Box Office Experts Split on ‘Tenet,’ Christopher Nolan’s Upcoming Film

Tenet Box Office Coronavirus Warner Bros

What should we expect from Christopher Nolan’s Tenet at the box office? Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros

“This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object,” Heath Ledger’s Joker says in Christopher Nolan‘s The Dark Knight. Ironically, the same can be said for the current situation Nolan’s new film, Tenet, finds itself in.

The upcoming Warner Bros. blockbuster, rumored to carry a massive $200 million budget, is still set for wide release on July 17th despite the coronavirus pandemic. Even as WB has re-routed animated film Scoob from theatrical to video-on-demand, delayed major blockbusters such as Wonder Woman 1984, and even publicly questioned the future of the theatrical model, the studio is still committed to Tenet launching the summer blockbuster season (for now).

What does this all mean for Tenet‘s box office prospects?

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“As will be the case with any Hollywood blockbuster in this new world of film release, timing will be of the essence,” Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, told Observer. “Logic would place this close to $400 million to break even, but there’s also a massive advertising campaign that has yet to roll out. So, probably more like $500 million [to be considered a “win” by WB]. That’s obviously very do-able as Inception topped out with over $800 million. But in this case, because of our current climate, finding the ideal release date will be of the utmost importance, and I’m 90 percent sure that’s not July 17.”

Nolan’s productions typically require significant blockbuster budgets, though that hasn’t hindered his films from turning a tidy profit. Since his more recent features rely on original concepts rather than existing intellectual property, the marketing budgets are usually a bit heftier as well. Nolan is one of the most gifted filmmakers in Hollywood today, seamlessly blending multi-layered high-concept endeavors with blockbuster appeal, and has become a brand unto himself as a result. But that doesn’t mean WB can get complacent when delivering Tenet.

The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) are reluctant to reopen cinemas across the country until the coronavirus pandemic is in check. As of right now, the suggested target date is around July 1, but a handful of major blockbusters have already postponed their releases. Could that actually help Tenet?

There’s obvious risk for any film to be the first tentpole coming out of a global health crisis, but the potential upside is also significant,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro, told Observer. “Nolan is a filmmaker whose reputation for popular, original films can entice eager moviegoers to return to cinemas during the industry’s recovery period. Moreover, his original films typically develop strong staying power and aren’t as front-loaded as most high-budget releases.”

Robbins believes WB is probably hoping for a global box office run of at least $450 million to $500 million, assuming the reported $200 million budget is accurate. That’s a range, he notes, that all five of Nolan’s most recent films have surpassed and given the international appeal the director wields, Tenet should have its sights set on Dunkirk‘s $527 million and possibly Interstellar‘s $678 million.

A late summer release can provide legs for a film’s ticket sales in certain instances (see: 2016’s Suicide Squad). With less competition for screens and little holdover competition, Tenet‘s theatrical run could speculatively last even longer, Robbins argues. But there’s still the question of how long it will take the moviegoing public to feel comfortable returning to theaters. Hollywood is expecting a warm-up period and exhibitors will likely be required to limit the number of tickets sold to maintain social distancing. It’s an uphill battle toward profitability to say the least. 

Regardless, Nolan is committed to a traditional theatrical release first and foremost, and that is worth celebrating. 

“Nolan is one of those directors who is an above-the-title director,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, told Observer. “He is the biggest supporter of the movie theater experience so I think it’s not as much about the potential box office as it is about the good will it might generate as the first brand new high-profile theatrical release. July 17 is far enough out to maintain some hope. It’s really all predicated on what point of the relaunch we’re at when the movie arrives. Audiences will be crushed if it doesn’t happen.”

Tenet follows a secret agent who is tasked with preventing World War III through time travel. It stars John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki.

Box Office Experts Split on ‘Tenet,’ Christopher Nolan’s Upcoming Film