It’s been a hard few months for Tenet fans. The $205 million film has been sidelined for weeks, as theaters have been shut down across the country due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The details of the film are shrouded in secrecy, which can’t be lifted until the film premieres — and the film itself can’t premiere until theaters reopen. In the month since Tenet’s release date was set, the US has plunged into a second wave of infections, breaking daily records set back in April — but the premiere date can only be nudged back a few weeks at a time. Unless things change again, the film is set to hit theaters on August 12th.
A lot of that anticipation is coming from Christopher Nolan himself. The director has been insistent on not only debuting Tenet in a theater, but using it to herald the return of theatrical release in general, “to show faith in the form and solidarity with exhibitors.” Nolan previously romanticized the theater experience as “a vital part of social life” that only a communal viewing can provide, and he wants Tenet to be the film that will help save it.
Put simply, this attitude is dangerous and will put lives at risk. While there’s still a lot we don’t know about how COVID-19 spreads, it’s apparent that spending long amounts of time indoors in close proximity with other people is a major contributing factor. And movie theaters — with close-together seats, circulating air conditioning, guests removing masks to munch on popcorn, and lengthy films — seem to fit that bill perfectly. Everything we know about COVID-19 tells us that the kind of wide-release cultural event Nolan wants will lead to more cases, more hospitalizations, and more deaths.
Tenet is undoubtedly important to Warner Bros., Nolan, and theater chains — I really want to see it, too — but it’s important to remember that it’s just a movie. A movie that isn’t worth risking your life or anyone else’s to go to a theater until the United States has a far better handle on containing the virus than we do right now.
It’s not clear what exactly is driving Nolan’s ambition here: a simple love of cinema? A chance back in the spotlight as a directorial auteur? Or an issue of pride, a desire to have his film specifically save the entire institution of cinema? It’s certainly not money: it’s obvious to nearly everyone that if Tenet does manage to open on August 12th (its current planned release date), then Warner Bros. — and Nolan himself, who reportedly is set to earn 20 percent of the first dollar gross — will likely miss out on millions compared to what they’d make by waiting for a safer, more stable release period.
But if Nolan really wants to be the one to save movie theaters, to have his movie be the kind of film that jolted the industry back to life, he should release Tenet online.
In an immediate sense, a streaming release could make nearly everyone happy. Fans could see Tenet immediately and from the safety of their own homes. Warner Bros. would see a quicker return on its investment. I would argue that even Nolan would get what he wants — a chance to change the face of cinema — in a way that doesn’t put people at risk.
If Nolan wants to build a legacy, releasing the first true at-home blockbuster could be a substantial credit to that legacy. And it doesn’t come with the risk of having Tenet accidentally be “the movie that managed to get a bunch of people sick because the director insisted on advocating for theaters before it was safe,” which is a very real concern.
There’s a question of whether a streaming release could bring in the kind of money Warner Bros. would need to profit here — an estimated $400 million. In theaters, where studios generally get about 50 percent of the cut, Tenet would need to make $800 million, a kind of number that’s unthinkable to reach by an HBO Max release or iTunes sale. But digital releases change the equation. Release a film for rental or purchase on iTunes, Vudu, or Amazon, and studios get around 80 percent of the money. Put it up on a Warner-owned streaming service like HBO Max, and Warner Bros. won’t have to share anything at all.
True, no one yet has made the kind of money that Tenet would need to succeed through a digital or streaming release. But no one has ever tried to release a movie as big as Tenet in this fashion.
We’ve already seen the financial potential of this kind of release. Trolls World Tour made nearly $100 million in three weeks on digital. It performed so well that Universal is already talking about releasing films in both theaters and on digital platforms even after the pandemic ends, which led AMC to threaten blacklisting all future Universal films from its theaters. With all of Tenet’s hype and star power — and maybe a more expensive rental price — it’s easier to imagine a world where that $400 or $500 million number is actually achievable.
It’s not a new idea, either. A Sean Parker-backed startup called The Screening Room proposed offering concurrent home rentals of films (at $50 a pop) that could be offered alongside regular theatrical runs. It even had some support from big names like J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and Ron Howard before fizzling out. But it shows that there’s a real possibility of a world in which streaming and theaters could live side by side, giving customers more choice instead of locking them into an arbitrary calendar limit.
Even before COVID-19 hit, theaters were in trouble. While big tentpole films like Avengers: Endgame, Lion King, and Star Wars are doing better than ever and have helped prop up the numbers, overall ticket sales have been declining and the lion’s share of revenue for the entertainment industry has come from streaming, not theaters. In 2019, digital home and mobile entertainment brought in $58.8 billion around the world, up 14 percent from the previous year.
And Tenet — as an original property that even the cast doesn’t fully understand — doesn’t really resemble a modern Hollywood blockbuster. While Nolan fans will undoubtedly highlight its uniqueness as a good thing, the fact is that the last time a non-franchise film topped the box office was 2009, when Avatar took the crown. The time before that was Armageddon in 1998. In fact, of the 46 films that have broke $1 billion at the box office to date, just five of them — Zootopia, Jurassic Park, Avatar, Titanic, and Frozen — weren’t sequels, remakes, or part of a larger franchise.
Part of the issue is Nolan’s artistic attachment to theatrical release. Nolan and other major directors like Spielberg insist that theaters are a key part of the Hollywood experience, and that will likely continue to be the case going forward. But things are changing in the world of cinema. And while theaters will still exist for years to come, Hollywood — and Nolan, specifically — should take into account new technologies that are disrupting the status quo.
It’s not something that should be so unfamiliar to Nolan, who has partly build his career on embracing new technologies, like the 70mm IMAX format that’s become one of the signatures of his work. And filmmakers that Nolan cites as influences have made their careers on embracing new filming technologies and techniques, like Michael Mann (who was one of the first to use digital cameras) or Stanley Kubrick’s pioneering work on visual effects. Avatar was the most recent movie to leverage new filmmaking techniques to blockbuster success, riding the dual hype waves of 3D and CGI-created worlds to the top of the charts. Perhaps Tenet can follow in that same vein, innovating not just in how we make movies but how and where we watch them.
There are already plenty of exciting and artistically worthwhile things that are happening on streaming. Netflix has embraced the idea of producing a full slate of films, ranging from big-budget summer blockbusters like The Old Guard that can stand toe to toe with the best popcorn flicks to smart, thoughtful films like Roma or The Irishman that are impressive cinematic achievements in their own right. (It’s no coincidence that the service has been nominated for 54 Oscars and won eight of them.) More broadly, the ubiquity of streaming platforms makes film culture more accessible, giving arthouse-circuit films the kind of reach they could never achieve with a traditional theatrical run. It’s a new culture of film, and Nolan should want to be a part of it.
The theatrical model has been under threat from streaming and home video for years now. The pandemic-induced shutdown is simply speeding that process along. And whether Hollywood likes it or not, it’s hard to imagine a world where theaters are operating at a capacity where they’ll be able to bring in the number of customers — and revenue — that were the standard before the pandemic.
It’s time to start thinking about more radical changes to how movies are released and the way that we watch them. If Nolan really wants to change Hollywood again, Tenet could be the perfect place to start.