LOS ANGELES — Warner Bros. said on Sunday that Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated “Tenet” collected an estimated $20.2 million in wide release at North American theaters over the weekend and in previews. It was Hollywood’s best domestic result since mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic forced cinemas to close.
With the coronavirus still spreading widely in the United States — Friday and Saturday brought 93,908 new reported infections — the arrival of “Tenet” was seen as a crucial test for Hollywood. Big turnout? All systems go for movies scheduled for release this fall, including “Wonder Woman 1984” and the latest James Bond extravaganza, “No Time to Die.” Sparse? Perhaps better to push big-budget movies into next year (and pray for a vaccine) or reroute them to streaming services, as Disney did with “Mulan,” which was made available to Disney+ subscribers on Friday for $30.
The outcome was not quite definitive.
David A. Gross, who runs Franchise Entertainment Research, a film consultancy, assessed the domestic turnout for “Tenet” as “fair.”
“Audience concern with theater safety remains a deterrent,” he said in an email. “‘Tenet’ is a strong release, and Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. deserve enormous credit for their effort. For now, this is as good as it gets.”
He estimated that “Tenet” would have collected about $50 million over its first three days under normal circumstances. “Tenet” cost roughly $200 million to make, not including marketing costs. Ticket sales are typically split 50-50 between studios and cinemas, but Warner Bros. was able to negotiate a 65 percent share, according to The Wall Street Journal.
In a statement, Toby Emmerich, the chairman of the Warner Bros. Pictures Group, credited Nolan with the film’s “box office success” and thanked movie theater owners for being “unwavering in their commitment to a safe theatrical experience.”
The studio noted that “Tenet” has been received enthusiastically overseas, where ticket sales total $129 million after two weeks and public health conditions are mostly better than in the United States. “Tenet” collected $30 million in China over its first three days, a record for a film directed by Nolan.
Roughly 35 percent of United States cinemas remain closed. Three states — New York, New Mexico and North Carolina — have not permitted any theaters to reopen, along with most of California and parts of Washington, Michigan and Oregon. That means more than 70 million Americans live in areas where government officials say that moviegoing remains too dangerous, even with theaters promoting a wide array of safety procedures: capacity limited to 50 percent or less, aggressive cleaning, masks required except when eating or drinking.
Theater chains are still working to reopen locations in some states that have lifted restrictions. AMC Entertainment, for instance, was only able to reopen two of its 27 locations in New Jersey by Friday, with the remainder scheduled to begin operating again by Sept. 10.
“Tenet” did not play drive-in theaters areas where indoor theaters remain closed, prompting some fans to fly out of state to see it. Warner withheld the film from certain drive-in cinemas to protect eventual ticket sales at indoor theaters in those markets. Concerns about piracy, keeping the plot under wraps and sound quality also played a role.
“Tenet” stars John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman”), Robert Pattinson (“Twilight”) and Elizabeth Debecki (“The Night Manager”) in a highly complex, time-bending story that involves a race to prevent a catastrophic world event. The film, shot in seven countries using IMAX cameras, is rated PG-13 and runs two hours and 30 minutes. (In awkward timing, Pattinson tested positive for the coronavirus late last week while filming “The Batman,” another Warner Bros. movie.)
Reviews for the film have been strong, with critics enraptured with the visual splendor created by Mr. Nolan and his cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema. But many critics also found the cerebral plot confusing. About 74 percent of appraisals were positive, according to Rotten Tomatoes. For context, reviews for “Dunkirk” were 92 percent positive.
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IMAX said that “Tenet” provided $11.1 million in global ticket sales over the weekend — a new high-water mark for the chain for September, which is typically a sleepy month for visual spectacles. “It proves that there is a lot of pent-up demand,” Richard Gelfond, IMAX’s chief executive, said by phone on Sunday. “Where theaters are open and people feel safe, they want to go.”
Gelfond noted that “Dunkirk,” Nolan’s previous film, was a big performer for IMAX in North America in 2017. Out of the 10 best-performing IMAX locations for “Dunkirk,” however, only two (the Scotiabank theater complex in Toronto and Opry Mills in Nashville) were open to show “Tenet.”“Dunkirk,” a war drama that cost an estimated $100 million to make, arrived to $50.5 million in domestic ticket sales and ultimately collected $190 million.
Before “Tenet” arrived, Warner Bros. worked to tamp down opening-weekend expectations. Ann Sarnoff, who runs WarnerMedia’s studios and networks group, on Thursday gave interviews to a spate of news outlets, offering the same message to Variety, Deadline and The Los Angeles Times: While all of Mr. Nolan’s previous big-budget films have been instant blockbusters, financial success for this one will be “a marathon, not a sprint.”
Warner Bros. supported “Tenet” with a marketing campaign that relied heavily on internet video and social media. In late May, for instance, the studio unveiled a trailer for the film inside Fortnite, the online video game. Traditional television commercials ran during CNN’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention, “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and ESPN’s basketball coverage, according to iSpot.tv, an ad measurement firm.
Even Tom Cruise played pitchman, tweeting a 34-second video of himself going to see “Tenet” in a theater in London. The tweet arrived on the day before “Tenet” was released in most of Europe. “Great to be back in a movie theater!” he said through a black mask. (Translation: If theaters are safe enough for Tom Cruise, they are safe enough for you.)
The decision to move forward with a theatrical release prompted debate among prominent film critics.
“I have a lot of patience with Nolan’s high-priest-of-cinema routine, his ardent defense of the theatrical moviegoing experience in a world of iPhones, streaming platforms and now coronavirus,” the critic Justin Chang wrote in The Los Angeles Times on Aug. 20. “I also wish that, in a life-or-death situation, he and Warner Bros. weren’t thrusting ‘Tenet’ and its theaters-only release strategy so insistently into the spotlight.”