Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” originally slated for a July release, was initially pushed back to an August 2020 release following ongoing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.
To many, this seemed like a surprisingly optimistic release date. A minor set back, and one that implied that by August, we could expect a return to relative normalcy once again. Warner Bros., however, due to mounting concerns and recent surges in diagnoses, have decided to delay Nolan’s highly-anticipated (and still very mysterious) “Tenet” indefinitely. That’s right—indefinitely. We might not see this movie for another year.
“Tenet” is not unique in this way. Marvel’s “Black Widow” solo film, the new Bond film “No Time to Die” (which will be Daniel Craig’s final appearance in the role), “Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark,” Jordan Peele’s “Candyman” reboot, and “Halloween Kills” have all been delayed to varying degrees. So far, “Many Saints” and Bond are slated for release dates in winter 2020 and spring 2021, whereas “Halloween Kills” was delayed a full year, and “Black Widow” will release in November. But there’s no telling if that will remain the case.
“Bill and Ted Face the Music” is slated to open both in theaters and on demand on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. This strange blend seems fitting for a film which would probably only perform marginally well at the box office, though it’s disappointing many people won’t have the opportunity to see Bill S. Crust and Theodore Logan’s triumphant return to the big screen … on the big screen.
It seems strange that while most films are now releasing direct to streaming and on demand rentals, certain films are still being reserved for the theater experience. What makes these films special, exactly? One could argue that such “event” cinema requires a certain dramatic flair, and that since they require a communal theater experience to really succeed as films, delaying them is appropriate.
Nolan’s “Tenet,” Bond, “Halloween” and the MCU kind of need the movie theater experience to make their full impact, and the theaters need them too. These franchises have been some of the only consistent draws for audiences to still go out to the movies, instead of watching Netflix at home.
But will this potentially put the nail in the coffin of smaller scale films getting theater releases? Will the major cinemas, as in days of old, be reserved for only the big studio films, with the occasional independent theater popping up to cater to more obscure tastes? And will this ongoing pandemic actually change the movie theater industry beyond even the coronavirus?
According to Keith Phipps of The Ringer, it would. Phipps claims that a film like “Tenet” may get a more staggered release: opening in theaters which have reopened in cities deemed safe, and slowly trickle throughout the country. Now Phipps is, in a way, very wrong. This is not new at all. In fact, it’s a regression. It’s hard to believe, but this was very common back in the early 80s and even before.
Most films began in limited screenings, slowly spreading from town to town via word of mouth and viewer demands to see them. There were also less films made, and before the advent of home video, films played for over a year in theaters and were often rescreened later during slower seasons at heavily discounted ticket prices.
The original 1978 “Halloween” began as a road show-style release, that spread from one region to the next due to its low budget. Even “Star Wars,” which was a major studio film, was not anticipated to be a big hit and only opened in a small number of select theaters, only for 20th Century Fox to have to scramble to allow for a wider release due to its immediate success and demand by audiences to see it.
However, Phipps is correct in that this is the first time such a release style has been proposed since the advent of the Internet. While films do tend to open earlier or later in some places (the UK tends to see blockbusters released a week earlier than in the US, even for American films), there’s never been a case of a film—especially a major studio release—getting a staggered release in the age of instant spoilers and constant film talk on the Internet. To not see a film opening weekend is to risk having it ruined, and risk being left out of the digital water cooler conversation. But now, perhaps that will change.
Spoiler-related content (now a near guarantee for practically every film release, which makes easy clickbait content for YouTubers and podcasters) will probably subside, as it could be deemed a little unfair to those in regions where a film like “Tenet” has not yet been released. Whether or not this will continue past the pandemic’s parameters is something we’ll have to wait and see. After all, perhaps it will cause the industry to regress to a time where they were more discerning about which films have a wide release. Instead of independent or smaller-scale films being relegated to underground cinemas, they’ll be direct-to-streaming.
This change will still lead to a loss of revenue for cinemas, unless they change as well. Like in decades past, theaters will be having less screenings for new films and screening more classic films. Perhaps reducing their hours will be the first step—in days past, matinees were a rarity outside big film markets like major cities, or were usually showing less-than-profitable films. Instead, theaters would save the real money-makers for evening, when people were available to go to the movies, and some would not even open their doors until such a time.
Perhaps cinemas will cater to more of a genuine “theater” experience, as older cinemas did, giving the outing an element of class and weight: complete with preshows, a live musician on organ, and a more serious atmosphere. Movies were, for a time, the closest the working class could get to being at a “real” theater, with live shows—like plays and musicals—always being something reserved for the bourgeois upper classes, so many people took the experience seriously and demanded a certain level of etiquette. National chains like Alamo Drafthouse and even older, historical theaters such as The Castro and Balboa in San Francisco have been doing this for some time now. Perhaps this practice will spread in order to ensure audiences will once again view the cinema as an “experience” rather than “a more expensive place to watch movies.”
But more than anything, this begs the question: what makes a film worth delaying? Why would studios allow for the possibility that anticipation for a film—like “Tenet” or “Halloween Kills”—would subside considerably by the time of its release? Hype is a fickle thing; it can’t last forever. A studio has to hit right at the precise moment.
It’s probably because these films need the theater experience to make back their budgets. Renting on demand might cut a profit, sure, but nothing will ever compete with box office plus home video and streaming sales. It just isn’t comparable. At home, it might seem like a sure thing that audiences would shell out the money to stream a new release like “Tenet” or “No Time to Die,” but at home there’s simply more options than at the cinema—when you’re at the theater, you might have ten options for films. At home, there’s practically no limit. Audiences might just skip “Tenet” until it drops on Netflix or Prime Video, and watch something else. Warner Bros.—or any major studio—can’t risk that considering the amount of money they’ve dropped on the film and its advertising.
There’s no telling the impact this new practice of delaying events and art will have on the entertainment industry, or how long these effects might last after the pandemic is over—and yes, it will end at some point. Nothing lasts forever.
It’s possible we will regress into a more simple time of limited releases and second-run matinees, or see something completely new—like direct-to-streaming for all but the biggest releases. Perhaps theater chains will be replaced with more local theaters again, which can cater to the markets of their area more precisely, and maybe that will dictate which films are shown in which areas.
The only guaranteed thing at this moment? “Tenet” and films like it are not coming to a theater near you anytime soon.
Matt Cotter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.