I’m dying to see Christopher Nolan’s new film “Tenet.” But would I actually die to see it?
These are the things we must mull about movies now that the pandemic has turned Nolan’s $200 million spectacle into a high-stakes test case. After months of being shuttered, movie theaters in many states have begun the tentative process of reopening. Still, with the number of coronavirus infections rising in the United States, it’s unclear whether those theaters can safely launch a would-be summer blockbuster like “Tenet” in just a few weeks.
A time-bending sci-fi flick starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, “Tenet” was long scheduled to come out on July 17, right in the middle of Hollywood’s most lucrative season. Then the pandemic hit American shores, states like New York and California began issuing stay-at-home orders, and spooked studios started shuffling their blockbusters out of the summer corridor. Only “Tenet” held firm to its date, the rare tentpole that wouldn’t pull up stakes.
But as that July 17 release drew closer, Warner Bros. finally blinked, moving “Tenet” back two weeks to July 31. This date would prove temporary, too: As coronavirus cases continued to climb over the summer, the studio hit “Tenet” with another two-week delay, this time shifting the movie to its current release date of Aug. 12.
I’m skeptical that date will hold, and curious what the studio thinks will significantly change during those two weeks. Infections are still going up in many states, and there is no federal plan in place to halt that spread. Simple acts to contain the coronavirus, like wearing a mask or staying at home, have now become so hopelessly politicized that it’s all but impossible to imagine our country flattening the curve by Aug. 12, and analysts expect that discouraging trend line to prompt more states to keep their movie theaters closed.
If Nolan expects some miracle to occur between now and then, I’m afraid the science-fiction filmmaker is erring more on the side of fiction than science.
It’s not hard to imagine where he might be coming from: A longtime champion of the theatrical experience, Nolan surely hopes that a major action film like “Tenet” will pump money into movie theaters’ depleted coffers, while also luring back the audiences that have flocked to streamers like Netflix and Disney+ during the pandemic. “Movie theaters are a vital part of American social life,” read the headline on Nolan’s Washington Post op-ed this spring. “They will need our help.”
In that article, Nolan made special mention of B&B Theatres, a family-owned, Missouri-based chain that had to lay off thousands of employees when its theaters closed. Those employees, Nolan wrote, were among the hardest hit by the pandemic and deserved our consideration.
But in a Los Angeles Times article published just last week, B&B Theatres’ executive vice president, Brock Bagby, said that the delay of films like “Tenet” had left 16 of his recently reopened theaters in dire straits. Without brand-new summer movies to show, Bagby had to halt his plan to reopen the rest of his theaters, and the workers who had counted on those jobs were now high and dry.
In his attempt to come to the rescue of movie theaters, then, did Nolan give them false hope? And as he dangled the gleamingly expensive “Tenet,” for which he will receive 20 percent of the film’s first-dollar gross, did Nolan encourage theaters to reopen before we were ready to go back?
It’s become increasingly clear that people are most susceptible to the coronavirus when congregating indoors, and a recent chart from the Texas Medical Association deemed moviegoing an even higher-risk activity than traveling on a crowded plane. We simply can’t do communal things at this point in the pandemic, and to keep pretending that we soon could is at best unrealistic, and at worst irresponsible.
Yes, movie theaters have touted new health and safety measures like disinfectant sprays and reduced audience sizes, but major chains like AMC and Cinemark tipped their hand when they initially announced that wearing a mask would be up to moviegoers. After a social-media outcry, the companies reversed course and promised to mandate mask-wearing, but their initial message remained loud and clear: Safety is not guaranteed.
With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine a large-scale return to moviegoing anytime soon, and Warner Bros. is unlikely to release “Tenet” if many major markets continue to keep their theaters closed. (In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo won’t even include movie theaters in a phased reopening plan.) A roadshow strategy, where “Tenet” would make its way through states and countries as they conquer the coronavirus, is just as unrealistic: A film this anticipated would surely be pirated in its early weeks of release, while the theater-rich China has so far pledged to show no film longer than two hours. “Tenet” exceeds that by 30 minutes.
So what is this movie’s best move? Though some medium-size summer flicks have opted for a digital debut, that’s not a route “Tenet” is likely to take: Blockbusters that cost as much as “Tenet” aspire to a billion-dollar worldwide gross that simply isn’t possible with a digital release. It’s far more likely that Warner Bros. will delay “Tenet” yet again, but the time for half-measures is past. If Nolan and his studio are committed to doing the right thing, they will push “Tenet” out of the summer season altogether.
Delaying the film by several months, or even pushing it all the way to 2021, would have major consequences for this year’s already diminished release calendar: Other big movies like “Mulan” (Aug. 21) and “A Quiet Place Part II” (Sept. 4) have largely been taking their cues from “Tenet,” and without Nolan’s film leading the charge, they might be inclined to move, too. With an all-but-barren August and September ahead, it’s possible that movie theaters would have to close once again, a potentially devastating situation for a business sector still trying to claw back from the brink.
Still, in his laudable attempt to aid theater owners, Nolan and his studio have only kept prolonging their pain. With the summer movie slate wiped clean, perhaps a more realistic rescue plan can finally be forged. It won’t be easy, but if Hollywood hopes to truly grapple with this pandemic, it’s going to take a lot more than two-week delays to figure out what to do next.