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Christopher Nolan says studios aren't learning right lessons from Tenet's pandemic-era rollout

By Josh Weiss

Since its long-awaited theatrical debut in late August/early September, Christopher Nolan's Tenet has made $53 million in the U.S. and over $347 million worldwide. While these totals are nothing to shake a stick at, they are very much reflective of the COVID-19 health crisis, which continues to wreak havoc on movie theaters around the globe. Tenet, a time-twisting blockbuster wrapped inside the espionage genre, was hailed as the movie that was going to breathe new life into the exhibitor industry after months of closure. Instead, its lukewarm box office performance that failed to live up to pre-pandemic expectations represented a warning sign for most studios that either delayed major releases to next year or unloaded certain projects onto streaming platforms.

This knee-jerk strategy is a big mistake, according to Nolan, who is actually quite pleased with Tenet's track record thus far. Recently speaking with The Los Angeles Times, the ambitious writer-director explained why Hollywood is learning the wrong lessons from the pandemic-era rollout of his latest cinematic creation.

"Warner Bros. released Tenet, and I’m thrilled that it has made almost $350 million. But I am worried that the studios are drawing the wrong conclusions from our release — that rather than looking at where the film has worked well and how that can provide them with much needed revenue, they’re looking at where it hasn’t lived up to pre-COVID expectations and will start using that as an excuse to make exhibition take all the losses from the pandemic instead of getting in the game and adapting — or rebuilding our business, in other words," the filmmaker said.


In the last month-and-a-half, we've seen major movies like No Time to Die and Dune pushed to next year. Right now, Warner Bros. still plans to release Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day, but experts are already anticipating that to be postponed as well, which would leave 2020 mostly devoid of any tentpoles. Hollywood's ambivalence of late has negatively impacted theaters chains both big and small. Cineworld (owner of Regal in the States) decided to temporarily shutter its doors once again in the wake of No Time to Die's delay. To make things even more complicated, several European countries are going back into states of lockdown as coronavirus cases have started to spike amid the return of colder weather.

"It’s a difficult question to speak to," Nolan said when asked about the future of the moviegoing experience. "If you’re talking about the acceleration of existing trends, that’s something I started reading right at the beginning of the pandemic. And it ignores the reality that 2019 was the biggest year for theatrical films in history. They’d made the most money. The admissions were huge. So to me, it’s much more about: What’s the new reality we’re living in? ... Long term, moviegoing is a part of life, like restaurants and everything else. But right now, everybody has to adapt to a new reality."

As for Tenet's future (pun intended), Warner Bros. has said that it intends to let the feature play for a longer period of time than normal, so as to recoup production and marketing costs. Disregarding the publicity budget, the project cost the studio around $200 million to make.