Under normal circumstances, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was a virtual lock for a $500 million-plus run at the box office. The director is the rare filmmaker capable of marrying thought-provoking plot mechanics and high-concept ideas with crowd-pleasing blockbuster action. Thanks to The Dark Knight trilogy as well as original hits such as Inception and Dunkirk, Nolan has become a brand unto himself capable of opening a film on name power alone. Unfortunately, Tenet infamously did not arrive under normal circumstances.
A release amid the coronavirus pandemic was meant to be a boon for struggling movie theaters yet may have wound up as a gut punch for Warner Bros. When Observer spoke to box office analysts in April, the consensus was that the $200 million budgeted film needed to earn at least $450 million worldwide to break even. To date, the film has grossed nearly $350 million with analysts emphasizing a wait-and-see approach given the unprecedented circumstances. Still, studios aren’t in the business of making $200 million blockbusters that only gross $54 million domestic, as Tenet currently has.
A new report from Variety has rivals speculating that Tenet may lose Warner Bros. as much as $100 million, while insiders at the studio tell the outlet the number is closer to $50 million. That puts the movie on pace for the same financial loss range as Justice League, which was considered a significant box office disappointment at the time of its release. But Nolan seems to be pleased with ticket sales two months into what is expected to be an extended theatrical run.
“Warner Bros. released Tenet and I’m thrilled that it has made almost $350 million,” Nolan told the Los Angeles Times. “I am worried that the studios are drawing the wrong conclusions from our release—that rather than looking at where the film has worked well and how that can provide them with much needed revenue, they’re looking at where it hasn’t lived up to pre-COVID expectations and will start using that as an excuse to make exhibition take all the losses from the pandemic instead of getting in the game and adapting—or rebuilding our business, in other words.”
All five of Nolan’s most recent films have surpassed the half billion mark at the global box office. While Tenet is doing surprisingly well overseas ($293 million), it is unlikely to reach that number with domestic moviegoing still at a standstill. The film is expected to be a massive hit in digital sales (or possibly a major boost to HBO Max?), but Warner Bros. might have been better off financially delaying the film altogether. However, the studio does boast a high-profile 2021 release slate headlined by blockbusters such as Dune, Godzilla vs Kong and The Suicide Squad.