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Box office: ‘Tenet’ marks $20-million domestic debut as ‘Mulan’ rolls out globally

Jack Cutmore-Scott, John David Washington, Robert Pattinson walk through an art-filled room in a scene from "Tenet."
From left, Jack Cutmore-Scott, John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Warner Bros.’ “Tenet.”
(Melinda Sue Gordon / Warner Bros. Pictures)

As theaters in key U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles remain shuttered, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” opened with an estimated $20.2 million in North American receipts through the Labor Day holiday , in the biggest test yet of Americans’ willingness to return to reopened multiplexes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The film has collected $146.2 million in ticket sales since its international launch, which began late last month. The highly anticipated Warner Bros. film added $78.3 million globally in its second weekend of release across 46 markets, according to studio estimates. In China, the film industry’s second-largest market, the film debuted with $30 million in grosses.

The film, which was positively received with a B CinemaScore and a 74% “fresh” rating on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, is the first potential blockbuster to brave U.S. theaters since they shut down in mid-March as the coronavirus crisis rapidly escalated. The next big-budget Hollywood movie won’t come until “Wonder Woman 1984,” also produced by Warner Bros., opens in October.

“With a significant number of key U.S. states and cities still closed, this is a fair opening,” said David A. Gross, head of movie consultancy Franchise Entertainment Research, in an email Sunday. “This weekend is a clear measure of where the American theatrical business stands today. ... ‘Tenet’ is a strong release and Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. deserve enormous credit for their effort. For now, this is as good as it gets.”

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“Tenet,” with its $200-million production budget, is a major gamble on the health of the traditional big-screen experience at a time when studios including Warner Bros. are increasingly willing to experiment with online releases.

Walt Disney Co. on Friday began offering “Mulan” for $30 to Disney+ subscribers, eschewing the film’s planned cinematic debut; it will screen theatrically only in markets where Disney+ is not available. Movies including Warner Bros.’ “Scoob,” Universal’s “The King of Staten Island” and Disney’s “Hamilton” have gone directly to video on-demand or streaming amid the COVID-19 pandemic as studios feared ceding additional ground to Netflix with audiences largely staying home.

As ‘Tenet’ begins its U.S. debut and California inches toward reopening, some moviegoers are less concerned than others about returning to theaters.

Internationally, Disney’s “Mulan” earned $5.9 million in a handful of smaller international markets, placing No. 1 in the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Next weekend the film will expand to China and Russia.

Nolan, a staunch advocate for the theatrical experience in the streaming age, seemed almost ordained by fate to make the stand for exhibition after his movie’s release was delayed multiple times because of coronavirus closures. The director in March penned an impassioned Washington Post op-ed in support of the theater business, which in normal times employs about 150,000 people in the U.S.

AT&T-owned Warner Bros., which has enjoyed a lucrative relationship with Nolan because of the “Dark Knight Trilogy,” “Dunkirk” and other films, never seriously considered the digital route for “Tenet.” Instead, the Burbank-based studio — after delaying the film’s release date multiple times — pursued an unusual rollout strategy, debuting it Aug. 26 in countries including Britain, South Korea, Canada and Saudi Arabia. Domestic distribution began Monday with early “preview” screenings before the picture went wide on Thursday.

No one really knew what to expect from “Tenet’s” first weekend, with about 3,300 North American theaters, or 60% of locations, open for business. Would pent-up demand drive stir crazy audiences back into theaters, or would fears of COVID-19 keep them away?

Three states (New York, New Mexico, and North Carolina) remain no-go zones for indoor theaters. Six other states, including California, have partly opened. California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently said indoor theaters could reopen in counties that meet certain thresholds, provided they limit capacity to 25% or 100 people — whichever is fewer. Exhibitors scrambled to reopen in San Diego, one of the few areas in the state that qualified in time for “Tenet.”

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Multiplexes across the country limited their auditoriums to anywhere from 25% to 50% of their usual capacity, depending on state and local rules. With those restrictions, some analysts said any result higher than $20 million during the four-day weekend should be considered a success. Others originally projected “Tenet” could bring in as much as $30 million by Monday.

What the results mean will become clearer in the coming weeks. Traditionally, 80% of ticket sales for Hollywood releases happen in the first three weekends. But a typical launch was out of the question for “Tenet,” which executives hope will make up ground by playing for many weeks longer than a tentpole from the “before times.”

“We are very pleased with the initial results, with 65% plus of U.S. markets open and social distancing reduced seating capacities,” Warner Bros. said Sunday in an email. “But we always knew this release plan would be a marathon, not a sprint, as we await openings in more markets and theaters in the coming weeks.”

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20th Century Studios’ “The New Mutants,” now in its second weekend, added $2.87 million through Sunday and $3.5 million through the holiday for a cumulative $11.6 million through the weekend and $12.3 million through the holiday weekend.

Also in its second weekend, LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions’ “Words on Bathroom Walls” added $282,370 across 1,168 screens for a per-screen average of $242 and a cumulative $1.5 million. And Searchlight Pictures’ “The Personal History of David Copperfield” added $361,000 through the weekend and $470,000 through the holiday for a cumulative $1 million through Sunday and $1.1 million through the holiday.

Solstice’s “Unhinged,” now in its third week, added $1.7 million across 2,402 screens through Sunday and $2.6 million through the holiday for a cumulative $11.3 million through the weekend and $11.7 million through the holiday.

Atlas Distribution Company opened “My Brothers’ Crossing” in 73 locations to $17,350.

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Next weekend, Sony’s romantic comedy “The Broken Hearts Gallery” is slated for a wide release and IFC Midnight will open the thriller “Rent-A-Pal” in limited release.

There’s a lot going on in Christoper Nolan’s new action epic “Tenet,” so we asked Claudia De Rham, a theoretical physicist from Imperial College London, for her thoughts.


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