This past weekend, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet hit U.S. theaters where theaters are open as the first real test of whether or not people feel safe enough to return to movie theaters right now (You can read our breakdown of theater chain health & safety policies here). If you’re a movie lover curious about how it performed, you may have read headlines yesterday that proclaimed Tenet‘s opening a disappointment, a failure, or tepid. And upon first glance, its $20.2 million Thursday-Monday haul certainly seems it.

But that’s not quite right, and headlines proclaiming that have failed to factor into the writing that we’re in the weirdest moviegoing year ever. Here’s why Tenet‘s opening weekend numbers don’t spell doom and gloom.

Warner Bros. Expected This

The reality is, I could sum up this entire article simply by saying, “We have literally no idea how to gauge what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’ right now.” Warner Bros. understands this, and with good reason. Box office tracking estimates were all over the place prior to Tenet‘s release. Box Office Pro‘s early tracking numbers in late August placed it at $35 million at the high end by Labor Day, while more recent industry estimates placed it at a more conservative $20 million. $15 million isn’t necessarily a huge discrepancy for a tentpole movie in normal times like, say, Avengers: Endgame, but in a pandemic world, that’s a wild swing in projections.

In a statement sent out on Sunday, the studio reminded press that we really have no way of estimating how movies will end up ultimately performing right now, saying they were pleased with it so far:

“Domestically, while our results show positive like-for-like theater indicators compared to previous films such as Dunkirk, there is literally no context in which to compare the results of a film opening during a pandemic with any other circumstance. We are in unprecedented territory, so any comparisons to the pre-COVID world would be inequitable and baseless.”

They’re not wrong. We honestly have no idea of what our box office baseline is now and we likely won’t through the end of the year, possibly even into next.

The Two Largest Markets In The U.S. Are Shut Down

It’s true that about 65% of theaters are now open with safety precautions and social distancing measures across the U.S. But the #1 and #2 biggest markets in the United States, Los Angeles and New York City, are still closed. To give you an idea of how important they are to the domestic box office, consider this: AMC Theatres, the largest theater chain in both the world and the U.S., has roughly 8,200 screens in 661 theaters across the U.S. Yet Los Angeles accounts for 34 of those theaters and 461 of those screens, making it easily AMC’s largest market. And though it accounts for only about 5.6% for all of AMC’s screens in the U.S., AMC as a whole accounts for over 30% of all screens in the U.S. and Canada. Add New York City to the mix and that is a considerable chunk of the moviegoing audience currently in areas where theaters are not yet open.

Furthermore, even in cities where theaters are open, safety protocols dictate that they only be filled to 30-50% capacity, depending on the region. Tenet only opened in 2,810 theaters across the U.S. and Canada. Compare that to, for example, Bad Boys for Life, the last big tentpole this year before the pandemic shut everything down, which opened in 3,775 theaters. Or the biggest opening ever, Avengers: Endgame, which opened across a whopping 4,662 screens across North America. By comparison, Tenet still has quite a bit of ground to make up in terms of theaters it’s playing in.

As theaters continue to open across the U.S., Tenet‘s reach will expand and it should continue to steadily add to its total, with its box office seeing potential spikes when Los Angeles and New York City theaters reopen. It will simply be similar to the slow rollout, pre-Jaws release format of yesteryear.

Don’t Forget About Overseas Box Office, Too

Tenet (Courtesy: Warner Bros.)

For a global tentpole like Tenet, we can’t just think in terms of the domestic box office as they rely on overseas hauls as a measure of success, as well. It also opened in China, the world’s second-largest moviegoing market. It snagged a $33.5 million 4-day total, with the $30 million it earned over the weekend being the best opening for a Christopher Nolan movie in China yet. Worldwide, Tenet has passed the $150 million mark with movie theaters around the world also practicing social distancing and safety measures, its $53 million haul for its international opening last week exceeding expectations. It has competition in China, which has a few of its own blockbusters in theaters right now, but for the majority of the rest of the world, Tenet stands uncontested.

Tenet still has a long road to break even and a longer one to be considered profitable. With a massive estimated production budget of $200 million, it will arguably need to gross a number twice that to break even, once you factor in marketing costs, arguably closer to $500 million to be on the safe side. Right now, it looks like it’s unlikely it will hit that number. Yet, again, we simply don’t know because we can’t gauge it by how the box office normally operates.

Even if it ultimately winds up netting a loss for Warner Bros., however, that still doesn’t mean it was a failure. There was always the chance, even the likelihood, that Tenet wouldn’t be profitable. Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan were always looking at it in terms of a test to gauge whether or not there’s an interest in U.S. and international audiences where theaters are open in going back to the movies. By that metric, we could consider Tenet a success. Sure, Warner Bros. wants to make money on this, believe that. They need and want to recoup some costs from a disastrous year. But sticking to Tenet‘s Labor Day weekend, theaters-only release was as much about kickstarting the effort to get theaters back on their feet as it was about killing the box office. After a summer of tentpole release date chicken, the reality was always that someone would have to go first and test the waters. The someone who stepped up and volunteered was Christopher Nolan and Tenet.

One thing is for certain. Warner Bros. and other studios will be keeping a keen eye on Tenet as a barometer of where the moviegoing audience’s collective head is at. I’ll certainly be watching with interest.

Tenet is currently in theaters where theaters are open. Get tickets here.

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