Tenet/Warner Bros.

It’s official: ‘Tenet’ is a box office bomb

The internet’s buzziest summer blockbuster fails to deliver in the U.S. amid COVID-19.


Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Internet Culture

After months of Warner Bros. pressing forward to release Tenet and revitalize the cinema industry in the U.S., the results are in. And they’re not good. While the movie brought in a respectable (under the circumstances) $200 million worldwide, only a tiny fraction of that came from American theaters, the film’s main target market.

Variety noted a “surprising lack of transparency” around Tenet’s box office numbers, with Warner Bros. initially claiming that the film brought in $20 million from domestic theaters on its opening weekend. But that number may not have been strictly accurate. Apparently it included previews and screenings from the long holiday weekend, and the real Friday-Sunday total was $9 million in the U.S. and Canada combined, dropping to $6.7 million this weekend. So after all that effort to get people hyped up about Tenet as the summer’s only cinematic blockbuster… people still didn’t pay to see it.

These numbers really shouldn’t be a surprise. About a quarter of movie theaters are still closed, and many of the ones that are open will restrict themselves to half-empty, socially distanced screenings. On top of this, plenty of people just don’t feel comfortable risking COVID-19 transmission in an indoor movie theater. It didn’t help that Tenet‘s reviews were not as glowing as we usually expect from a Christopher Nolan movie. Some media outlets (including the Daily Dot) opted not to review it at all, for safety reasons.

Releasing Tenet in theaters was a gamble, with Warner Bros. and cinema chains hoping to resuscitate an industry that’s suffering hugely during the pandemic. But that gamble did not pay off. Tenet‘s weak box office is almost certainly why Warner Bros. decided to delay Wonder Woman once again, and other films are sure to follow. In turn, cinema chains are likely to shut down again if they don’t have any big new movies to screen. It’s now virtually guaranteed that Tenet will be a huge financial loss for Warner Bros. because its original production budget was $200 million. Theater chains take a significant portion of the ticket price, and the studio also has to earn back the film’s marketing budget, which could easily match the production costs.

The question now is whether Tenet will get an early digital release, following in the footsteps of films like Mulan. Much of Tenet‘s buzz focused on the idea that this film “needed” to be seen in theaters, as one of Christopher Nolan’s characteristically large-scale blockbusters. But this didn’t stop movie fans from wondering why they couldn’t just stream it at home.

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