Aug 3, 2020 - World

Hollywood's international game of chicken

Illustration of film clapper with question marks
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

If all goes to plan, Christopher Nolan's thrice-delayed "Tenet" will be the first blockbuster to receive a proper worldwide theatrical release amid the coronavirus pandemic at the end of this month.

Why it matters: It'll be playing a $200 million game of chicken, hoping to prove that people across the globe are still willing to trek to theaters to see a splashy new movie.

The state of play: Warner Bros. will open "Tenet" in 70 countries, including China, the U.K., Canada and South Korea, on Aug. 26. But it won't see a U.S. release until a week later.

  • As the rest of the world begins to slowly reopen, Hollywood is eager to get rolling again as major releases have been on pause since the pandemic kicked off in March.
  • The current strategy for "Tenet" risks leaving much of the U.S. behind — and could leave a lot of cash on the table for its studio — especially since theaters still aren't open in the movie capitals of New York and Los Angeles.

The big picture: Releasing a major film internationally before it debuts in the U.S. is unusual, but it isn't unprecedented — although the current state of affairs sure is.

  • Marvel has long dropped its movies early internationally, with its president, Kevin Feige, citing increased buzz from box office success as a major benefit, per CinemaBlend.
  • Trying to use an international release for "Tenet" to hype American moviegoers might not work the same way, as the U.S. outbreak is significantly worse than in other developed countries.
  • Even with masks, the crowded, enclosed confines of a movie theater — especially during the movie's two-and-a-half-hour run time — are precisely what health experts say people should avoid. That could put off older patrons, assuming theaters are open at all.

Between the lines: All of this is happening because Nolan is an avowed cinephile who only wants his creation on the big screen, rather than a release that would allow people to watch it at home on demand.

  • Because "Tenet" had already been delayed indefinitely in July before getting put back on the release calendar, there's a chance that all of this is a trial balloon — and the movie might not actually see the light of day until 2021.

The bottom line: Per an IndieWire report, the movie's breakeven point is $800 million. That's a huge sum for a blockbuster to rake in during the best of times — and it's more than the total worldwide grosses of his last two movies "Interstellar" ($690 million) and "Dunkirk" ($525 million).

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