Tenet Box Office: A Sign That America Stands a Chance Against COVID-19 or We're Doomed to Repeat Our Mistakes

Posted by Daniel Hsu on

When Christoper Nolan's Tenet released it's first trailer on December 19, 2019, I thought I had the perfect plan for my birthday since the movie was coming out the same week as my birthday and, like many, I'm a really big Christopher Nolan fan.

Of course, the COVID-19 era started and now, for me personally, it is not worth the risk to see a movie in a theater with strangers free to snack, drink, and essentially not wear a mask for 2 hours and 29 minutes. About a month into the pandemic, experts made a list, ranking the most risky activities from zero to ten, with zero being the least risky. Going to a movie theater is rated as an eight.

Here is another chart showing the risks of different activities. The creators of the index says you should feel free to download and share the graphic.

COVID-19 Activity Risk Index
If you're wondering why movie theaters are opening when so many experts call it risky, then, as you can guess, it's all about dollars and cents. Just like the flu, movie theaters, restaurants, etc can't be held liable if you get COVID-19 because it's nearly impossible to prove where you were infected. It's the same reason why companies aren't liable if their employees get infected. There's nothing to prove that they didn't get infected from a family member.
I've personally lost almost all my income due to COVID-19, so I feel like I can say this from a perspective of someone who's been extremely financially effected by the pandemic, but there are plenty of businesses out there opening up who don't care about "freedom," rather they just want to make money while disregarding the real safety of their employees and customers. That's true in terms of government as well, remember tax dollars have to come from somewhere.
The movie industry literally had to get its most famous stunt man, Tom Cruise, to promote watching Tenet in the theaters. I'm a big Tom Cruise fan, I respect his professional work a lot, but that was definitely one of the biggest industry publicity stunts I've ever seen.
A writer from Deadline chronicled his trip to San Diego to watch Tenet at an AMC multiplex. He writes of how people are allowed to eat and drink in theaters, but have to wear a mask at "other" times. I guess people just better hope that someone doesn't eat the entire time they're watching the movie as an excuse not to wear a mask. That's basically every COVID-19 nightmare I've had since pandemic started. To give you an example of why this doesn't work, in S. Korea a woman spread COVID-19 to 27 customers, all except employees wearing masks at a Starbucks. That's because you can't wear a mask when you're eating and drinking. Soon after, the CDC released a study linked eating at restaurants with increased COVID-19 transmission.
Though Warner Brothers initially reported that Tenet "opened" at $20.2M, Indiewire reports that Tenet's actual Labor Day figures, what's generally considered it's opening weekend, were $10m at 2,810 theaters. That's roughly $3,559 per theater.
Major markets like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are still closed, but 75% of North America is able to see Tenet in theaters, though theaters are limited to 25% capacity. Indiewire believes that if all theaters were open, the gross would have been closer to $30m.
In contrast, last year's Marvel's Avengers: Endgame opened at $84,504 per theater. Even when divided by four to crudely compensate for 25% capacity, we get $21,126 per theater.
These figures show a possible sign that maybe Americans are treating COVID-19 with the seriousness it deserves. After all, $3,559 is only 17% of of the $21,126 per theater (crudely adjusted for 25% capacity) Endgame did in April 2019. To a certain degree, it might be a fair assessment since Tenet really didn't have any competition, opened on Labor Day weekend, and any pent up demand should have brought people out to the theaters. Even in its second weekend, Tenet only added $6.7M.
Tenet's opening has been so disappointing that Wonder Woman 1984 has been pushed back to Christmas. As you can guess, another test by studios to see the public's attitude to going out to the theaters. If Dr. Fauci's assessment that COVID-19 cases will most likely surge during the winter, then I'm pretty sure it'll be another failed test.
At the same time, one could argue that Christopher Nolan films don't have the same appeal as Marvel films and I believe that's 100% correct too. While I haven't seen Tenet, I believe Nolan's closest film to compare opening figures is Interstellar, a movie that I've seen almost a dozen times. It roughly has the same Tomato Rating and is in the Sci-Fi, somewhat action, genre.
Interstellar, opening in November 5, 2014, hit $47,510,360 with 3,561 theaters on its opening weekend. Again, if we crudely adjust for 25% capacity, then it earned $3,335 per theater. That's pretty much exactly how much Tenet earned per theater ($3,559) and that is a terrifying thought.
If that's the better comparison to make, then what we see in the media about people not taking COVID-19 seriously enough is true and not just extreme examples. Which means that heading into fall and winter, Dr Fauci's fears will most likely come to fruition.
With the fall season about ten days from now, we'll see very shortly which of these two cases are true.

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