Warner Bros.’ decision to move “Wonder Woman 1984” from October to Christmas Day could potentially help “Tenet” boost its domestic box office. But it will be little comfort for thousands of theaters that now face renewed uncertainty as studios mull yet another wave of release slate changes.
“There was a big push by the major chains to get their theaters open, and now it’s looking like they overplayed their hand,” Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap. “Now, they’re facing at least six weeks of no major new releases, and possibly longer if the end-of-year slate collapses.
For three weeks, cautious optimism was beginning to build as nearly 3,000 theaters in the U.S. and Canada reopened with capacity restrictions and safety protocols that multiple theater owners tell TheWrap were well received by customers. Numbers were steadily rising at the box office, including a reported $20 million four-day opening for “Tenet” on Labor Day weekend.
But a series of setbacks came this past weekend. Shortly after the “WW84” move was announced on Friday, Universal and MGM announced that it would move the Nia DaCosta horror film “Candyman” out of its late October release to an unspecified date in 2021. Then, WB reported that “Tenet” took a 29% weekend-over-weekend drop to earn $6.7 million, bringing its domestic total to $29.5 million while overall box office business for the weekend only reached approximately $15 million.
On top of that, Warner Bros. has come under fire in the press for not releasing daily box office numbers on “Tenet,” which would provide crucial data for theaters and other studios trying to determine whether business is picking up. Warner Bros. has only released “Tenet” numbers on Sunday to avoid public misconceptions of the film’s performance given the unprecedented circumstances of its release, along with reports that some theaters in smaller markets that have reopened are only doing so on weekends to lower operating costs.
But even given the circumstances, U.S. numbers for “Tenet” look a lot more concerning given newer context. The $20 million Labor Day domestic opening was actually padded by multiple days of preview screenings along with an early release in Canada. In reality, the film grossed only around $9 million during its first Fri.-Sun. run on the weekend of Sept. 4. That calculates to a per-theater average of approximately $3,200. This past weekend, with only 100 more theaters added and several major cities like New York and Los Angeles still closed, the average fell to $2,310.
Some analysts still think that’s solid when graded on the COVID curve. B.Riley financial analyst Eric Wold called the numbers an “encouraging and a positive indicator of demand given all of the COVID-19 headwinds” and “a sign of potentially longer theatrical legs as moviegoers adjust.” Prior to release, B.Riley had projected a domestic run of $50-55 million for “Tenet.”
But Bock says that such numbers are not what any studio wants to see for their $200 million blockbuster.
“There’s no way to cut corners: That’s a poor result, especially for a film trying to bail out theaters,” Bock said. “Credit to Nolan for wanting to try to help theaters and to Warner Bros. for trying this experiment, but these aren’t the results that any tentpole is aiming for to ensure profitability.”
“Tenet” is still hanging on to hope that domestic numbers can be buoyed if New York, Los Angeles, and other key markets reopen in late September or early October. That’s where the “WW84” move comes in. If theaters had reopened in top cities when the DC film was set to open on October 2, Warner Bros. risked having two of its biggest blockbusters competing against each other for audience attention. Now, “Tenet” stays as the main attraction.
But that’s only if county and state officials give theaters the green light — something that is not guaranteed — and provides no relief to the thousands of theaters already in operation that were hoping for “WW84” and “Candyman” to keep business going next month. “Candyman” director Nia DaCosta said on social media last Friday that she is committed to screening her film in theaters, but doesn’t want COVID-19 and its restrictions getting in the way of the theatrical experience.
“We made ‘Candyman’ to be seen in theaters. Not just for the spectacle but because the film is about community and stories–how they shape each other, how they shape us. It’s about the collective experience of trauma and joy, suffering and triumph, and the stories we tell around it,” she wrote. “We wanted the horror and humanity of ‘Candyman’ to be experienced in a collective, a community, so we’re pushing Candyman to next year, to ensure that everyone can see the film, in theaters, and share in that experience.”
That leaves a huge gap in major releases between now and November 6, when Disney is set to release “Black Widow.” Other November releases include MGM’s “No Time to Die” and Disney/Pixar’s “Soul.” If Disney moves those films, it is very likely that other films will follow suit, leading to a chain reaction that could force American theaters back into closure for at least the rest of 2020.
Even Wold, with his more optimistic analysis, says that a big recovery for theaters won’t come at least until 2021, and that any films that release before then but don’t reach theaters in New York and California should be considered “training runs.” The question will be if any studio actually wants to put their films out as a training run after seeing what “Tenet” is making. The major chains — including AMC, which successfully restructured its debts — should be able to survive another closure period in Q4, but the same will likely not be said for hundreds of independent theaters.
“I have to imagine that NATO and the major chains are doing everything they can to convince Disney to stick to November, because if they don’t, we might as well pack it in for the rest of the year. And even if infections keep going down, what’s to say they won’t go back up once flu season hits?” Bock says. “The studios are going to be calling the shots going forward, and they’re probably not feeling encouraged by the instability of the theatrical market, which of course is being exacerbated by the lack of a national coordinated strategy to tackling this virus.”