Is Tenet worth the risk? Doctors say no. Theatres say please

After weeks of rescheduling, Christopher Nolan's Tenet — the first blockbuster of the summer — is opening in Canada. But health experts say escaping to the movies comes with a risk.

Theatres have been preparing to welcome moviegoers back for director Christopher Nolan's blockbuster

Marking a potential comeback for theatres, Christopher Nolan's much-anticipated Tenet premieres in Canada on Aug. 26. Theatres across the country have adapted their protocols to make it safe for moviegoers, but it is still uncertain whether those actions will be enough to draw crowds. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment/The Associated Press)

It's a world teetering on the edge of an event with the power to alter everything.

That's the premise of director Christopher Nolan's latest film Tenet — but it could also be a description of the theatrical business itself.  

Aiming to be a saviour for an industry starving for new content, Tenet arrives in the darkest of timelines. Last year the global box office set a record of $42.5 billion US. For 2020, it's currently hovering around $1.8 billion and is down about 75 per cent according to some reports.

As Canada made progress containing COVID-19, theatres began reopening in late June. Cineplex vice-president of operations Daniel Seguin says with new cleaning and physical distancing practices in place, they're ready. 

"The experience that we had has shown that what we have put in place has been serious and it works," he said.

WATCH: CBC's Eli Glasner takes viewers inside a theatre to watch Tenet

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CBC film critic heads back to the cinema for Tenet

3 years ago
Duration 4:09
After a five-month absence from movie theatres because of the coronavirus, the CBC's Eli Glasner headed back to the cinema for his first post-COVID-19 lockdown press screening — Christopher Nolan's long-anticipated Tenet.

New movies started reappearing in Canadian theatres a few weeks ago with Unhinged starring Russell Crowe and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run. 

Highly anticipated, Tenet was originally supposed to open July 17 but was pushed back several times because of the pandemic. It hit theatres for evening screenings in Canada last night and is scheduled to open across the U.S. on Sept. 3.

In it, John David Washington plays a covert agent drawn into battle with mysterious forces that can invert time itself. 

Some theatres for Tenet are already selling out, albeit at limited capacity. Seguin says there are plans in place to meet the wave of movie fans the industry is hoping will return.

Daniel Seguin, Cineplex's senior vice-president of operations, says theatres are ready to welcome theatre-goers for Tenet. (Daniel Seguin)

"When there's an increase in terms of the flow [of customers], we need to ensure proper social distancing in our lobby or theatre environment," he said. 

"If we're not able to ensure proper safety inside of our lobby, there will be a line up at the exterior of the theatre."

Overall, Seguin says, early feedback to the safety protocols has been positive.

"We've been getting a lot of comments that people feel safer in a movie theatre than anywhere else." 

The medical opinion on movies

But some medical experts say the very things that make the movies an enjoyable escape add to the risk.

Dr. Tasleem Nimjee is an emergency room physician in Toronto and the lead for Humber River Hospital's COVID response team. While theatres are encouraging the use of masks, she says, opening concession stands sends contradictory signals.

Tasleem Nimjee, an emergency room physician based in Toronto, says any place where people congregate indoors in large numbers, including movie theatres, increases the risk of exposure to COVID-19. (CBC News)

"We're making sure that our children of senior kindergarten age are wearing masks in school, and then when you go to movies, you can take them off and munch on popcorn for two-and-half hours. So, it's very confusing, which is why not a lot of us are in love with the idea."

With the current conditions, Nimjee says, you need to ask, how badly do you want to see that movie?

"It's a long period of time to be kept in an enclosed space," she said. "Movies can be emotional. People can cry. People can laugh. So, you're adding the risk of maybe spreading some of those [coronavirus] droplets."

If you do go, here are some factors Nimjee suggests you consider:

  • Do you want to take your mask off to eat?
  • How many people will be at the screening? 
  • How new is the theatre's ventilation system? 

Christopher Nolan to the rescue

While health experts recommend caution, theatre owners are looking for a lifeline. Paul Dergarabedian is the senior media analyst for the media measurement company Comscore. He says the arrival of Tenet is pivotal.

"For the big theatre chains — AMC and Cinemark and major chains all around the world — this is very important to get theatres up and running again," said Dergarabedian. 

While other films, such as Trolls: World Tour and Greyhound, have gone straight to streaming, Dergarabedian says, Tenet director Christopher Nolan is a big part of the push for the big screen.

"He is a huge proponent of the movie theatre experience, and Warner Brothers is a very filmmaker-centric studio," Dergarabedian said. 

"I think that's what this is really all about. It's a commitment by a studio to a filmmaker ... who believes that's the best way for movie fans to see his movies." 

While Tenet is filled with stunning locations and the kind of spectacular stunts that have become Nolan's signature, Dergarabedian says, for films the size and scope such as Tenet, which reportedly has a budget over $200 million US, straight to streaming was never an option. 

"Look at Avengers: Endgame," he points out, "which earned about $2.8 billion US worldwide. That's movie theatres alone." 

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for the media analytics company Comscore, says despite the pandemic, there was never a chance that Tenet would go straight to streaming. (Paul Dergarabedian)

But with theatres in many parts of the United States still closed and others at reduced capacity, can Tenet ever reach the billions Warner Brothers studio is dreaming of?

Dergarabedian suggests the race for opening weekend box office has become a marathon. With fewer titles competing, he says, the focus will be on longevity as audiences decide whether to unpack Nolan's latest puzzle in person. 

"We may see films increasing in gross over time as people dip their toe in the water and hear about how great a movie and the movie-going experience is."

WATCH: How cinemas are reopening during COVID-19:

How cinemas are reopening during COVID-19

3 years ago
Duration 1:16
Landmark Cinemas CEO Bill Walker shows new safety protocols as movie theatres reopen in Alberta.