'Tenet' kicks off with $20 million in the US, nears $150 million globally

VALERIE MACON / AFP

After months of delays, Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic 'Tenet' finally arrived in US theaters and generated $20.2 million over Labour Day weekend.

Ticket sales, though difficult to dissect given the uncharted waters of the coronavirus era, are roughly in line with expectations for a new release during a pandemic.

The espionage thriller is already nearing the $150 million mark globally, thanks to a stronger showing at the international box office. Overseas, Tenet earned another $78.3 million this weekend, bringing its worldwide haul to $146.2 million.

Warner Bros., in a note Sunday afternoon to press, said the studio was “very pleased” with initial results, stressing that the rollout of Tenet will be "a marathon not a sprint" - meaning it doesn’t need splashy inaugural weekend grosses to justify its release.

"There is literally no context in which to compare the results of a film opening during a pandemic with any other circumstance," the studio said. "We are in unprecedented territory, so any comparisons to the pre-COVID world would be inequitable and baseless."

The domestic debut for Nolan’s latest includes ticket sales from preview screenings that started on Monday in the US and Canada. In pre-coronavirus times, Tenet would have seen much more substantial opening weekend figures. However, it’s launching in a vastly different environment since numerous theatres in the country are out of operation.

“With a significant number of key US states and cities still closed, this is a fair opening,” said David A. Gross, a box office analyst at FranchiseRe. “Business in the US is improving, but large numbers of moviegoers are not back yet. For now, this is as good as it gets.”

“Tenet” was able to play in about 2,800 cinemas across the country, a smaller footprint than normal for a wide release of this size. But Warner Bros., the studio behind the twisty thriller, is banking on it being enough to rationalize unspooling the mega-budgeted film after months of delays.

Currently, about 65-70% of multiplexes in the U.S. have reopened, though influential markets like New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco are still off limits. That likely shaved millions of dollars off of “Tenet’s” grosses.

Tenet is the first major blockbuster to debut in the US after the pandemic forced theatres to close in March. It was originally slated to bow in July but was delayed multiple times as cases of the virus continued to surge. While other anticipated titles - like Fast and Furious entry F9 and Marvel’s Black Widow - pushed their openings into late 2020 or 2021, Tenet remained fluid with the hopes of welcoming audiences back after prolonged shutdowns.

Warner Bros. domestic distribution chief Jeff Goldstein said the studio opted to forge ahead with the release of Tenet given its appeal to overseas audiences.

"As a strategy, we looked at this movie and said [ticket sales will be] two-thirds international and one-third domestic,” he said. “Clearly the rest of the world was in a better place in terms of figuring out how to move forward.”

Though Tenet started playing in theatres on Thursday, Warner Bros. opted not to report grosses until Sunday. Hollywood has been looking to Tenet as an indicator of the viability of the movie theatre business during a global health crisis. Many exhibitors reopened their cinemas in time to screen Tenet, and they are banking on pent-up demand to see a movie on the big screen for the first time in months.

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