Christopher Nolan Defends ‘Tenet’ Box Office Results
Box office results for “Tenet,” Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic that was unveiled amid a pandemic, have been heavily scrutinized in the weeks since its release. The film has grossed nearly $350 million globally in two months — prompting debates of whether that’s a disappointing or decent figure during the coronavirus crisis.
Nolan, speaking to the Los Angeles Times to promote film critic Tom Shone’s new book “The Nolan Variations,” says he is “thrilled” by ticket sales for “Tenet.”
“Warner Bros. released ‘Tenet,’ and I’m thrilled that it has made almost $350 million,” Nolan said. However, he expressed concern that other studios haven’t been nearly as enthusiastic. Pandemic or not, “Tenet” fell short of expectations in North America and did little to assure Hollywood that people were ready to return to the movies. In the weeks following its debut, almost every major movie set for 2020 — with the exception of “Wonder Woman 1984,” also from Warner Bros. — was pushed into next year or later.
“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,” Nolan said.
To Nolan’s point, “Tenet” played on the big screen at a time when cinemas in New York and major California metropolises, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, were forced to stay closed, potentially leaving millions on the table. Privately, there have been debates within Warner Bros. about the logic of releasing a movie without popular moviegoing markets like New York City and Los Angeles open for business. “Tenet” fared significantly better overseas, where the film has made $293 million.
But there may be good reason for studios to hold big-budget films until there’s more clarity about audiences’ willingness to see a movie in theaters. “Tenet” carries a $200 million price tag, not counting the many millions spent in global marketing fees. Rivals speculate that “Tenet” may lose as much as $100 million, though insiders at Warner Bros. dispute that number and suggest losses won’t exceed $50 million.
The film business has been brutalized by the pandemic. But Nolan, a vocal supporter of movie theaters, remains optimistic about the viability of the exhibition industry. He conceded that there may be a “new reality” after coronavirus abates. Yet last year set a new industry record for global box office grosses, and cinemas have long been pivotal for big movies to turn a profit.
“If you’re talking about the acceleration of existing trends, that’s something I started reading right at the beginning of the pandemic,” Nolan said. “And it ignores the reality that 2019 was the biggest year for theatrical films in history. They’d made the most money. The admissions were huge. So to me, it’s much more about: What’s the new reality we’re living in?”
“Long term, moviegoing is a part of life, like restaurants and everything else. But right now, everybody has to adapt to a new reality,” he said.