Back in April, box office experts across the industry were in general agreement that Christopher Nolan’s $200 million blockbuster Tenet would have to earn at lest $450 million worldwide to break even for Warner Bros. After several release delays, a handful of marketing false starts, and a staggered theatrical rollout both in the United States and across the globe still without key markets, that number might have risen since then. So, with Tenet finally arriving in theaters over the last two weeks, how is the highly anticipated film performing financially?
Over its Thursday-to-Monday American debut, which included Labor Day, Tenet earned $20.2 million on more than 2,800 screens. That’s nearly 1,000 fewer screens than Nolan’s Dunkirk opened on in 2017 and marks the lowest opening of the director’s career since 2006’s The Prestige ($14.8 million). That also includes whatever the film earned in Canada, which is not typically accounted for when it comes to domestic openings. The coronavirus pandemic has truly pushed cinema into uncharted waters.
While that figure comes in on the low end of passable given the circumstances, Warner Bros. is undoubtedly missing ticket sales in New York and Los Angeles—the two biggest U.S. movie markets where theaters remain closed—and are probably ruing the decision to limit Tenet’s availability in drive-in theaters. It’s understandable why Nolan wanted to support the big movie theater chains after months without revenue, but Tenet didn’t maximize its money-making potential in this current environment.
Best-case scenario, Tenet posts long legs akin to Inception, which collected a massive 4.6x domestic multiplier, which you get when you divide a film’s final domestic gross by its opening weekend. That would push the film closer to the $100 million domestic mark.
“Forecasts and expectations were expected to be volatile given the unprecedented nature of the market, so there is no useful comparison to any pre-pandemic film like we’ve been accustomed to making after opening weekends of major titles,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro, told Observer. “Soft declines during the movie’s second weekend in most countries are underscoring a positive global performance early on. They provide an indication of what we might expect in the weeks ahead for other territories and North America itself when remaining key markets, which are often strongholds for Nolan’s audience, are allowed to reopen and more audiences become aware that theaters are open.”
The slow-and-steady return of foot-traffic to movie theaters could keep Tenet‘s ticket sales from dropping like a normal blockbuster would on a weekly basis. For example, major tentpoles such as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (-69%) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (-67%) fell more than 65% at the domestic box office in their second weekends, a concerning tumble. Meanwhile, Nolan’s Dunkirk (-47%) and certain superhero films such as Wonder Woman (-45%) have posted very strong second-weekend numbers. We just don’t know what to expect in this environment.
In China, the world’s second-largest box office region which is mostly back to normal operating procedure, the film opened to $33.51 million over the four-day weekend. While Tenet‘s Friday to Sunday $30 million marked a career high for Nolan in the Middle Kingdom, it’s difficult not to view this total as something of a disappointment. Nolan’s 2014 feature Interstellar earned $18 million in the country during a recent re-release alone (for a whopping $140 million total) while Inception has taken in north of $70 million there over its lifetime. With the homegrown The Eight Hundred soaring in China and Disney’s Mulan hitting Middle Kingdom theaters on Friday, the somewhat tepid reception of Tenet will be facing a lot of competition and may not take a box office crown in any of its weekends. It’s doubtful the film can leg its way to $65 million-plus in China over the length of its run.
“While its financial success will come into view much deeper into the theatrical run, Tenet is already a symbolic success for what it means to exhibition and moviegoers,” Robbins surmised. “The film is providing an economic lifeline to one of the pandemic’s hardest hit industries, and opening week is merely the beginning of an extensive recovery process. Everything from marketing to distribution to audience habits are operating in a way far outside the standard rule book of a blockbuster. Studios with films set for release later this year can learn and benefit from Tenet’s important role in testing the waters.”
As of right now, Tenet has earned north of $150 million worldwide, which is a decent start all things considered. Box office analysts have stressed that we can’t judge films based on the pre-pandemic parameters of success. In that world, significant emphasis on opening weekends could ultimately decide the financial fortune of a film, which is why Disney was so well-equipped for the modern multiplex mission. But in this new normal, in which films will open on fewer screens but play in theaters for longer periods of time, the final judgement will not come for months until all box office numbers have been tabulated. In the meantime, we can analyze all the numbers we want as long as we keep the long-game in mind.