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What To Do About Tenet?

Updated on July 16, 2020
Two well-dressed men discussing stuff intensely? Yup, it's a Christopher Nolan movie.
Two well-dressed men discussing stuff intensely? Yup, it's a Christopher Nolan movie.

Hey, everyone! I’ve been gone a long time, I know, but I’m back for another article. But before we get down to the nitty gritty, I just thought I’d give my opinion on the Netflix film The Old Guard: in short, it’s pretty good. The first ten minutes are a little slow, and the film does lean on using the shaky cam style during action scenes, but overall, it’s a cool idea with good direction by Gina Prince-Bythewood, and strong lead performances from Charlize Theron and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Anyway, to the matter at hand.

Like many of you film fans out there, 2020 was a summer movie season I was looking forward to. We were getting Top Gun: Maverick, Pixar’s Soul, Wonder Woman 1984, F9, and of course, Tenet, the latest time-bending action film from Christopher Nolan.

Then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Now, almost all of the films I have mentioned have been pushed either to later this year or next year. However, notice that I said, “almost”. The only film that has tried to firmly plant its feet in the Summer 2020 release window is Tenet, mostly because Nolan is dedicated to helping struggling American cinemas during these uncertain times.

That’s a noble sentiment to be sure. And at the beginning of summer – let’s say, late May, early June – it looked very plausible. I think the prevailing notion, at least for me, was that March to June would be film-free, but then the theaters would reopen during July, and Tenet would come out on July 17 and welcome audiences back to the theater. And I was so rooting for that to happen, even as the film got pushed further back to July 31st, then August 12th

Then, the coronavirus cases seemed to be getting a second wind in the U.S., thanks to a confluence of stupidity from the national and local governments opening things up too early, and also from a portion of the U.S. populace who prematurely gathered in large swathes instead of social distancing…without wearing any masks. Because of all this, Eric Handler – a film exhibition analyst from MKM Partners – surmises a “low likelihood” of Tenet hitting its August 12 release date. And after looking around on the news, consistently hearing about rising COVID-19 cases, especially in important markets like California and New York, yeah, I’m inclined to agree.

I mean, never say never, but right now, there’s too much at stake to risk putting swathes of people into an enclosed space, even if it is just at 50% or 25% capacity. Especially when there’s a sizable portion in the U.S. who refuse to wear masks to help slow the COVID spread because “muh rights” or whatever. So, yeah, something about Tenet’s release strategy has to change. The question is: what?

Now, the two most popular go-to answers among film fans have been “push it to next year” or “release it on VOD”. And while both of these solutions seem sound on the surface, there are some drawbacks. As an article for IndieWire states, delaying the film until it’s safe for theaters to open, while probably the best option, runs the risk of diminishing public excitement as they wait for something longer and longer. Plus, there’s also the issue of "keeping the production loan on the books for an indefinite period" at Warner Bros., possibly causing a money loss as the film gets pushed further back.

“So, why not just release it straight to VOD or streaming?” you may be asking. I would love that, but Warner Bros. and Nolan have spent upwards of $220 million on this thing, which is not going to be recouped by putting it on VOD or HBO Max. Interestingly, I did read an article that suggested charging $30 a pop for VOD, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind would pay that much for a rental.

So, what to do? Well, I have two ideas about this.

One idea I have is releasing the film on August 12 but come up with a different release strategy that’s less dependent on the traditional release model as we know it today. Speaking in an article for Vulture, Richard Rushfield – editor in chief for the Hollywood newsletter the Ankler – stated, “Start being creative and looking for other ways to make some money, because you’re not going to with movie theaters.” And one of the ways he suggested was drive-ins, which is actually probably the best of both worlds for a theatrical experience. Think about it: you get to experience a film with a community of other people, but you’re in the safety of your car and don’t have to worry about whether you’ll be seated next to somebody who is either uncouth or isn’t wearing their mask. And so, releasing the film exclusively to drive-in theaters, then releasing it to theaters when it’s safe – playing into that roadshow strategy that Rushfield also suggested – would seem like the best option if Warner Bros. and Nolan want to hit the August 12 date and have it be in theaters.

But then, there’s still the issue of piracy. After all, since you’re in a car and less susceptible to being caught, what’s to stop some yahoo from recording the thing on his camera and leaking it onto the Internet?

So, if it absolutely must come out to theaters, and Warners and Nolan don’t want to delay until next year, they should delay it until October 2 and push Wonder Woman 1984 to The Batman’s old release date of June 2021. This suggestion comes courtesy of Scott Mendelson at Forbes (link here), and honestly, I think it’s the only suggestion that can fulfill Nolan’s mandate of having it come out to traditional theaters, but in a safer environment. But again, it’s not even clear if it’ll be safe by October, a sentiment echoed by Handler, who’s shocked if theaters can reopen by “September at the earliest”.

So, will we see Tenet by August 12? I don’t know. Unless Nolan and Warners are willing to change up their release strategy, it’s hard to know if we’ll see it in 2020 period.

But regardless of when we do see it, I will say that Nolan and Warners are playing a very risky game with other peoples’ lives by sticking to this current release plan and model. Believe me, there is nothing I would love more than to go back to the Regal 21 Cinemas, sit in a nice chair, and watch a movie with a crowd. But I’d like to do it in an environment that’s safe, or failing that, an environment where I don’t have to worry about whether or not the person who’s seated next to me is some jingoistic, ultra-patriotic moron who won’t wear their mask because “Amurica” or something.

And since the latter seems to be an impossibility for many people in this country, I think I’ll stick with the former. So, if Tenet does come out on Aug. 12, I’m seeing it at a drive-in. I’ve never been to one; think I’ll give it a try.

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