For American theaters, “Tenet” was supposed to be the film that brought audiences back to the movies. There was just one problem: “Tenet” opened, and hardly anyone showed up.
Warner Bros.’ new Christopher Nolan spy thriller has made roughly $30 million domestically since opening in North America two weeks ago. That includes two pretty lackluster weekends where the film made about $9.5 million and $6.7 million at the box office. (Warner Bros., like CNN, is owned by WarnerMedia.)
For Warner Bros., the news isn’t all bad since “Tenet” has performed admirably overseas. The film, which opened internationally in late August, has brought in more than $205 million globally so far. However, for domestic theaters, “Tenet’s” rough start puts a considerable strain on an industry that needed a blockbuster to entice moviegoers back to the cineplex.
With no other big film on the schedule until at least November, US theaters are in for a dire fall season at the movies.
“There’s no way around this; the outlook for theaters over the next seven weeks is beyond bleak,” Jeff Bock, a senior analyst at entertainment research firm Exhibitor Relations, told CNN Business. “The totally bummer summer of 2020 is about to become the awful fall.”
Bock added that with no big films, theaters are “basically left to fend for themselves booking library titles and alternate content.”
“This will not end well for chains or independent theaters, many of which will be operating at a loss. With no major blockbusters until November — although those aren’t remotely set in stone — theaters will likely have to make the unfortunate choice of shutting down again or limiting their operating hours.”
Other films in theaters like “Unhinged” and “The New Mutants” have also not found an audience, which led to a dismal box office this past weekend. This weekend’s domestic box office brought in just $15 million, a number that is “not enough to cover operating expenses,” according to IndieWire’s Tom Brueggemann.
“[Theaters] have staff and other operational costs to pay, as well as rent to landlords. Theaters have a stronger hand in negotiating rent if they’re closed,” Brueggemann wrote. “Once open, they owe, and now they face weeks of operation at a significant loss.”
So is there any hope on the near horizon for theaters? Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, believes that if significant markets like New York City and Los Angeles open, the industry could see a much-needed boost.
“The presence of those open markets certainly wouldn’t hurt,” Robbins said. “Combined, they contribute 10% to 15% of an average mainstream film’s domestic box office. Based solely on “Tenet’s” performance thus far, those markets alone aren’t going to immediately normalize box office revenue. What they can do, however, is galvanize the perception of reopenings.”
Robbins noted that theaters are relying “largely on word of mouth from suburbs and urban areas to convey the safety and availability of going back to the cinemas.”
However, there are no promises that even if those cities open theaters that audiences will want to return, Bock said.
“Opening NYC and LA will provide a small boost, but it’s doubtful that it would heal the box office wound that COVID has inflicted,” he said.
What about streaming?
Then there’s the streaming option.
Following Disney’s decision to release “Mulan” on Disney+, studios could decide that it’s less risky to release a film digitally than in theaters right now.
“There’s no way around streaming right now in North America,” Bock said. “This isn’t a solution that will be set in stone going forward, but it is the best solution for the reality of right now.”
With streaming numbers kept close to the vest, it’s difficult to gauge the effect that digital releases can have on a film’s bottom line, but Bock believes streaming can work in line with theaters, at least for the time being.
“Studios need to offer other alternatives right now,” he said. “In the rest of the world, studios may be able to get away with a traditional release, but domestically, we’re in a funk, and reaching potential consumers will be all about delivering content in the safest and most efficient way possible. That’s [premium video on demand]. Or a combination of PVOD and theatrical.”
Nothing major is coming to theaters
Yet, with no major releases for weeks, the industry finds itself looking toward November when “No Time to Die,” the latest James Bond film, is set to open. After that, the highly anticipated and often delayed “Wonder Woman 1984” highlights the holiday season opening on Christmas. Late October does have two films set to open in theaters with “Death on the Nile” from 20th Century Studios and Sony Animation’s “Connected,” but those films aren’t on the level of the franchise films opening in November and December.
“Black Widow,” the new film from Marvel Studios, was set to open on November 6, but Variety reported on Tuesday that Disney may delay that film as well.
And even if any of films choose to stay in theaters, rather than following Mulan’s lead by heading to digital, it would still be an uphill battle to find audiences after months of theaters reeling and a still ongoing pandemic in the United States.
However, if theaters were going to mount any comeback, it could do worse than movies starring James Bond, and Wonder Woman.