Hollywood couldn't have scripted a better potential comeback story for the movie theater industry.
Warner Bros. is poised to release the latest feature from acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, one of the biggest advocates for the big-screen experience, on July 17. If his science fiction thriller, "Tenet," premieres as planned, it will be the first big-budget film to debut in wide theatrical release since U.S. multiplexes were shuttered in mid-March.
A successful launch for the movie would herald a triumphant return for beleaguered cinemas after months of closures that have threatened to bankrupt exhibitors. For Nolan, to be the filmmaker who kick-starts the business hobbled by the coronavirus would be almost too fitting.
However, that may not be possible.
Because of public health policies meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus, theater owners remain uncertain when they will be able to fully open across the nation at a level that can support a major studio movie.
That's especially true in key markets such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, which are essential for a film of "Tenet's" size to become profitable. Those cities are home to the cinephiles who would normally flock to a new film from the director of "Dunkirk," "Interstellar," "Inception" and "The Dark Knight." It's also unclear when moviegoers will be willing to go back to theaters amid lingering fears of new outbreaks.
The situation is tricky for Burbank-based Warner Bros., which has much riding on "Tenet." The film is estimated to have cost about $190 million to produce, not including marketing. The AT&T Inc.-owned studio has already launched its marketing campaign, with TV commercials that aired Wednesday and a trailer that launched Thursday night on the popular online video game Fortnite. The new trailer did not specify a release date.
"Even though it's not a Marvel or 'Star Wars' movie, it's still contingent on having a worldwide footprint," said Shawn Robbins, an analyst at BoxOffice.com. "The sheer risk is in the daily news changing. That puts the studio in a really difficult situation."
Spokespeople for Warner Bros. and Nolan declined to comment for this story.
The release of "Tenet" illustrates a central conundrum the entertainment industry faces as executives, theater owners and workers hope to get back in business.
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."
Plot details of "Tenet," which stars John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, have been kept mostly secret. Trailers have displayed Nolan's striking visual style and intense action, and his penchant for playing with time and physics. The film's title itself is a palindrome.
Nolan, who is said to have an unusual level of influence over when his movies are released, has been a vocal champion for theaters during the streaming-video era, and that has only increased during the coronavirus crisis. In March, Nolan penned a Washington Post op-ed calling on Congress and movie studios to support theaters during the threat.
"When this crisis passes, the need for collective human engagement, the need to live and love and laugh and cry together, will be more powerful than ever," Nolan wrote in the piece.
Many exhibitors are worried that the extended shutdowns will do long-term harm to their business model. Several studios have decided to forgo theatrical releases for certain movies during the pandemic and put them directly onto streaming services and video-on-demand sites. Exhibitors have long decried efforts by studios to tamper with the theatrical window, or the average 90-day gap between a movie's release in cinemas and on home video.
Universal Pictures released "Trolls World Tour" to strong online sales of $95 million in three weeks, leading NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell to declare that the studio would pursue similar releases even after coronavirus. AMC Theatres said it would no longer play Universal's movies, in response to Shell's comments.
Warner Bros. on May 15 launched its new animated movie, "Scoob," a Scooby-Doo origin story, for digital rental and purchase.
But no matter when "Tenet" is released, one thing's certain: It will be in theaters.
"He is Mr. Cinema," Robbins said of Nolan. "I don't think there's a bigger advocate for seeing movies in a theater."
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