‘Tenet’ looks for a foothold in U.S. this weekend, ‘Mulan’ arrives in China amid controversy

Key Points
  • "Tenet" and "Mulan" were meant to represent a return to normal. However, neither film has quite been representative of that hope.
  • Analysts have questioned if the opening weekend numbers for "Tenet" were inflated with preview showings.
  • Controversy over "Mulan," poor reviews and pirated copies of the film may weaken ticket sales in China.

In this article

Liu Yifei stars in Disney's "Mulan."

For months, "Tenet" and "Mulan" have been the center of Hollywood's attention. 

The films from Warner Bros. and Disney, respectively, were meant to represent a return to normal. However, neither film has quite embodied that hope. 

Going forward, every weekend at the box office will be an important weekend. Yet, the stakes for this weekend seem particularly high.

"Tenet" had a solid start internationally, generating $53 million in its August debut. In the U.S., the film's opening was more muted, around $20 million. While this was the largest domestic haul for a new film release since the pandemic shuttered theaters, it was hardly an overwhelming sign that the box office was back in business. 

There were questions about whether these numbers were actually for the four-day Labor Day weekend or if they included three days of previews in Canada ahead of the U.S. debut. Unofficially, it's estimated that those showings in Canada accounted for between $3 million and $4 million, according to a report published by BoxOffice.com's Shawn Robbins on Thursday.

Warner Bros. has not released daily ticket sale tallies, so it's unclear if those previews are included in the $20 million total given last weekend, which likely included Thursday night shows as well as Monday viewings. 

Robbins estimates that "Tenet" could have made between $8.5 million and $10 million before Friday, Sept. 4. Meaning, that the Christopher Nolan film may have only earned between $10 million and $12 million during the four-day holiday weekend, not $20 million.

Representatives for Warner Bros. confirmed to CNBC that the number provided to analysts on Sunday included previews from Aug. 31 and the days leading up to the film's official U.S. debut.

This math conundrum once again underscores how difficult comparisons are during this pandemic. In pre-Covid times a drop in ticket sales between 40% and 60% wouldn't be unheard of from opening weekend to the second weekend. However, during the pandemic the percentage drops have been much smaller, with some films like "Unhinged" showing only an 8% to 12% drop. 

It should be noted that only around 65% of theaters were open last weekend and the cinemas that were open had audience caps of between 30% and 50%. 

If "Tenet" is able to have this smaller percentage drop between weekends, that could be a sign that consumer confidence in movie theaters is strong. However, if Robbins is correct, and the $20 million is not representative of last weekend's true haul, any comparisons made this weekend won't be accurate.

"This is a complicated and transitional era where consumer awareness and comfort are just as important across the geographic board as the perception of major cities and their contribution to box office shares," Robbins wrote.

Additionally, the muted opening of "Tenet" could influence other movies on Warner Bros.' calendar. Earlier this week, media outlets began to speculate that "Wonder Woman 1984" could be pushed from its October release due to lackluster theater attendance. 

On Friday, Warner Bros. announced the film would be pushed until Christmas Day. "Wonder Woman" expected to be the next big blockbuster tentpole on the calendar. Now, there will be a two-month gap until "Black Widow" arrives in early November.

'Mulan' arrives in China

As for "Mulan," a detour from theaters in the U.S. — and any other country that has access to Disney+ — meant that only customers in China and a handful of other Asian countries would get a chance to see the film on the big screen. The rest would have to pay $30 or wait until the end of the year to watch it for free on Disney's streaming platform.

"Mulan" has been dogged by lackluster reviews and political controversy. The film, based on a Chinese folk story and a remake of a beloved Disney animated film, had garnered less than $7 million by 8 p.m. local time in China, according to the online ticketing platform Maoyan. 

On Thursday, Reuters reported that Chinese authorities had told major media outlets not to cover the film's release after Disney came under fire for thanking government entities in Xinjiang, the province where Muslims have faced human rights abuses, during the film's credits.

"'Mulan' was primarily shot in almost the entirety in New Zealand," Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy said Thursday during the Bank of America Virtual 2020 Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference. "And in an effort to accurately depict some of the unique landscape and geography of the country of China for this historically period piece drama, we filmed scenery in 20 different locations in China."

"Now, it's common knowledge that in order to film in China, you have to go be granted permission, and that permission comes from the Central Governments, I think it's called, Publicity Department or something like that," she continued. "And it's also common knowledge in the film industry that it's a practice that is done throughout the world to acknowledge in a film's credits where – you acknowledge in the film's credits the national and local governments that allow you to film there. And so, in our credits, that was – it recognized both China as well as locations in New Zealand. And I would just leave it at that, but that's generated a lot of issues for us."

The film's lead actress, Liu Yifei, also recently expressed support for police crackdowns in Hong Kong, spurring talks of boycotts on social media.

Poor ticket sales seem to predominantly stem from bad reviews, which seem more focused on historical inaccuracies and poor character development than politics, and readily available pirated copies of the film.

"Mulan,' which had a production budget of $200 million, was looking to China to supplement digital sales of the film on Disney+. McCarthy had said that the company is planning on discussing "Mulan's" streaming performance in November during its quarterly earnings report.

Disney controversy heats up as protesters call for a Mulan boycott
Disney controversy heats up as protesters call for a Mulan boycott