How Tenet is keeping cinemas closed and messing up Hollywood

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Yesterday was meant to be Super Saturday for the cinema industry too. Amid a flurry of openings – pubs, restaurants, hairdressers – movie theatres were also meant to be throwing open their doors to eager film fans from this weekend. But a lot of them just aren’t.
Two of the UK’s biggest cinema chains – Cineworld and Vue – were originally supposed to open from July 10, but have now pushed back that date until the end of the month. Odeon is opening a handful of locations in England this weekend, but the majority of its venues won’t be open for another few weeks. Smaller independent cinemas are likely to remain closed for even longer – possibly until the end of the summer.


There’s been speculation that the delay in reopening is down to one film. Tenet, the new release from Oscar-winning director Christopher Nolan, was set to be one of this year’s biggest blockbusters before the pandemic hit, and it’s a release that many in the industry are watching closely. But it too has been delayed – the release was initially slated for July 17, and then pushed back to July 31 when the pandemic hit, and then held again to August 12.
Warner Bros, the distributors of the $200 million film, is in a tricky position. There’s no point releasing an expensive blockbuster if there are not enough cinemas open for people to go and see it in. But at the same time, for cinemas, it’s hard to justify reopening without films that people are actually going to want to see – particularly when people may be reluctant to mix with strangers after months of lockdown. So, are cinema chains, film distributors and the public engaged in a giant game of chicken?
Data from other markets suggests that there is an appetite for movies from members of the public. In France, cinemas sold more than a million tickets in their first nine days after reopening, even with social distancing. In the UK, cinemas that were planning to open this weekend appear to have sold out some showings – particularly of Oscar-winning movie Parasite, which was enjoying a successful run before lockdown.
Research from National CineMedia in the US – which admittedly may have a vested interest – also shows audiences are excited to return to the big screen experience: 95 per cent miss going to the cinema, 92 per cent look forward to cinemas reopening again. There’s likely to be a split in who decides to go back soonest, according to Will Hanmer-Lloyd of behavioural consultancy Behave – avid movie fans might be more keen than people who only see the occasional blockbuster, people with young families might be more willing to go just to get the children out of the house for an afternoon.


But most people will only go to the cinema if there’s something they want to actually see. About two-thirds of cinema visits are from people who go to see a specific film, with the remaining third of visits from people who go to the cinema without a specific title in mind, according to Hanmer-Lloyd. And unlike pubs or restaurants, cinema distributors only get one shot at releasing a multi-million dollar film like Tenet – if it tanks, they can’t just put it out again the following month.
“I don’t think it’s a game of chicken,” says Kathryn Jacobs, CEO of cinema advertising company Pearl and Dean. “The reason why releases have been pushed back is because all releases are global in nature. To maximise box office you’ll try and release it at the same time – all Nolan releases are same day and date worldwide.”
A film like Tenet is big enough to cause a knock-on effect, with smaller films scattering in its wake like a shoal of fish splitting to avoid a shark. “You work on the basis of where the audience is going to fall – where there’s the space to let your film breathe,” Jacobs says.
She thinks the main reason cinemas are delaying isn’t because of a dearth of good films, but due to basic economics. At some of the bigger cinema chains, there may be a minimum number of staff you need to physically keep things running – and it might not be cost-effective to open, particularly while the government is still paying the bulk of wages via the furlough scheme. Similarly, at smaller chains, social distancing might never be economical – a survey by the Independent Cinema Office found that 41 per cent of small theatres asked wouldn’t be able to enforce social distancing requirements and would therefore be unable to open.


Social distancing also means the bigger releases may show on more screens than usual, as cinemas adjust to meet demand, which could mean less space for films with less widespread appeal – they might only be on a few times a week instead of every day, for instance.
Ultimately, the viability of cinemas will depend on how safe people feel going back. The big chains have been keen to stress the steps they’re taking to keep patrons safe, from PPE for staff, new booking systems that build in distance between friends from different households, and machines that can sanitise an auditorium in minutes. Communicating that screenings are safe to potential viewers will be key, as will encouraging them to continue to spend money on things other than tickets which contribute heavily to cinema revenue – people may be willing to watch a film while wearing a face mask, but will they want to eat popcorn through one?
Jacobs remains hopeful – with a glut of great films now rescheduled for the last few months of the year, and lots more people working from home, she thinks daytime or early evening screenings might see a surge in popularity.
As for home streaming services, the other big elephant in the room, she’s not too worried about studios dabbling in releasing films direct to home audiences for around the same price as a single cinema ticket. “It’s just not the same,” she says. “It’s that thing of just immersing yourself. It’s the last solitary space with no phones and no interruption, and yet being in a crowd and experiencing that emotion and the fun of watching something with other people.”
At a safe social distance, of course.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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