Christopher Nolan’s $250M Gamble

After the release of 2008’s The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan became one of the few directors in Hollywood whose name can drive audiences to theaters on its own. The director – who works exclusively with Warner Bros. – has released 4 original films in the twelve years since his Batman magnum opus.

His newest film, Tenet – starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson – was originally slated to hit theaters this past Summer, but then the pandemic hit and Hollywood was turned on its head. Tenet’s release, along with several other blockbuster films – including Disney’s Mulan, Marvel’s Black Widow and The Eternals, WB/DC’s Wonder Woman 1984, and the latest James Bond installment No Time to Die – was pushed back indefinitely.

Nolan, a director who regularly opines on the allure of the movie going experience, was adamant about releasing his film and setting the standard for other major studios to follow in Hollywood’s return to the theater. While these studios, including WB, continued to delay every other upcoming blockbuster, Nolan stood his ground and convinced Warner Bros. to release Tenet on the first weekend of September.

Now, eleven weeks after release, the film has earned a total of $353.5M worldwide, with $56.3M coming from the domestic market. With Warner Bros. announcing that the film will be available on home entertainment for the Holiday season – and with recent spike in COVID-19 cases – it’s likely that its box office run has come to an end. And while Nolan has been on record as being “thrilled” with the film’s gross, one can argue that there was money left on the table that may have been salvaged if the movie was delayed again like the others.

If we compare Tenet’s performance to Nolan’s most recent, non-franchise films, you start to understand why studios are so reluctant to release their multi-million dollar blockbusters in the middle of a pandemic (if that wasn’t already perfectly understandable).

The average worldwide box office for Inception (2010) , Interstellar (2014), and Dunkirk (2017) was $634.3M. Nolan’s films are known for having good staying power in theaters and these three films are no exception with an average opening weekend multiplier of 4.07x. Compared to these averages, Tenet‘s deficit is -$280.8M and -1.28x respectively. Even with the exclusion of Inception, which was a bonafide Summer blockbuster with exceptional legs, Tenet’s worldwide gross and multiplier are still well below that of the Interstellar and Dunkirk’s average, -$233.65M and -0.99x. (Keep in mind – specifically for Inception – these numbers are not adjusted for inflation).

What’s more, the budget for Tenet, which is reported to be $205M, is 29.5% larger than the average budget of the three other films, which also had an average budget multiplier of 4x, compared to Tenet’s 1.72x which likely isn’t enough to cover the film’s marketing costs.

While Tenet was supposed to be the movie that kickstarted post-pandemic Hollywood, it had the opposite effect. The film became a warning for any studios that may have been planning to take a similar shot at a theatrical release. To Nolan, though, any studio that balks due to the dampened performance of his film, is looking at the situation in the wrong way. In an interview with LA Times, he said:

“Warner Bros. released Tenet, and I’m thrilled that it has made almost $350 million. But I am worried that the studios are drawing the wrong conclusions from our release — that rather than looking at where the film has worked well and how that can provide them with much needed revenue, they’re looking at where it hasn’t lived up to pre-COVID expectations and will start using that as an excuse to make exhibition take all the losses from the pandemic instead of getting in the game and adapting — or rebuilding our business, in other words.

Long term, moviegoing is a part of life, like restaurants and everything else. But right now, everybody has to adapt to a new reality.”

LA Times

We obviously don’t know when movie-goers will feel comfortable returning to the theaters, so it’s impossible to say that Tenet would have made 100% of its potential pre-pandemic gross if it was released in 2021. Additionally, I think there’s something to be said for Nolan’s loyalty to movie theaters and the lure of the experience as well as his approach to adapting to the circumstances without abandoning the exhibitors altogether. That said, you have to wonder how much longer the studios can hold on before being forced to release these finished films in a home VOD format, as we saw Disney do with Mulan with apparent success.

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