Studios don't want their expensive movies to go into theatrical release if cinemas aren't widely open and customers remain fearful. Theaters are expected to start opening in late June and early July with strict social distancing rules, limited seating and heavy cleaning regiments. Some theaters have already opened in Georgia and Texas. Cinema chains probably will open with capacity of 25% to 50%.
On the other hand, most major circuits have said they don't want to resume until there are major new movies for them to show, creating a game of chicken for the film business. Comscore said there are roughly 320 theaters open in the U.S. this week, including some 150 drive-ins, which have been showing older films including "Bloodshot" and indie films such as IFC's horror flick "The Wretched."
"It's all about consumer confidence," said box office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. "We won't know until we open theaters, but there are definitely people who do not want to go to a movie theater right now."
One exhibition industry executive expressed increasing confidence that enough theaters will reopen by early July to release "Tenet," given the accelerating pace at which states, including California, are opening their economies. Even if theaters in Los Angeles and New York aren't open on July 17, they probably will be soon after, said the executive, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the plans.
Warner Bros., led by pictures group chairman Toby Emmerich, has not revealed any contingency plans. However, analysts and industry insiders speculate that "Tenet" could move to the Aug. 14 release date currently held by Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman 1984" if circumstances make a July debut untenable. In that case, the "Wonder Woman" sequel, also made by Warner Bros., would move to another date.
If "Tenet" were postponed, it would leave Walt Disney Co.'s live-action "Mulan" remake as the first potential blockbuster to brave theaters in the wake of the virus when it comes out July 24. Disney already moved the release from its planned March 27 date, and the company has given no indication that it plans to move the film again.
A smaller distributor, Los Angeles-based Solstice Studios, will release the $33-million Russell Crowe thriller "Unhinged" on July 1. That will provide the first indication of whether there's a pent-up desire to return to theaters after weeks of limited entertainment options during the shutdown. Some theaters are planning to play older movies, such as "Harry Potter" and "Back to the Future," while customers get comfortable returning.
"We're about six weeks out from the first big wide-release movie," noted Lionsgate Motion Picture Group chairman Joe Drake on a Thursday call with analysts. "And that will give us an opportunity to see how audiences are reacting leading up to that and on that opening weekend."
But all eyes remain on Warner Bros. and Nolan, who occupies a rare place in the film business because of his ability to draw audiences based on his reputation. The British director is famous for making commercially and critically successful movies, and often doing so with big budgets and original stories. His previous feature, 2017's World War II thriller "Dunkirk," grossed $527 million in global ticket sales and won three Oscars.
"He should be the hero of exhibition," said one former studio executive who asked to remain anonymous to protect relationships. "It would be the perfect success story."