Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ Gamble

He's the hero the movie business deserves, but not the one it needs right now.

Tenet Martin Donovan
Warner Bros.

The last five features directed by Christopher Nolan have each grossed more than $500 million worldwide. Two of them have exceeded $1 billion, though it’s the other three, the non-superhero films, that are most impressive for their success. Nolan is a blockbuster auteur, and it’s no wonder that his latest, Tenet, has been among the most anticipated movies of 2020 despite it being an original work with little known about its plot. Nolan’s movies don’t only make a lot of money, no matter what they are, but they’re also well-regarded. And in the past 15 years, they’ve been nominated for 32 Oscars and won 10. It’s no wonder that Hollywood is looking to him to save the year in film.

For the past couple of months, as movie release dates have shifted forward in time, Tenet has never budged from its scheduled July 17th bow. Initially, the date seemed so far off. Now, just over two months away, it looks like a hopeful moment for cinemas to be open and running at full capacity. The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered all but drive-in theaters in the US and over much of the rest of the planet. While states have allowed cinemas to reopen in recent weeks, few have obliged. For one thing, there’s nothing new to play on the big screen. For another thing, no company wants to be guilty of spreading the coronavirus. Theater owners and studios and distributors are following health officials’ lead on their businesses for now.

Eventually, theaters will be open for business, but even then many are committed to distanced seating. And unfortunately for the cinemas, their primary moneymaker, concessions, won’t be immediately available or won’t be immediately enticing. The logical first new releases should be modestly sized theatrical pictures. The first studio offering on the calendar at the moment is Universal’s The Forever Purge, and that is a great idea for a test release. The fifth feature installment of the Purge horror franchise is due on July 10th, and considering the success of the past sequels, it falls right between the appeal of a normal uncertain original property and a huge must-see film like a superhero tentpole or, well, a Nolan spectacle.

For Tenet, both its studio, Warner Bros., and the theater owners would like to think it’s the movie that will draw audiences in droves back to the big screen. Perhaps it could be, but then it shouldn’t be one of the first releases out of the gate. If cinemas open up in July, Tenet is not going to be the massive hit that it deserves to be. A lot of people can’t wait to get back to moviegoing, but a lot of other people are hesitant. Even with distanced seating arrangements (will everyone be wearing masks? what if someone needs to pass by you in those narrow rows for a bathroom break?), it’s a hard sell, especially in the big cities. These businesses need to make a slow return to normalcy. Take some blows with smaller titles and grow from that.

Nolan is a huge fan of the moviegoing experience. He obviously wants Tenet to play on the big screen to large crowds. That’s why he shouldn’t gamble on being the one to woo us back to an uncertain den of germs. According to IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond, quoted by Variety, “Chris really would like to be coming out with the film that opens theaters…I don’t know anyone in America who is pushing harder to get the theaters reopened and to get his movie released than Chris Nolan.” The way he puts it makes Nolan seem insensitive to the reason theaters are closed. This isn’t about bringing people to the movies after a singular tragedy like 9/11. Pushing hard for theaters to reopen isn’t going to push COVID-19 away. It might do the opposite.

What could potentially work, with the health and safety of patrons being a priority, is allow big blockbusters to start the show again but not at full capacity. Yes, a $200 million movie like Tenet or Disney’s Mulan typically needs a huge opening weekend to be a success. Well, what if that doesn’t matter this time around? What if Hollywood forgets its hunger for record-breaking debuts and looks back to the days before frontloading? Nolan’s movie could, theoretically, open on almost all available screens on July 17th for the largest theater count in history yet only earn box office figures similar to the blockbusters of the 1970s and 1980s, when the movies were allowed to play for much longer.

There are concerns to be had with that sort of old-fashioned strategy. Tenet would have to be great enough to remain a huge draw for anyone shut out of the limited-capacity, distanced-seating sold-out shows for the first weekend, or four. If there’s any sort of twist — this is a Christopher Nolan movie, so we can bet on it — then there’s the issue of people spoiling that for others and the impatient curious people who seek it out. And of course, there’d be an even greater worry for piracy, bootlegs appeasing those who can’t or refuse to make it to earlier showings. Security measures will already be ramped up for a variety of reasons, though. Maybe phones and other cameras would need to be checked like they are at advance screenings.

Whatever the case, neither the studios nor theater owners, not to mention the filmmakers, should be thinking the movie product ought to be the carrot pulling the cart in this situation. We’re all eager to see what’s on the horizon from the greatest possible vantage point, but let’s not push forward too hard and too fast, or we’ll fall off that mountaintop. Let’s climb back slowly and steadily. Maybe take in the lesser sights along the way. Maybe patiently wait for our turn to experience the peak. Or maybe the mountain — no, let’s just be literal, the movie theater is just too treacherous and will be a while longer. This could be the year without a summer movie season. Or fall. Or winter. Don’t worry, we’ll be back to moviegoing eventually.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.