Graham: 'Tenet' didn't save Hollywood, and other blockbusters are retreating

Box office receipts for Christopher Nolan's mind-bender have been less than stellar, and now Hollywood is looking even more confused

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

"Tenet" didn't save the movies. So now what? 

That's the question the movie industry is being forced to ask as it faces further ravaging from COVID-19, shuttered theaters and audiences unwilling to go to the theaters that are open. 

Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in "Tenet."

For months, it was touted that Christopher Nolan's expensive mind-bender about people in expertly tailored clothing moving backwards and saving the world — or something like that — would be the film to save 2020, bringing popcorn-starved audiences back to theaters and reminding fans of the magic of movies. 

Reality hasn't been as rosy. "Tenet" opened in a severely depleted marketplace two weeks ago and earned roughly $20 million its opening frame, and its two-week total stands at just under $30 million. 

After its disappointing opening weekend haul, other upcoming films started politely shuffling toward the exit. "Wonder Woman 1984," which was due to open Oct. 2, rescheduled to Christmas, and the horror remake "Candyman," due out in mid-October, decided to skip the Halloween season altogether in favor of a 2021 release. 

Other films, including the Gerard Butler-starring "Greenland," also bagged their planned engagements, leaving the theatrical release calendar as barren as a Siberian winter.

Currently, the next big movie on the docket is the Marvel entry "Black Widow," due out Nov. 6, and it's now a waiting game to see if the movie holds its date (unlikely), shifts to a home release on Disney+ (possible, seeing as how "Mulan's" Disney+ release netted a reported $270 million its first two weekends on the streaming plat) or packs it in and heads to 2021 (the most likely scenario). 

Here in southeastern Michigan, movie theaters are still closed; Gov. Whitmer said Thursday her administration must let "a little time go by" before allowing businesses like movie theaters to reopen. If and when they do open, theaters will be faced with a dearth of new releases to show, which will only exacerbate the problem cinemas are currently facing. 

Meanwhile, home viewing options continue to improve. Over the last week and change, I was in virtual attendance at the Toronto International Film Festival, which unfolded via an easy-to-navigate menu screen on my computer at home.

Typically, TIFF involves dashing across downtown Toronto to join a line to get into a screening, and attending one movie means missing two others. Watching films on my own time from the comfort of my own home, both during the virtual TIFF and throughout the last six months, has been a seismic leap forward in terms of ease and convenience of viewing.

And now, suddenly the entire ritual of moviegoing — driving to a theater, overpaying for popcorn and pop, sitting through 20 minutes of ads and trailers, having the movie start when they tell you it's going to start, not being able to get up and go to the bathroom without missing things and having someone in the row ahead of you fidgeting with their phone intermittently throughout the film — seems as outdated as being tied to a landline telephone. 

People wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus sit spaced apart as they watch the film "Dolittle" at a movie theater in Beijing, Friday, July 24, 2020. Beijing partially reopened movie theaters Friday as the threat from the coronavirus continues to recede in China’s capital. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

What you trade for those annoyances is the theater experience, the communal thrill of watching something together in a darkened theater with premium projection and sound that can melt your eardrums. You can't replicate the feeling of watching a great comedy in a theater full of laughter or seeing a thriller where the tension and fear hangs in the air like a fog. When it's great, the theater experience is indispensable. But is it great enough, often enough, to survive?

The short answer is... probably? Theaters will survive in some form, but they won't look like they currently do. Blockbusters will be pushed forward, likely for premium pricing, while smaller films will be squeezed out and pushed to VOD models. And the days of boffo box office may never return. 

"Tenet" was always going to play an important role in how these things, and the business of movies in 2020, shook out. But what once looked like a savior is now looking like the turning point where a new reality started setting in.