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Release of 'Tenet' marks major test for movie industry in COVID-19 era

Christopher Nolan's latest thriller would likely have been a summer blockbuster in any other year, but now it is the great hope for movie theater owners.
John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in "Tenet."
John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in "Tenet."Melinda Sue Gordon / Warner Bros.

In any other year, a new sci-fi thriller from Christopher Nolan, the director behind "Dunkirk," "Inception" and "The Dark Knight" trilogy, would be a surefire blockbuster.

But in 2020, Nolan's newest output "Tenet," which debuted Thursday, will be a test not of filmmaking alone, but also of its ability to jump-start an industry that lurched to a halt in March as the spread of COVID-19 forced lockdowns across the country and around the world.

In a world where an invisible contagion can spread most easily among indoor crowds, there's a lot of pressure on theater owners to observe proper health protocols — especially social distancing — and avoid any horror flick scenarios.

So the real suspense surrounding "Tenet" won't be whether or not star John David Washington's espionage agent will solve the mystery in time to save the world. It's whether or not ticket buyers will feel safe enough to spend 2 hours and 30 minutes in a darkened auditorium to find out. It isn't just coming attraction trailer hyperbole to say the fate of the movie exhibition business may hinge on the answer. So the success of the movie won't be measured in box office dollars or opening weekend ticket sales, but rather on whether audiences return at all.

Image: Theater in Las Vegas
Zach Fontana fills snack orders for customers at the concession stand at AMC Town Square 18 in Las Vegas on Aug. 20.Ethan Miller / Getty Images

"This is a momentous weekend in the history of cinema and a big test for theaters, particularly in North America," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior box office analyst for Comscore, an industry tracking service. "As a most unconventional blockbuster, 'Tenet' is the perfect movie to set the tone for the future of the theatrical experience in this challenging and most unusual marketplace."

Theaters got a dry run with the releases of the Russell Crowe thriller "Unhinged" two weeks ago and 20th Century Studios' "New Mutants" last weekend. "New Mutants," a superhero flick based on a Marvel comic, had a $7 million gross domestic opening — a solid performance considering that only half the movie theaters in North America were open and that those welcoming audiences could operate at only 25 percent to 50 percent seating capacity because of social distancing.

Bringing in viewers is particularly difficult as cinemas remain closed in New York City and Los Angeles, the country's two largest markets.

But those early COVID-19-era movies were merely coming attractions for "Tenet," which was hyped as one of the most eagerly awaited movies of the summer long before the outbreak rewrote the script. This year, the first summer blockbuster is actually arriving at the traditional end of the season, Labor Day weekend.

Maisie Williams, Henry Zaga, Blu Hunt, Charlie Heaton and Anya Taylor-Joy in "The New Mutants."
Maisie Williams, Henry Zaga, Blu Hunt, Charlie Heaton and Anya Taylor-Joy in "The New Mutants."Twentieth Century Fox

Complicating the picture is that the global pandemic is far from over. There have been 296,130 new cases and 6,215 deaths nationwide in the past week alone, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center. Movie theaters have reopened already in states where there have recently been major surges in cases, such as Iowa and Alabama.

Warner Bros. had been forced to change the release date for "Tenet" five times in the face of the shifting conditions, and it is still taking a financial and public relations risk with the first major release of the COVID-19 era. (Filmmakers and the studio declined requests for comment.)

As consumers get used to watching films on streaming services from the comfort of their living rooms, industry insiders worry that the pandemic is hastening the decline of brick-and-mortar theaters.

Disney abandoned its original theatrical plans entirely for the live-action remake of "Mulan." The film will debuted Friday on the company's Disney+ streaming service for a separate $29.99 fee. Others have made the same choice: In April, Universal offered its animated "Trolls World Tour" sequel straight to video on demand. And, just last weekend, United Artists simultaneously released "Bill & Ted Face the Music" in theaters and on demand for $19.99 to hedge its bets.

Because of an uneven nationwide response to COVID-19, as moviegoers gauge how safe it is to go back inside their neighborhood multiplexes, each must pay attention to both the local infection rates and the individual theater's safety protocols, said Jen Balkus, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington.

Image: AMC theater in Colorado
Kyle Curtis cleans the theater with an electrostatic disinfectant spray machine at the AMC Highlands Ranch 24 in Highlands Ranch, Colo., on Aug. 20.Tom Cooper / Getty Images

"Transmission is less common when people are outdoors rather than indoors," Balkus said, and "less common when it's a brief encounter versus when it's a longer period of time.

"The concern with movie theaters is now you're moving in the directions of things we know could potentially increase the probabilities of transmission," she said. "You're inside a space, and you're in there on average for 2 hours-plus."

That doesn't mean the experience can't be made relatively safe. It can.

"Communities where the community spread is lower and the theaters are opening according to the local public health guidance, which includes social distancing, mask-wearing and limiting capacity — and if you improve ventilation on top of that — I think you're doing as much as you can possibly do to minimize any potential risk," Balkus said.

But for movie theater owners and the industry across the board, minimizing risk to audiences and staff members is essential to staying afloat. Safety, in other words, means money.

"Our industry has pretty much been shut down, as have most of the consumer-facing industries now, for over five months," said Rolando Rodriguez, the chairman, president & CEO of Marcus Theatres, a national movie theater chain.

"Frankly, it's almost like we have to jump-start the business all over again," he said.

To that end, the National Association of Theater Owners, of which Rodriguez is a vice chair, launched a CinemaSafe program last month.

Theaters that sign on for the CinemaSafe seal of approval agree to meet measures restricting capacity, making sure that the HVAC systems meet required standards for air circulation, minimizing contact at concession stands and mandating masks — customers who refuse to comply are denied entrance.

Thus far, 370 companies representing 3,000 theaters across the country have joined.

What theater owners have desperately needed to really jump-start their business, however, is something big to show on the big screen.

That's why the box office performance of "Tenet" will be so important.

Since its release Aug. 26 in 41 territories overseas, including the United Kingdom, Germany, South Korea and Canada, "Tenet" made $53.6 million, according to Comscore. Back at home, Nolan's enigmatic thriller will have theaters largely to itself for a month, more time to woo audiences back — the supersize superhero flicks like "Wonder Woman 1984" (Oct. 2) and "Black Widow" (Nov. 6) are still weeks from release.

That is assuming that no major public relation disasters about outbreaks are traced to theaters in the interim.

"This may be an incredibly important weekend for the industry, but it's really about the next 30 days," said Dergarabedian, the box office observer. "Every day that goes by that things go well is vital for the industry.

"The idea of 'word of mouth' has shifted from being about what the movie is like to being about what the theater experience is like."