Why Tenet's release date became 'TBA,' and what it means for the summer movie season

Tenet was the tent pole for much of the summer movie season. With Warner Bros. delaying the release again, it could hurt already struggling movie theatre chains.

Time-bending adventure could open outside the U.S. first — but don't count on seeing it in Canada yet

Elizabeth Debicki, left, and John David Washington in an image from Tenet, the latest action film from director Christopher Nolan. (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

For movie theatres trudging through 2020, there was one shining hope in the shrinking summer release schedule: Tenet

The latest offering from director Christopher Nolan was poised to be the film that would welcome fans back to theatres. But with COVID-19 cases still on the rise in many parts of the United States, Warner Bros. announced Tenet would be delayed a third time, with a new date yet to be announced. 

"Our goals throughout this process have been to ensure the highest odds of success for our films while also being ready to support our theatre partners with new content as soon as they could safely reopen," Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich said in a statement.

And that could be bad news for Canadian film-goers, too.

A critical summer tent pole falls

Known for stunning special effects and wide-screen thrills, Nolan's films such as Inception and The Dark Knight have earned the adjective "cinematic," and Tenet appears to be no different. With a budget reported to be over $200 million US, the film features John David Washington (son of Denzel), Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki in a time-warping global adventure. 

WATCH | The trailer for the time-warping adventure film Tenet 

For theatre chains, Tenet wasn't just another movie, it was the linchpin of what's left of the summer season, says Anne Thompson, editor-at-large at culture site Indiewire. Thompson says major theatre chains in the U.S. were planning on reopening on July 31. A big part of those plans was the expectation of Tenet's August 12 release date. 

Indeed, shortly after Warner Bros. announced the delay, the head of the National Association of Theatre Owners responded. Speaking with Variety, John Fithian said distributors should "release their movies and deal with this new normal." Fithian said there's no guarantee more markets will be open later, and that films "should be released in markets where it is safe and legal to release them."

The Nolan factor

As far as what happens next, Warner Bros. said it is not treating Tenet "like a traditional global day-and-date release."

Translation: Tenet could open in other parts of the world before it opens in the U.S. But Jeff Bock, the senior box office analyst for entertainment research and data firm Exhibitor Relations Co., says a piecemeal strategy for Tenet may not work.

Tenet director Christopher Nolan is a big believer in the theatrical experience. Tenet's massive budget couldn't be recouped on a streaming or video-on-demand service, an industry expert says. (Arthur Mola/Invision/Associated Press)

First, there's the issue of spoilers. Besides the stunning cinematography, Christopher Nolan's films are known for their shocking twists and turns. So Bock says a staggered release could be a problem.

"Once word gets out, it's on Wikipedia and it ruins it for everyone." he said. 


As for Canadian films fans thinking they may see Tenet first, Bock says piracy fears could be another stumbling block. "It's simply too risky to allow someone to capture the film on an HD camera — and Nolan wouldn't like that," said Bock. 

Up until now much of what has been driving the Warner Bros. strategy has been staying on good terms with Nolan, a director who belongs to a rarefied club of of filmmakers. "He delivers blockbusters — like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron," says Indiewire's Thompson. "They have enormous power."

Too big to stream

And like Spielberg and Cameron, Nolan is a big believer in the theatrical experience and would be disappointed to see Tenet consigned to a streaming service.

Whereas some smaller films such as the recent Tom Hanks film Greyhound have gone straight to streaming, Bock says Tenet is simply too expensive to recoup enough money on a streaming or video-on-demand service. The only way to earn back its massive budget plus an estimated $150 million for marketing (much of which is already spent) is in brick-and-mortar movie theatres.

Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet, the latest action film from the director of The Dark Knight and Inception. (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

On that front, Bock says there are signs of hope in countries where movie theatres have reopened. Over the weekend the South Korean zombie film Peninsula earned over $21 million US in Asian markets. Hollywood will be watching closely this weekend when the film Bloodshot opens in China. 

In the meantime, North American theatre owners are nervously eyeing the movie release calendar with Mulan as the next major movie scheduled for August 21. Bock believes consumer demand to go see movies will return once its safe to do so. But Thompson says there could be fewer theatres in which to do so. 

Tough times for movie chains

Thompson points out the American movie chains AMC and Cineworld are already both debt-ridden. As they take on more debt to survive, the chains will begin shedding the weaker theatre locations. Which leads Thompson to ask, "How many more $200 million movies can the studios afford to make?" 

While Warner Bros. says it will share a new Tenet date "imminently," Bock says with the combination of a potential second wave of COVID-19 and the flu season in the fall, he doesn't see Tenet realistically being released before 2021. He says Warner Bros.' promise of a 2020 release date is "the same carrot that's being dangled, they're just dangling it further away now." 


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee, Ontario, to the Oscars red carpet and beyond.  


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