Christopher Nolan makes a mistake with Tenet

Christopher Nolan loves cinemas. So much so that even during a global coronavirus pandemic, the 50-year-old London-born filmmaker has insisted that Tenet – his epic, time-consuming Bond sci-fi-like spy flick – will be only theatrical release. Even though many cinemas are not operational. And those who are work under severe restrictions. Like most other big-budget productions slated for 2020, Tenet has been delayed multiple times due to the pandemic. But unlike other films, which have been delayed by months or even a year, Tenet’s release date has only been pushed back by 40 days in all. Nolan is determined to get Tenet into theaters as soon as possible.

After weekend previews in select countries, Tenet is set to finally launch its theatrical rollout on Wednesday. It will open in over 70 markets by the end of this week, including Nolan’s second home in the UK, in addition to major countries like Australia, France, Germany, Korea and India. Spain. And in the first week of September, it will be released in the United States and China, the two biggest box office markets in the world. These will be followed by Russia and Japan later in September. Warner Bros. was not always in favor of a staggered exit. In fact, insiders say the studio wanted Tenet released everywhere – including India – at the same time, fearing piracy.

Nolan seems to have managed to appease Warner Bros.’ concerns, but that doesn’t mean the threat of piracy is gone. Tenet is an event in itself, a $200 million (roughly Rs. 1,500 crore) film from an original idea – a rare breed in Hollywood. And Nolan is one of the last directors to be able to attract a massive audience based on his own name. “The director of The Dark Knight Trilogy. Creation. Interstellar. Dunkirk.” The last of them — Dunkirk — Nolan’s World War II drama about a specific act of British heroism has grossed over $500 million (about Rs. 3,700 crore). This is unheard of in the current climate. That means a lot of people will want to watch Tenet.

Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk
Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.

Judging by the film’s marketing, Tenet is clearly the kind of Nolan movie that needs all of its mysteries intact for you to properly enjoy. And as the trailers have shown, Tenet has a lot of that quintessential mind-blowing Nolan touch, a la Memento, The Prestige, and Inception. But Nolan’s theatrical-only approach is likely to doom all of that. Tenet spoilers have already arrived on Reddit, and they won’t pick up speed until after the movie opens in the US. Soon after, they will spread to the rest of the internet with explanations and discussion posts. In such an environment, many people who would like to watch Tenet untouched and be part of the conversation will naturally be driven to seek out illegal rips.

And it’s not just for those who live where cinemas aren’t open at all. Even if you have access to Tenet at a nearby theater, you might not want to go out for fear of catching the virus. And those fears are justified, experts say. On the one hand, the coronavirus spreads through aerosols, which could spread much further in an air-conditioned environment, studies have shown. And two, there’s no way to guarantee that your fellow customers will keep their masks on for Tenet’s 150-minute runtime. Especially if the theater allows the consumption of food and drink. Experts insist that going to the cinema is not a “good idea” unless you can rent the whole hall. It’s not something the average movie buff can afford.

How can pro-movie Nolan be blind to the fact that he might be putting his fans in danger? And it doesn’t have to be that way. All the other big budget films have moved away from the pandemic. Daniel Craig’s latest Bond film, No Time to Die, was the first to push back its release date by more than seven months. The next Fast & Furious movie, F9, has been delayed by 11 months. Even Marvel Pushed Her Solo Adventure With Scarlett Johannsson Black Widow by six months. But Nolan did not move. And if he has to push it early, he could have adapted. In the same week as Tenet’s US release, Disney is set to try out a new strategy for its $200 million live-action. Mulaneavailable for an additional $30 (approximately Rs. 2,200) on top of the Disney+ monthly subscription fee in some markets.

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Yifei Liu in and as Mulane
Photo credit: Jasin Boland/Disney

As one of the only directors whose original ideas gross at least $500 million at the box office, Nolan and Warner Bros. could have made money with online rentals. But Nolan would have no direct-to-home business model, nor would he accept a long delay. He not only wants to preserve the big-screen experience (understandable) but he also wants to be the savior of cinemas (risky), which have been among the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic. But by opting for a staggered release with Tenet during an ongoing pandemic, Nolan is going to end up spoiling the movie for some (not good) or pushing them towards piracy (worse).

Ironically, the latter not only does exactly what Nolan doesn’t want – spoiling the big screen experience that Nolan is so in love with – but it also hurts the box office of Tenet, which is already suffering due to limited screens and social distancing guidelines. For example, although Tenet opens in the US on September 3, it will have no presence in the New York or Los Angeles area, which are the two biggest contributors to the US box office. And in places where Tenet will be available, screens will operate at maximum at third or half capacity. Not to mention how comfortable audiences feel returning to theaters to begin with. Tenet would need to make $500 million to break even, and it’s impossible to say if that number is achievable given the global situation.

For what it’s worth, Tenet envisions a much longer theatrical run than has become tradition. Warner Bros. has already committed to it. After all, countries like India that continue to climb the first wave of coronavirus infections – we’re now around the 70,000 new cases per day mark, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in the near future. – have not even put the reopening of cinemas on their agenda. We might not see Tenet in theaters until next year. With such massively staggered cinema windows, it’s impossible to tell what Warner Bros. the home media strategy will be for Tenet. But it’s entirely possible that Tenet will end up elsewhere on Blu-ray before it hits Indian cinemas.


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