This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
Someone, somewhere saw the trailer for the Christopher Nolan would-be blockbuster, Tenet, and whispered, “Wow, I’m dying to see that movie.” Well, word made it up the chain to studio suits and executives at America’s cinema chains, who enthusiastically cheered, “Say no more!”
Since spring, Warner Brothers and top theater chains like AMC and Cineworld have been in a game of coronavirus-themed chicken, setting and then shifting reopenings and, in the case of Tenet, premiere dates that even maskless COVID deniers writing manifestos about the Gates vaccine and 5G towers have ruled “kind of premature and outrageous.”
Even in a pandemic, Tenet must be seen how it was meant to be seen! On a theater screen! With theater sound! Among other people! As well as lethal spores of a deadly virus floating all around you!
Truly, imagine going to a movie theater right now. Face masks might as well be Ghostface masks.
The original, foolish release date for Nolan’s mysterious new movie was July 17. When Miss Rona shook its finger and was like, “No ma’am,” it was then pushed back to July 31. This week, the premiere was delayed again, to August 12.
To have the commitment to anything that these people have for getting Tenet into theaters this summer.
While this release-date Moonwalk unfolded, the theater chains have been doing their own reopening jig to accommodate. First came the announcement that some would open in mid-July to accommodate Tenet and, at the time, Mulan’s release plans.
As the line graph of national coronavirus cases hopped on a rocket ship and blasted off to the moon, both films postponed and the major chains decided to hold off on opening, too. AMC now has its sights set on July 30, with Regal’s parent company, Cineworld, on July 31.
Listen, there are about a million things to get mad about when it comes to how major industries, business, and government organizations are responding to the pandemic. But there’s something particularly asinine about how Hollywood, with this movie-theater standoff, is handling it. What is the endgame here?
Unconscionable amounts of money is being lost in one of the country’s largest industries because of the shutdown. People are out of work. It’s horrible. Yes, cinemas are going to have to reopen eventually.
Nolan, a self-canonized patron saint of traditional cinema, would like to be behind the film that symbolically kickstarts the return of film. How nice. He should be. But not now, dude. What’s the rush?
The $200+ million blockbuster isn’t going to recoup any sort of budget from the dystopian, mostly empty screenings that safety guidelines will necessitate. The inevitably anemic box-office receipts are not going to signal to other studios and filmmakers that fled to 2021—or have been biding their time in setting premiere dates—that the water’s fine.
As a litmus test for whether in-theater releases is a viable model, I don’t see any way in which this film is not a failure; Tenet does not have antibodies.
And that’s a best-case scenario, where we’re just looking at economics. Why would Warner Brothers want to be associated with a potential coronavirus breakout—and possibly deaths—traced back to a screening of its film?
The whole exercise, then, seems inextricable from a tunnel-vision hubris.
Back in March, Nolan penned a Washington Post op-ed pleading for Congress to help out theaters and their employees. Optimistically, it was a nice gesture from a person with power and a platform. Cynically, it was an act of privileged desperation from a man hellbent on as many theaters as possible showing his movie this summer.
Nolan is a cinema purist. Bless him for that. Save the cinemas! No true cinephile will deny him the argument, even when he’s being insufferable about it. Let us never forget the endless news cycle about why everybody ABSOLUTELY NEEDED to see Dunkirk in 70mm. If you didn’t see his movie properly, then you shouldn’t see it at all! Just film bros and Nolan in a year-long circle jerk about camera resolution.
It’s no surprise then that Nolan is not caving to an on-demand release, or allowing Netflix or Apple TV+ to distribute Tenet via streaming. His crusade to open theaters is in pursuit of the movie being screened as he intended.
But there’s a difference between twee debates about camera projections and sending the message that it’s safe to gather during a deadly pandemic. Allowing Tenet in theaters sends that message. No, the mere fact that cinemas are opening and adhering to guidelines doesn’t mean it’s safe. It means it’s as safe as can be. You know what’s safer? NOT OPENING THEATERS TO SCREEN TENET.
(It is only fair to point out that, as of this moment, Tenet is not actually the first film set to open in theaters. That would be Solstice Studio’s Russell Crowe-starring thriller called, and you can’t make this up, Unhinged.)
All of this also politicizes the release of a summer blockbuster, which is just another one of those ludicrous twists of 2020 you can’t believe is happening. Let us never forget that AMC initially planned to reopen theaters with no requirement that customers wear masks, the reasoning that it “did not want to be drawn into political controversy.”
The stance was retracted following mass outrage over the conflation of public health and political controversy— “If I get sick at your theater do you cover funeral costs?”—but the sentiment remains. As masks and reopenings continue to be egregiously politicized, so too will the act of going to see Tenet, buying a ticket to the new Christopher Nolan joint in order to own the libs.
I don’t understand why anyone in Hollywood sees value in that. Or why it doesn’t see more value in the obvious: Screen Tenet in theaters. Let it be the movie that saves cinema. Just…….wait until it’s safe to do it?
Editor's Note: Following publication, Nolan's publicist provided two quotes from an Entertainment Weekly story published June 18 with the note "any other attribution for him is false."
"We're finishing the film, and the film will be ready for when the theatres reopen. I think that, at this stage, is all there is to say about it, really. I mean even by the time this article comes out, the world will have changed, but hopefully for the best."
"I can really only take responsibility for finishing the film and trying to make an entertainment that's worth going back to the movies for. That's the kind of film we've always tried to make, and Tenet is no exception."