Box Office: ‘Tenet’ Was The Right Movie At The Wrong Time
Chris Nolan and John David Washington on the set of ‘Tenet’
Warner Bros., photo by Melinda Sue Gordon
Tenet was supposed to be a brainy, counter-programming “event movie for adults” summer release, not the all-quadrant savior of the entire theatrical industry.
Tenet wasn’t the top movie at the domestic box office this weekend thanks to The War With Grandpa, but it’s still trucking along, relatively speaking. Warner Bros.’ $200 million time-inversion thriller earned another $2.16 million (-20%) in its sixth weekend of domestic release (not counting the first weekend in Canada which was added into its American debut frame), bringing its domestic total $48.3 million. It should be past $50 million domestic by next weekend, with a final total presumably at least above the $53 million cume of The Prestige from back in 2006. The good news is that California is starting to reopen (my local AMC opened for business this past weekend), but the bad news is that Regal is closing their locales until 2021. The $58 million cume of Rob Zombie’s Halloween in 2007, the current Labor Day champ, may be out of reach.
Tenet earned $9.8 million globally in 62 markets this weekend, bringing its international cume to $275 million and its global total to $323.3 million (including $30 million in IMAX). It has earned 85% of its overall grosses from overseas box office, behind only Resident Evil: The Final Chapter ($26 million domestic but $312 million worldwide) in terms of domestic/overseas splits for Hollywood movies. It is arguably playing damn well for a big-budget Hollywood original helmed by anyone other than Chris Nolan. Of the original live-action Hollywood flicks released since 2013, it is behind only Gravity ($723 million), Interstellar ($700 million), Dunkirk ($525 million), San Andreas ($474 million), La La Land ($441 million), Lucy ($459 million), Pacific Rim ($411 million), 1917 ($384 million), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ($374 million), Now You See Me ($351 million), A Quiet Place ($341 million) and The Great Wall ($335 million).
You can debate whether Nolan’s World War II thriller and Sam Mendes’ War World I thriller qualify as “original,” but Tenet could still end up among the top ten biggest-grossing original live-action features over the last seven years even during a pandemic, with mixed-positive reviews and with a barely-functioning U.S. box office. Throw in a lack of butts-in-the-seats movie stars (talent notwithstanding, John David Washington is no Leonardo DiCaprio), and Tenet’s eventual overseas gross (it still has 21 overseas territories left to go) might not be that far off from what it might have earned in conventional circumstances. Much of the pre-release hype for the film presumed that it would deliver on a level akin to Inception. That film earned $292 million domestic and $824 million worldwide in the summer of 2010. But what if Tenet was always going to play closer to Dunkirk?
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Inception offered the world’s biggest movie star, an easy-to-sell hook and rave reviews as the one brainy 2-D Hollywood original in a summer of lousy (Iron Man 2, Robin Hood, Prince of Persia, Shrek 4, Twilight: Eclipse, etc.) mostly 3-D franchise flicks. Moreover, all due respect to those who liked it more than I did, but Tenet is not Inception in terms of crowd-pleasing thrills, memorable characters and buzzy moments. Yes, it was hurt even overseas by capacity issues and pandemic-related fears, as there was a lot less repeat business than there might have been otherwise. It’s tough to be a movie that you have to see twice when it’s barely safe to see it once. So if we argue that, save for America, Tenet is earning almost as much as it would have otherwise earned, what does that mean?
Not to say it would have been a “better” movie opening under different circumstances, but it would have altered the narrative. Even if Tenet had underperformed (say, $550 million instead of $750 million) under normal circumstances, it would have been a disappointing but not disastrous “for the love of the game” offering as Warner Bros. counted its money from Wonder Woman 1984, In the Heights and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. Even if it had seriously underperformed, it wouldn’t have caused a slew of other tentpoles (No Time to Die, Candyman, The Kings Man, Black Widow, etc.) to get delayed months into the future or sent to streaming, thus inadvertently endangering the entire theatrical industry. That’s not Tenet’s fault any more than Walt Disney’s DIS Mulan, Pixar’s Soul or DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls: World Tour are to blame for skipping in much of the world.
Tenet was the right film at the wrong time, unfairly positioned as the great savior of theatrical exhibition even while existing as an explicitly unconventional big-budget sci-fi thriller. Had it opened this July in normal times or next July after the pandemic subsided, it likely would have stood out as a brainy and clinical “hard sci-fi” action spectacular amid a crowd of more conventional sequels, franchise flicks and the like. It would have been a relative diamond in the rough alongside Black Widow, Ghostbusters Afterlife, Minions 2, Jungle Cruise and Top Gun: Maverick. But, be it Warner Bros.’ call or Chris Nolan’s insistence (again during a time when we all thought the worst would be over by June), Tenet was big-scale summer counterprogramming that was turned into the only big game in town. The movie wasn’t crowd-pleasing enough or commercial enough to carry that burden.