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How Christopher Nolan’s Tenet could have saved cinemas around the world — and why it won’t

The name Christopher Nolan has become a household name in the film industry since the release of his 2000’s thriller Memento. Indeed, Nolan has proven to be an innovative director and writer: The Dark Knight Trilogy is considered by most to be the best super-hero franchise that cinema has known, and his original stories such as Memento (2020), Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014) have allowed for Nolan to be known for his complex storylines, often based around the concept of Time.

In 2017, Nolan released his first war movie, Dunkirk, based on historical events. The film showcased a very gruesome and traumatic series of events that English soldiers experienced while serving their country during the Second World War in the maritime city of Dunkirk, France. Setting a divergent tone from his previous films, Nolan proved once more that his filmmaking range is vast — yet many have been impatiently waiting for a Nolan movie in all of its grandeur: unthinkable plots fueled by unpredictable twists and mind-bending concepts.

Fans did not have to wait (too) long as two years later, Warner Bros announced Nolan’s upcoming movie, Tenet, without revealing any plotline or details about its story. After the first trailer dropped in select theatres in late 2019, the mystery around the film amplified as viewers picked up on the fact that Nolan was back to his original way of storytelling, and intrigue flourished as the plot of the film was still very unclear. However, a lot of excitement arose from the cast of the film, whose lead actors were not Nolan’s usual favorites (i.e Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, etc.), introducing John David Washington as Nolan’s first black lead. Furthermore, many were intrigued as it was announced that the score for Tenet would not be executed by Hans Zimmer, who has created all of Nolan’s soundtracks since Batman Begins in 2005. The anticipation that the movie’s secrecy yet familiarity brought to viewers allowed for viewers’ impatience to bloom — until COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic.


With most countries instituting a period of quarantine, most movie theatres across the globe had to shut down in order to respect safety measures and not contribute to the spread of the virus. But as months went by, many countries’ situations eased and businesses started going back to normal (while maintaining social distancing measures of course). However, this did not impact the release of Tenet positively as it was delayed twice before being delayed for the third time, but this time indefinitely. This decision was taken by Warner Bros. Studios after acknowledging how the number of cases in the United States has not seemed to decrease enough for cinemas to be a safe place to reopen again — therefore the release of Tenet could only hit certain theatres around the country and not hit its full potential in the box-office. Christopher Nolan himself lead a whole campaign in order to encourage people to go back to the movies once the sanitary situation appeased, but it did not seem to be enough for Warner Bros. to allow for the release of the blockbuster.

It is understandable that the release of the film in the United States has been delayed once more, as it does not seem economically reasonable for a production company to release such an anticipated film when it is not safe for viewers to go see it — and the release of the movie would be heterogeneous across different states. However, the release of the film on an international scale could be debated, as most Eurasian countries’ economies (including cinemas) have gone back to normal but lack Hollywood films to attract viewers.

Countries such as France, Germany, Italy, or Spain can somewhat rely upon their national film industries — however, smaller countries that do not necessarily have their own industries are in a tough situation as they heavily count on Hollywood films to attract audiences.

The release of Tenet could have undeniably impacted cinemas around the world positively: as mentioned in this article published in Variety, “Previous films from Nolan have earned more than 50% of box office revenues from theaters overseas”. This implies that when dozens of films were being released per week, Nolan films still attracted half of the cinema-goers. If that was the case when there was plenty of choice in theatres, imagine the numbers the film would have earned in box offices when there was not much variety playing.

The anticipation for the film would have also played a positive role for cinemas around the globe: indeed, not only have people been waiting for the day they can go back to the movies, grab some popcorn and relax while watching a brand new film — but this particular film in itself has had so much buildup around it that people are eager to simply figure out what it is about. Allowing for the release of Tenet would have helped cinemas in countries that heavily rely on American films to be able to finally attract more people.

Nonetheless, many other factors contradict this idea. China is the second country that consumes American cinema the most (after the USA, of course) and although cinemas have reopened whilst respecting social distancing measures, they have some rules that would make the release of Tenet quite impossible: indeed, cinemas are not allowed to play movies that are over 120 minutes long and Tenet is said to be 150 minutes long, exceeding the maximum time limit by half an hour.

Due to these measures, Tenet will not be able to play in the two biggest markets of American cinema: the US, and China.

A conflict of interest therefore arises: small ventures will face economic hardship due to the lack of new films that could have easily been fixed by the release of an anticipated blockbuster like Tenet, but the production company and the economic investments put behind this film will also know hardship if the movie is not released in conditions where it can succeed as much as it possibly can in box-offices around the world.

So many elements are in favor of the success of this movie no matter the circumstances we are in, but the risks that may occur with its release (not only economical risks but also sanitary ones) are way too important for a production company like Warner Bros. Studios to take such a leap of faith.

In times like these, it is interesting to question how the film industry will adapt to the needs of viewers, and the unreliable markets it is facing all around the world. It is, therefore, necessary to come up with long-term solutions for people to have access to films no matter the sanitary situation. It is crucial to reevaluate the definition of a “global release” for a film post COVID-19: if we want the industry to stay afloat and cinemas to strive, maybe that definition should become an adaptable hybrid one, allowing for releases in cinemas where possible while giving options for those who do not have access to cinemas to stream films via streaming platforms.

Adaptability is imperative in our current world, and the film industry has yet to come up with a long-term solution to a problem that will put many careers and artistic endeavors on the line.


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