Filmmaker Christopher Nolan, whose mind-bending hits include "Inception" (2010) and "Interstellar" (2014), says that while the $347 million worldwide box office of his recent "Tenet" fell below expectations, the film industry must adjust to a pandemic marketplace.
"Warner Bros. released 'Tenet,' and I'm thrilled that it has made almost $350 million," Nolan, 50, told the Los Angeles Times in an interview published Tuesday. "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 [theater owners] take all the losses from the pandemic instead of getting in the game and adapting — or rebuilding our business, in other words."
Studios generally do a percentage break with theaters, taking as much as 90% of ticket revenue when a film is newly released, and progressively less as the film plays successive weeks.
"Tenet," a science-fiction action movie starring John David Washington as a secret organization's agent involved in a plot to save humanity, cost $200 to produce, according to the trade magazine Variety. That means that with marketing and distribution costs added to the tally, the film might not have been profitable. Released internationally on Aug. 26 and in the United States on Labor Day weekend, it grossed $293.3 million overseas but only $53.8 million here. Nolan's previous two films, "Dunkirk" (2017) and "Interstellar," grossed $526.95 million and $696.3 million total, respectively.
The film, like all recent movies, was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic that forced indoor theaters to close. In those that have reopened, fewer tickets per screen are available to allow for socially distanced seating. Industry observers are divided on whether studios will abandon movies in the "Tenet" budget range, or greenlight their production in hopes that the market will return to relative normality by the time such films are ready for release.
Nolan noted that 2019 "was the biggest year for theatrical films in history. They'd made the most money. The admissions were huge." He added that audiences still have an appetite for the theatrical experience. "Long term, moviegoing is a part of life, like restaurants and everything else. But right now, everybody has to adapt to a new reality."