'Tenet' to hit international theaters on Aug. 26, some U.S. cinemas over Labor Day weekend

Key Points
  • "Tenet" will debut internationally on Aug 26.
  • Select U.S. cities will get access to the film over Labor Day weekend.
  • Typically, studios look to release big blockbusters all in the same weekend to avoid spoilers or pirated copies entering the space before the film is made available to a large segment of the public.

In this article

John David Washington stars in the upcoming spy-thriller "Tenet" from director Christopher Nolan.
Warner Bros.

Warner Bros. is staggering its release of Christopher Nolan's much anticipated spy thriller "Tenet."

The film, which has been delayed a number of times due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, will debut on Aug. 26 internationally before opening in select cities in the U.S. over the Labor Day weekend.

This is an unusual move for such a high-profile feature. Typically, studios look to release big blockbusters all on the same weekend to avoid spoilers or pirated copies entering the space before the film is made available to a large segment of the public.

"Tenet" had a budget of between $200 million and $225 million. Add onto that a marketing budget that is typically half of production costs and "Tenet" is looking to recoup around $315 million. 

Little is known about the specific plot of Nolan's new film other than it takes place in the world of international espionage. The film stars John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh.

Its new strategy will allow Warner Bros. and international theaters to ring up some ticket sales. Some countries have been able to reopen theaters despite the pandemic and have seen some success with new local titles. These countries include Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Russia, Spain, and the U.K.

"That will happen domestically at some point, but if the rest of the world is ready to roll, it could make sense to attempt a major release in an effort to support exhibitors and prop up an industry that is among those hit hardest by the pandemic," Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, said.

Not to mention, Hollywood blockbusters often generate more than 60% of their box-office revenue outside the U.S. The overseas market has become an increasingly important one for American-based studios.

"We're very used to focusing on releases in North America because the domestic market sets the pace for so many major films, but there is no question that the current reality of the global market dictates a necessity for international theater owners to get their hands on new content," Robbins said.

Three out of Nolan's last four films all made more money internationally than domestically. "Dunkirk" took in 64% of its total ticket sales from international markets. For "Inception," this figure was 64.7%, and "Interstellar" saw 72.3% of its total ticket sales come from outside North America.

2012's "The Dark Knight Rises" garnered around 58% of box-office receipts from international markets, as the final Batman flick in Nolan's trilogy was particularly well received by American audiences. 

Of course, these numbers include China, the second-largest film market in the world, and the movie will not yet be released there. Still there is significant money to be made in Europe and throughout the rest of Asia. 

And a release in China could still occur. When theaters were reopening in the region, exhibitors were not permitted to play movies that exceeded two hours in length, according to a report in Variety. "Tenet" is expected run for more than 2 hours and 30 minutes, it said.

However, cinema owners in China have recently booked "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Inception," both of which exceed two hours in run time. The report said this could mean that China will not enforce the restriction and "Tenet" could get the green light to open in the country.

Trouble for U.S. cinemas

Domestically, the movie theater market has been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. The majority of theaters have remained closed since mid-March and have been generating little to no revenue. Those that have opened during the pandemic have been forced to show library titles like "Star Wars" and "Jurassic Park."

Since January, shares of AMC are down 46%, Marcus Corp. has fallen 55% and Cinemark have slipped 64%. 

AMC has had the most public difficulties with remaining shuttered, although the company recently reached a debt agreement that should help it stay solvent through 2021.

For the last two months "Tenet" and Disney's "Mulan" were expected to kick off the summer box office and signal hope to exhibitors that some semblance of normal could come to the movie theater industry.

However, a growing number of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. forced both studios to ping-pong their release dates later on the calendar. Eventually, both unset their films altogether.

A Labor Day weekend release for "Tenet" leaves "Antebellum" as the first big Hollywood movie to enter theaters since many were shuttered in March. The horror film is expected to enter theaters on Aug. 21. Of course, movie calendar dates are hardly set in stone these days. 

Following that release is "New Mutants" on Aug 28. The film has found itself repositioned on the calendar multiple times over the last few years, so this, too, could be shuffled again.

"While a staggered release strategy may carry its own challenges, the benefit of at least getting these films in front of an audience and giving theaters appealing content may outweigh any of the potential issues such as piracy, spoilers and that some countries may feel left out of the equation," Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, said. 

Disney delays multiple films
Disney delays multiple films