sure understands the situation and I’m sure understands how great he’s had it these past 10 years, and I haven’t heard anything about him being upset at this decision, but it’s worth understanding how critical this situation was and how important a professional relationship has been risked here.