Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.

Tenet was positioned as movie theaters' saving grace, the film that would bring cinemas back to life. Instead, it's become yet another harbinger of doom. After two weeks in U.S. theaters, Christopher Nolan's brain-twisting thriller has grossed just $29.5 million domestically, widely viewed as a disappointing total even with all the requisite caveats factored in. As the first tentpole to hit multiplexes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Tenet has been viewed an acid test for moviegoers' readiness to venture back into theaters. It seems they're not ready yet.

While the film has performed decently overseas, especially under the circumstances — it recently crossed the $200 million mark worldwide — its U.S. numbers have been tepid at best. Warner Bros. initially reported a $20 million domestic take over the long Labor Day weekend, but Tenet's three-day opening weekend gross was actually around $9.4 million. (The $20 million figure also included weekday preview screenings.) The film also dropped 29 percent in its second weekend — ordinarily a strong holdover, and one Warner Bros. touted as a promising sign. But consider the fact that Tenet opened in 100 more locations last weekend, including several in the Los Angeles area, and it looks a bit less promising. For a $200 million movie by an A-list director, playing in theaters with virtually no competition, this is a definite letdown, even as the studio insists the film is "running a marathon, not a sprint."

"That's not how you run a marathon," says Jeff Bock, a senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "That's running off the edge of a cliff. You certainly cannot run a marathon in this fashion, in this climate. When we talk about a film dubbed as the savior of cinema, it definitely has to overperform."

Warner Bros. did not immediately respond to EW's request for comment, but the studio's president of distribution, Jeff Goldstein, told The New York Times he was "disappointed that the marketplace is still 30 percent unopened."

"The markets we are missing are key markets where Chris Nolan movies have really performed well in the past," he added — notably New York and Los Angeles, where most theaters currently remain closed.

The fact is, most Americans simply don't feel safe going to the movies as the pandemic remains rampant across the country. A recent poll by data firm Morning Consult reported that just 18 percent of those surveyed said they would feel comfortable going to a movie theater right now, and Tenet's numbers reflect that reality.

"There's not a lot of traction, and that's what the industry was hoping to see," Bock says. "I think a lot of people at Warner Bros. even assumed that maybe there wouldn't be any drop-off for Tenet in its second weekend."

Tenet is now looking like a warning to studios: Releasing a tentpole theatrically is a bad idea right now. A week after Tenet opened in the U.S., Warner Bros. moved Wonder Woman 1984's release date from October to Christmas, a move that looks practically optimistic considering most major releases have been pushed into next year. Meanwhile, reports have emerged that Disney is considering removing Black Widow from its scheduled Nov. 6 date, and even sending Pixar's Soul to Disney+. Without those titles, the only tentpoles slated for 2020 are Wonder Woman, No Time to Die (Nov. 25), Dune, and Steven Spielberg's West Side Story (both Dec. 18) — and that's if those release dates remain unchanged, which looks increasingly unlikely. Exhibitors who were counting on Tenet to pave the way for a holiday movie season are undoubtedly facing crushing disappointment.

"What's worse than having theaters closed? How about having theaters open, but with no new product for the next seven weeks? That's what we're looking at," Bock says. "The only way to save theaters right now is to put more content out there, but studios are not going to drop another $200 million Hollywood blockbuster in a marketplace where it can't succeed."

Of course, Disney was supposed to be redefining the tentpole game when it announced that the $200 million Mulan would be available to Disney+ subscribers for an extra $29.99. While the studio has yet to announce any official data on its performance, rough industry estimates say the film earned about $33.5 million in its first weekend on streaming. (Disney did not respond to multiple requests for comment and to provide official numbers.) That's a decent number for a VOD release, but abysmal for an expensive tentpole. Until we get a fuller picture of its performance — and how the multiple waves of controversy Mulan has faced impacted its success — it's difficult to know how Disney, or any studio, will proceed.

Yet as movie production ramps back up with new safety measures in place, the backlog of finished tentpoles awaiting release will only grow, and denying eager consumers new movies will only become less tenable. For Bock, the best way forward isn't an all-or-nothing approach, but a combination of the Mulan and Tenet stratagems: simultaneous VOD and theatrical releases to give theaters new content, while letting viewers catch new movies at home if they prefer. (Universal, which struck a deal with AMC to let its movies play in theaters and on VOD simultaneously, recently bumped DreamWorks' The Croods: A New Age up from December to a Nov. 25 release.)

"PVOD and theatrical, a combination thereof, would help theaters, and it would help the consumer, who for the most part wants to watch a movie in their home right now," Bock says. "Theaters are going to have to face the music, like Bill and Ted did. That is the only way, if you want to get consumers right now, to go about this."

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