Hollywood rethinks movie release schedule as ‘Tenet’ stumbles at box office

The disastrous debut of Warner Bros’ spy thriller “Tenet” at movie theaters has Hollywood studios fingering the panic button. 

“Tenet” — a $200 million Christopher Nolan production which has amassed less than $30 million in ticket sales since it hit US theaters on Sept. 3 — has given Tinseltown a wakeup call, with studios grappling with whether to release their remaining blockbusters this year or hold them until the coronavirus crisis wanes. 

“Studios are making decisions based on what’s happening with ‘Tenet,’” said MKM partners analyst Eric Handler. “What I think you’re going to see is more movies get pushed back until we see major markets reopen again.”

Last week, Warner Bros. postponed “Wonder Woman 1984,” starring Gal Gadot, to Christmas Day from Oct. 2, and Universal pushed “Candyman” to an undetermined date next year from Oct. 16. There’s also buzz that Disney will delay the Nov. 6 release of its Marvel movie “Black Widow,” starring Scarlett Johansson, as well as Pixar adventure “Soul” on Nov. 20. Disney did not comment on the speculation. 

“If ‘Black Widow’ moves, we really don’t have a big film for quite a while,” Handler said. “There’s the James Bond ‘No Time to Die’ film at Thanksgiving, then ‘Dune’ [on Dec. 18] and ‘Wonder Woman.’ We could have a couple big-event films but in terms of depth that’s it.”

The analyst said the push back of films is setting up a circular problem, in which movie theaters “want customers to show up but they won’t show up if there’s no new movies.”

The reluctance to return to theaters is due in large part to the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused cinemas to go dark in the US for five months.

But “Tenet,” which pre-pandemic was projected to garner around $850 million in global ticket sales, was at least expected to jolt the industry back to life. Instead, it arrived at the box office with a whimper, grossing $178 million internationally, and $29.5 million in North America, bringing its current global box office tally to $207 million, Box Office Mojo said. 

Critics blamed the tepid results on the fact that only 60 percent, or 3,500 of North America’s 6,000 theaters are open. Also adding to the sales woes is the fact that major markets like New York and Los Angeles remain closed. 

Still, the “Tenet” debacle has sent shockwaves through Hollywood. At a Bank of America investors conference last week, Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Tony Vinciquerra jolted insiders with what looked like a thinly veiled reference to the flop. 

“What we won’t want to do is make the mistake of putting a very, very expensive $200 million movie on the market unless we’re sure theaters are open and operating at a significant capacity,” he said.

Comscore media analyst Paul Dergarabedian said Hollywood will have to be patient for the return of theatergoers, predicting that 2021 will be an important year for the recovery. 

“The fact that movie theaters are just doing business, that is a good sign,” the analyst said. “Right now, I just think it’s a win that people want to go back. It’s a daunting thing to go back indoors and into those venues after six months.”

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