It’s been a while since we’ve done a serious box office report. Obviously, that’s because the film industry put the kibosh on releasing major films in theaters until recently, with last week’s debut of “The New Mutants” and this past weekend’s arrival of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.” And though we finally have box office numbers for “Tenet,” things are so very different than they were when the feature was scheduled to be released in July that it’s hard to even pinpoint exactly what the numbers mean. But hey, let’s give it a shot, shall we?
As mentioned, this weekend saw the first major blockbuster since March arrive in theaters (sorry, “The New Mutants,” but you don’t qualify in this category, despite the franchise tie-ins) with Warner Bros.’ “Tenet.” And the film earned a reported $20.2 million in the three-day weekend (not including Monday’s holiday). Obviously, this is a number that is well, well below what analysts were expecting in a pre-COVID world, but compared to the various other films that have been released in August, Nolan’s film did pretty well. Though, you can’t help but wonder if it’s good enough.
So, how can we figure out if $20.2 million is a solid start for “Tenet?” Well, we don’t have any comparable pandemic-era blockbuster numbers to look at, so we have to think a bit more outside of the box. First, even before the film arrived in North American theaters, WB made it clear that the studio was looking at the long game as far as box office potential for “Tenet.” That means, arguably the more important weekends are the next three. Why? Well, each week, we’ll likely see more theaters opening, and without any major competition (WB’s own “Wonder Woman 1984” doesn’t hit until October 2) for the next month, we should see strong box office legs for “Tenet.” Honestly, if WB hopes to make any money off the $200 million film, there should be incredibly small decreases week-to-week for the next four weekends. If we start to see drops of 50% or more, this would mean that WB is likely going to have a major loss on its hands, and the experiment of being first out of the gate wasn’t all that smart.
Now, this is far from an exact comparison, but if you look at “The New Mutants,” in its second weekend, we can start to see that competition is still tough (perhaps more so) in this pandemic era. With limited screenings for each film and limited capacity at each screening, studios need to ensure that the latest blockbuster sucks up all the bandwidth at the ticket counter. And that seems to be the case when you see that “The New Mutants” only made $2.9 million in its second weekend (a -58.4% drop from its debut). It’s clear that theaters really only have the capacity for one major film at a time. And WB definitely wants to make sure “Tenet” is that film for the foreseeable future.
This leads to the second way to judge how well “Tenet” is doing at the box office— “Wonder Woman 1984.”
Since Warner Bros. is not only the first studio to release a blockbuster in North America but also the second, with ‘WW84,’ the studio really does have control over what the box office looks like over the next couple of months. If WB thinks the numbers for “Tenet” are below expectations and pointing to a major loss, it would make sense that the studio would delay “Wonder Woman 1984” once again.
That serves two purposes. First, it clears the path for “Tenet” to keep the screen real estate for even longer. And secondly, it prevents the studio from dooming another blockbuster with a premature debut. If cinemas just can’t keep up solid results with two major films, then why would one studio knowingly cannibalize itself? So, if the release date for ‘WW84’ gets delayed, this is a clear sign that Warner Bros. isn’t willing to take the risk a second time.
In this hypothetical situation, where WB delays the ‘Wonder Woman’ sequel, we could be looking at yet another chain reaction from the other studios. October 16, two weeks after ‘WW84,’ Universal’s “Candyman” reboot is supposed to hit theaters in time for Halloween. Then you have Disney’s “Death on the Nile” a week later on October 23. And finally, Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow” is still on the schedule for November 6. We’ve been discussing quite a bit about competition in this report and if things stay the same, we’re looking at “Tenet,” “Wonder Woman 1984,” “Candyman,” “Death on the Nile,” and “Black Widow” all fighting for ticket sales by the first week of November. Oh yeah, and don’t forget “No Time to Die” on November 20.
It would be an utter massacre for at least two or three of these films. And with WB, Universal, Disney (including Marvel Studios), and MGM all hoping to make a profit, it’s unlikely that the release calendar is going to stay the same.
Though US states continue to reopen and expand their rules on social distancing in public spaces, we’re less than two months away from “Black Widow’s” opening date. If AMC’s estimation is correct and 70% of its theaters are now open, will the other 30% make up the difference enough for these films to all arrive on time? Will these studios wait and see or be pre-emptive? Let’s just see how “Tenet” does this coming weekend and maybe we’ll have a better answer.