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'Tenet' hopes send moviegoers back to theaters as 'Mulan' tests streaming debut

Put on your medical mask, face shield and latex gloves; take your vitamins and grab your hand sanitizer: It's time to go to the movies!

After months of widespread theater closures, the box office will hum again over the weekend of Sept. 4 with its first major tentpole release since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Director Christopher Nolan will drop his long-awaited and long-delayed time travel romp "Tenet" on the nation's neglected silver screens. AT&T Inc.'s Warner Bros. and theater operators like AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. will be hoping for pent-up demand to translate into strong attendance. However, with about a third of U.S. theater locations still shuttered, limited seating capacity at operating venues and consumer hesitation due to social distancing, forecasts for the title are coming in below typical Nolan home runs.

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"Tenet"
Source: Warner Bros.

BoxOffice.com projects "Tenet" to collect a three-day opening between $18 million and $23 million, not including the Labor Day holiday. But lead analyst Shawn Robbins notes that with so many unknowns, it is the "wild west of box office calculations and temporary presumptions."

Including early-week prescreenings, the Thursday night debut and the Labor Day holiday, he said "Tenet" should bring in $30 million to $40 million through Sept. 7.

Variety pointed to a three-day opening above $20 million. That result would be a "healthy start in this distressed economy," Deadline Hollywood said, noting that even with more than 2,800 screens showing the sci-fi flick, major markets in states like New York and California are still closed, putting Warner Bros. in the position of running a marathon, not a sprint.

Indeed, the studio will likely break a sweat trying to accomplish results for Nolan titles similar in budget. "Tenet" ran roughly $200 million in production, leaving it above "Dunkirk," "Interstellar" and "Inception," which each crested a $150 million negative cost. Those titles ended well in the black, with "Inception" collecting the most profits at $512.5 million, according to data from Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence. But in Warner Bros.'s favor, each of those titles also took time to gain traction. "Inception" opened to just $62.8 million domestically. "Interstellar," which ran net profits of $316.6 million, opened to just $47.5 million. Both those Nolan sci-fi thrillers dropped in over 3,500 screens — or about 700 more than "Tenet."

Forecasters agree that if "Tenet" can hold momentum as more theaters open, it could stand a solid chance at profitability. In the prior weekend, the title launched to over $53 million in 41 international markets, a strong post-pandemic start considering that international gross did not include China, where the title will also go wide over the Sept. 4 weekend. Deadline forecast that "Tenet" could gross an additional $50 million in international receipts over the weekend, on top of its U.S. rake.

Working against "Tenet," consumers will have another big-budget debut option over the weekend that does not require donning a mask or leaving the house. The Walt Disney Co. will release its $200 million live-action remake of "Mulan" on its streaming platform Disney+ for a $30 early-access charge on top of the $6.99 monthly Disney+ subscription fee. The Mouse House will also drop "Mulan" in some international theaters, including China, on Sept. 11.

The release of Nolan's theatrical spectacle alongside Disney's streaming experiment will help resolve some outstanding uncertainty regarding the future of film. Studios have long been looking to add a video-on-demand window adjacent to the theatrical release window, and theaters have generally resisted.

AMC, which has struggled under its heavy debt load amid the pandemic closures, and Comcast Corp.'s Universal Pictures recently signed an agreement to add a premium video-on-demand window for Universal Pictures' debut titles, with AMC getting a cut of streaming revenue. AMC at the last minute announced that it would open 140 more theaters than expected in time for the "Tenet" debut.

Notably, AMC has no streaming PVOD agreement in place with Disney. Analysts and forecasters will be closely watching how the relative box office performance of "Tenet" compares to the streaming sales of "Mulan" to predict how windowing and release strategies will evolve into the post-pandemic future.

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