Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was simply put, not the grand American “Return to the Movies” Hollywood was hoping for. With a staggering $200 million production budget, Nolan’s most expensive to date, the film has only made back a paltry $3.4 million in the states. Despite perfectly satisfactory reviews, Americans were just not motivated enough (or perhaps implicitly de-incentivized) from taking the big step back into the wilderness, despite the film’s resounding success throughout the rest of the world.
This has led to speculation about the release of other American blockbusters on the horizon. Warner Bros. has already pushed back Wonder Woman 1984 to December 25, 2020, while MGM/Universal’s Candyman remake and Marvel’s Natasha Romanoff origin story Black Widow will premiere next year. It is not unthinkable that the already delayed No Time to Die will see a 2021 release, as will Pixar’s Soul. These kinds of films bank heavily on box office numbers to bolster success, essentially throwing a dart at a wall to guess which financial records they will break on premiere night. They rely heavily on hype, particularly in America, so while it is certainly possible they might pivot to online distribution, just as Mulan, Trolls World Tour, and other films did, pushing them back further could be the best move to keep raising that anticipation. Absence does make the heart grow fonder after all. Then again, more hype equals higher expectations and crushed expectations usually mean low box office numbers. So depending on how much confidence Universal and Pixar have in these works, they might be better suited to rush it out digitally and take a mulligan. It’s not like they can’t afford it.
Something about the buildup for Tenet felt different than that previous summer blockbusters, and not just because of the pandemic. Sure, COVID-19 certainly limited the physical number of theater seats available to the public, but this feeling of oddness is far less tangible. The hype machine seemed to be running at half speed for Tenet, which is fitting considering the widespread capacity limitations of most reopened businesses.
Commercials and online advertisements seemed roughly as prevalent as they always are around seemingly inevitable hits like Tenet, but the word of mouth, the grassroots style of marketing that studios count on more than they would like to admit, simply wasn’t there at the magnitude they needed. A cynic might chalk that up to Tenet’s similarities in tone and structure to previous Nolan hits like Inception and Interstellar. But Nolan is easily one of Hollywood’s most reliable cash cows over his celebrated career, with not a single true flop to his name, so similarity to previous films is, if anything, a selling point. It is too much a coincidence for Nolan’s first American flop to not have any pandemic-related factors at play.
What felt different was the marketing touting the film as the great return to the movies. To put it bluntly, Americans simply are not yet ready for such direct instruction to see a film in person.
There’s a reason, or rather a few, that Americans still feel a general discomfort about the idea of going to the movies, even for those that are healthy enough to safely leave the house with masks. Movies are still a luxury, or more to the point a purely leisure activity. The grocery store may make some of us paranoid right now when it gets slightly too crowded for comfort on a Saturday morning, but it is still undisputedly an essential errand of daily life. The same goes for establishments like pharmacies and convenience stores. Even restaurants, while obviously not a necessary outing, do at least provide basic sustenance. Theatergoing on the other hand is a purely luxury experience, free any activity that could even charitably be described as essential.
But what about the recent reopening of museums? Well, the fundamental difference between them and theaters is more physiological. In contrast to the bright open spaces of museums, theaters are closed and dark. They are certainly capable of providing sufficient air ventilation provided they operate at limited capacity, but it’s the aura that it creates that sets the tone. Sitting in that small chair with a couple dozen silhouettes of heads peering over the seats in front of you; music and affects blaring at top volume with the theater bathed in darkness; being slightly taken aback when someone makes a noise or crosses over your legs to rush to the bathroom; it’s an inherently claustrophobic experience, particularly if what’s on screen is designed to keep you on edge i.e. a horror or thriller film.
The state of our government and their blatant inability to contain the virus (as well as the irresponsible attitude of far too many citizens) means that too little people are willing to head to the movies without fear or paranoia. And with no other viewing options, something we have become accustomed to remarkably quickly under lockdown, Tenet hits a financial plateau.
That is in the US of course. While the film is the fourth-highest grossing of the year currently, at time of writing a grossed majority of $242 million comes internationally; a far cry from American numbers. This if anything proves public health concerns as a primary reason for Tenet’s downfall in the states. Many countries in which the film brought home the cash are ones that have contained the virus enough to assure its citizens of safe return to the dark movie box. The US movie theater industry relies debilitatingly heavily on its top three markets: New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Without premieres in those cities, a good chunk of reviewing press gets delayed or goes out the window entirely. Not to mention Oscar eligibility requires a film run (though that rule has been suspended due to COVID-19).
As it stands, those three cities are some of the biggest hotspots for the novel coronavirus, and restrictions on reopening are tight. Until we can get ourselves together and start acting smart, we will be dooming the domestic moviegoing experience to the desert of obsolesces. And that’s a real shame. We firmly believe that moviegoing will not completely die out, we just hope it won’t become the new niche.