For 'Tenet,' word of mouth could be more important than opening weekend ticket sales

Key Points
  • Studios and box office experts have long used a film's opening weekend as a gauge of its initial success. 
  • With restrictions on capacity and general unease around the country, that metric may not be as effective during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • How moviegoers rate their experience while watching the film could be a stronger indicator not only of a film's success, but of the theatrical industry as a whole.

In this article

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson star in "Tenet," an upcoming spy film written and directed by Christopher Nolan.
Warner Bros.

For decades, studios and moviegoers have measured the success of a movie based on how much it makes during its opening weekend. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that metric may be less helpful.

As movie theaters prepare to reopen their doors to the public, safety measures are being put in place to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19. This includes decreasing the number of people allowed in each theater and how close they can be to each other, increased sanitation and, in some cases, making masks mandatory for employees and consumers.

Even with these tactics, it's unclear if moviegoers are going to return to theaters in droves or if they will trickle back slowly over the course of several weeks or even months.

Some theaters have opted to open in June, hoping to use legacy titles like "Jurassic Park," "Star Wars" and "Back to the Future" to lure folks back before new titles like "Tenet" and "Mulan" arrive in July. Opening weeks ahead of these launches give theaters a chance to prove to customers that their locations are safe and clean and that the experience of going to the movies hasn't changed completely.

Still, there are states that haven't allowed theaters to reopen yet and there are people who are wary of confining themselves in a room for two hours with a group of strangers.

Opening weekend ticket sales "represent popularity. It's a financial popularity contest, in a way,"  Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, said.

Studios often use those opening weekend figures to aid a film's marketing campaign. Touting those numbers can often inspire more moviegoers to head out to see a film during its second or third week in theaters.

With that in mind, analysts and studios, who typically use opening weekend sales numbers to determine how popular a film was with audiences, will now have to figure out new signals for success.

Warner Bros. "Tenet," which opens July 17, will be the first big indicator of consumer demand. While two movies are slated for release before Christopher Nolan's newest thriller, "Tenet" is the first true blockbuster feature to return to cinemas.

Under normal circumstances, "Tenet" might have been estimated to make between $50 million and $60 million during its opening weekend, Dergarabedian said. This figure is on par with Nolan's non-Batman films like "Inception" and "Dunkirk."

With "Tenet" expected to be a twisty spy drama, it's likely it could have neared the $63 million mark reached by "Inception" in 2010. 

"Nolan is one of the few directors, and there are only a handful, where the name alone brings people to the movies," Dergarabedian said. 

Estimates for what "Tenet" could achieve in its opening weekend run the gambit from $10 million to $30 million, depending on which analyst you ask. Some are placing their bets on a lower estimate with the hopes that the film will outperform expectations. Others, are assuming that half capacity means half the box office.

Ultimately, experts in the field have agreed that there are too many factors — from consumer fears and capacity restrictions to the possibility of another wave of outbreaks — to nail down an estimate a month in advance of the film's release.

"I think this isn't a capacity issue, but a demand issue," Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com, said. "My gut feeling is that there are a lot of people concerned, especially in New York and LA, about going out and other parts of the country are eager to get back out. Whatever is lost from those major markets [could be] made up for overall in aggregate across the rest of the country."

"Tenet" could be the first time that many moviegoers venture out to cinemas and their response could be a more important measurement for studios and movie theaters than ticket sales.

After all, just because a movie has a strong opening weekend doesn't mean it will ultimately have a strong run in theaters. Vice versa, a movie that had a soft opening could go on to run for weeks and weeks, making more money over the long-term.

"Social media is going to be important," Dergarabedian said, noting that how people perceive the theatrical experience and express that to their peers could have a big impact on the box office.

If consumers have a good experience in theaters, then they could convince other people to head to movies. If they have a bad experience, then that could deter other potential moviegoers.

"This could be a case where the second weekend could be better than the first," he said.

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