TV & Movies

The 'Tenet' Test: Theater Owners Bank On Film To Boost the Box Office

‘Mulan’ Producer on How the Pandemic Changed the Conversation Around the Film’s Release

Warner Bros. Pictures

The ‘Tenet’ Test: Theater Owners Bank On Film To Boost the Box Office

Cinemas hope Christopher Nolan’s film can begin a steady recovery…and prove to the public that they are safe

After a summer of closures, COVID-19 infection surges, and frequent release date changes, movie theater companies are hoping that “Tenet” can alleviate the financial struggle the pandemic threw them into.

Warner Bros. is sending “Tenet” to more than 2,800 theaters in the U.S. and Canada this weekend, but for the gamble to work, the public needs to be certain that they are safe. Joseph Masher, COO of Bow Tie Cinemas, has been preparing five months to do just that.

“We’ve been working on reopening since shortly after we closed,” Masher told TheWrap. “We spent the summer gathering cleaning materials and PPE equipment, developing signage and adapting our theaters to make them a COVID-safe environment.”

Like the rest of the global cinema industry, Bow Tie Cinemas has suffered a rough summer, furloughing 900 employees that work in its 38 locations. Most of those theaters will be reopen for “Tenet” this weekend, including one in Hoboken, New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy has given theaters clearance to reopen with a capacity limit of 25%.

“Last weekend, we reopened our locations in Connecticut for ‘The New Mutants’ and found that we got many moviegoers from New York who couldn’t go to their local theaters because they are still closed,” Masher said. “Between our Hoboken and Greenwich locations, we think that trend is going to get even stronger.”

Those smaller markets will be key for “Tenet” this weekend, as several major cities including New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Miami have kept theaters closed while county and state officials there continue to try to contain the spread of COVID-19. It is estimated that around 70% of the domestic theatrical market will be reopened this weekend, but the 30% that isn’t are in areas of the U.S. that are significant contributors to the overall market. Both Warner Bros. and theater owners in these major cities are holding on to hope that these cities will reopen theaters later in September, as “Tenet” is expected to have the box office largely to itself.

“No modern blockbuster has faced what ‘Tenet’ is looking at. A good opening weekend would be nice, but we’re not going to be able to make a call on this film’s success for several weeks if not months,” Boxoffice analyst Shawn Robbins said. “If the word of mouth is good, then it could really have legs into the fall as moviegoers who couldn’t see the film now get to see it when their theaters open.”

Given these circumstances, what would be considered a “good” opening weekend for “Tenet”? Warner Bros. has elected not to give its own internal projections, but Masher thinks that that a Labor Day weekend opening in the low $20 million range would be a solid start and a feasible goal.

“With the number of theaters open right now and the amount of interest, I think it can hit $20 million,” he said. “And for us on the exhibition end, that’s what we’d like to see too. We’re OK for now with a 25% capacity cap and having a reduced amount of new titles to show in theaters, but we’re still looking ahead to October with ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ and ‘Candyman.’ If box office numbers don’t steadily increase, then there’s concern that the studios might not be as willing to commit to releasing films in Q4.”

Of course, the other thing that could push back releases of fall films — as was the case for “Tenet” last month — is another infection surge. As treasurer of the National Association of Theater Owners and head of its New York branch, Masher has been in deep talks with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other governors and state health officials trying to assure them that their theaters are safe. NATO, along with major chains like AMC, have heavily promoted their COVID-19 safety protocols, which include requiring all employees and customers to wear a mask unless eating concessions. Theaters will have buffer seats between audience members and will be cleaned between each screening.

But the most important aspect of the protocols are the air filters. The reason why theaters are considered by epidemiologists to be high-risk environments for contracting COVID is because, like airplanes and indoor dining, customers are breathing in the same air as others in a close, enclosed environment. The solution, theater owners argue, is to clean and update each auditorium’s air filtration and ventilation system. Bow Tie Theaters is using MERV 11 filters, which can block out water and air droplets that humans exhale and which the virus bonds to. Its theaters are also opening outside air vents to bring more fresh air into auditoriums, decreasing the chance of patrons breathing in recirculated air.

Masher says the system is working as planned, pointing to positive feedback from customers at Bow Tie’s Connecticut theaters and to reports from overseas theaters that have adopted the same safety protocols when “Tenet” was released last weekend to a $53 million global opening. He believes that the industry has found the formula to reopen without endangering customers’ health; but he’s had a hard time convincing Gov. Cuomo, who still has theaters on the list of businesses that can’t reopen yet in New York.

“We’ve consulted with our medical engineers and with CDC officials during every step of our safety process,” Masher said. “With the numbers in New York as low as they are, lower than almost anywhere else in the U.S., I think it’s time to reopen theaters. In a large auditorium that is regularly cleaned, with masks required, with limited capacity and social distancing, and an air system that constantly circulates and filters outside air, the chances of virus transmission are very low.”

Jeremy Fuster

Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • [email protected]

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