As movie theaters are scheduled to reopen, here is why I believe Tenet shouldn’t be released as WB’s guinea pig.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit America, I have been toying with the idea of starting a weekly column where I could express my feelings on certain aspects of the movie industry and the world. However, like many, I have been struggling with depression. Whenever I got the urge to sit down and write about something, that desire quickly faded whenever I turned on the news or looked at social media. To be 100% transparent with everyone, it has been nearly impossible for me to be excited about anything over these past three months, including movies.
After months of ideas that never turned into column entries, it was yesterday’s announcement about movie theaters reopening in California pushing me to the point where I knew I had to finally sit down and express my thoughts on this topic, as well as the many others I have been thinking about ad nauseam for the past several months.
On Monday, June 8, 2020, it was announced that movie theaters in California could reopen as early as Friday, June 12, 2020, at 25% capacity. This news was met with mixed reactions from friends and colleagues, especially those who have been taking the Coronavirus seriously from the get-go. Up until about two weeks ago, the Coronavirus was the primary focus of most news stories, whether it was on television or social media. Some people were so afraid of getting Covid-19 they refused to leave their homes while others, after a few weeks, were acting like the whole thing was either a government hoax or not nearly as big of a deal as the health officials were making it out to be. I have thoughts on this too, but that is for another day.
Now, since the Black Lives Matter protests began in this country and around the world, Coronavirus updates have been put on the back-burner. It sort of seems like half of the world has forgotten that it even existed, even though there are a few articles released daily about spikes in cases and deaths in various states that already started to reopen. And yes, California is one of those states where the numbers are going up and up, especially in LA County.
I understand everyone is itching to get back to their everyday life and whatever the “new normal” will be. It’s easy to comprehend that people are tired of sitting at home, and they want to go out to dinner with friends, bars, or a movie theater. As someone who has been working almost seven days a week since the start of the pandemic delivering groceries, trust me, I am dying to go out and do something fun for a change. All I have been doing for the past three months is working, doing all the errands for my wife and mom (both of them have comprised immune systems and are considered high risk), and occasionally sitting down to watch a movie or a tv show in preparation for virtual junkets.
Now, I would love to see a movie, go to a broadway show, attend a concert, or dine at a restaurant and hang out with a friend or two. Call me pessimistic, but I personally don’t trust people enough to follow protocol or for the venue employees to adhere to the rules they posted. Why? Because I cannot tell you how many times, over the past three months, where someone was not following the rules in a grocery or department store, despite them “requiring all those who enter to wear masks.” I have seen so many people not standing six feet apart as well. A lot of my reservations about going to the movies or anywhere in public is that there is always a few people who refuse to follow the rules. And, even if I want to go and risk it, how do I know I am not going to be exposed to Covid-19 and then bring it home to my mom who has cancer? These are the things people have to think about. It isn’t always about what I want but rather how can my actions impact others. That is the big problem I have with this.
Another issue is that when most people go to a movie theater, they usually buy a drink and order some sort of food like popcorn, candy, pretzels, etc. You cannot eat or drink with a mask on, and I know for a fact that theaters aren’t going to reopen if they aren’t allowed to sell food and drinks because that’s where the majority of their profit comes from. So, how are theaters going to ensure that people are wearing masks once they sit down for a movie or when they are done eating their snacks? Are they going to have someone stand in each theater during every showing to ensure people are following the rules? I highly doubt it.
Movie theaters are enclosed spaces. Something about being in a closed-off space for 90 minutes to 3 and a half hours doesn’t seem like the best environment for groups of people during a pandemic. I would actually feel more comfortable going to an outdoor screening or a drive-in than being in an enclosed space with so much still unknown about the virus. I know not enough of these types of theaters exist to make releasing Tenet worth it, so it won’t work for a film with this large of a budget, plus I am sure piracy would be a major issue and concern for WB.
Now, to play devil’s advocate, I can fully admit I have been putting myself at risk every single day since this whole pandemic started by going out in public and delivering groceries to people I don’t know. I have been going into stores several times a week, and continue to encounter people not following the rules. I’ve also attended a few Black Lives Matter protests where I was surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of people. So, if I already put myself out there, why wouldn’t I want to risk it to do something I wanted to do for fun? My answer is that I see going to the movies as a source of entertainment and fun. It is not essential, as much as that pains me to say. I am not going to protests or working for enjoyment. I am doing it because I need to. I need to fight for equality and black lives. I need to work because I need to keep a roof over my head and take care of my family. I don’t need to go to a movie even if I want to so badly. That is my dilemma, but also the harsh reality of going to see a movie in a public arena.
As for the whole debate over whether or not Tenet should open on July 17, 2020, that keeps coming up every few days, I would argue that, no, the film should absolutely not open that soon. My good friend Erick Weber has been championing this film, almost like he is a PR rep for Christopher Nolan or WB at this point. I understand his love for cinema and passion for seeing this film, but I honestly don’t believe releasing this film in about a month from now would be a wise decision on Warners’ part on many levels.
The first is simply the fact that there has not been nearly enough marketing behind the film for enough people outside of the entertainment industry or Film Twitter to know about it and make the movie a huge hit. I think it would be incredibly foolish for the folks at WB to believe Nolan’s name, alone, can sell this movie during a pandemic. I believe that, in and of itself, is a risk.
It is also safe to say that at this very moment, who knows when the rest of the movie theaters across the country and the world are going to open and to what capacity. Films like Tenet need a huge box office return not just here, but throughout the country and overseas as well. How are people in countries where the Coronavirus hasn’t yet hit going to see this film if it happens to strike between now and July 17? And what if cases begin to spike more within the states that have reopened and need to be shut down again? These are all unknowns and additional risks.
Releasing an original film that hasn’t had enough marketing is troubling enough, but when you release a movie with a $205 million budget and you have no idea what is going to happen given the current state of the world, how can you take a gamble like that? If you don’t want to think solely about the Coronavirus, how about the impact of the protests around the world? The High Note started gaining some buzz during the week of its scheduled release, but as soon as the protests began, all the buzz around the film faded, and that was an in-home VOD release. Now, I think Focus Features did the right thing by canceling all the events centered around the film, especially since the protests were much more important, but still, that was unexpected, and I am sure didn’t bode well for the film financially.
And honestly, why would any studio want to take a $205 million gamble anyway? Especially WB. I love Warner Brothers, and I love my PR family there. I honestly do, and I want to see them succeed, but The Way Back and Birds of Prey didn’t exactly rake in a ton of money. The same can be said for many of their films last year. I enjoyed Blinded by the Light, Motherless Brooklyn, and Richard Jewell, but all of them failed to find an audience and make back their budget. I don’t know why WB would want to use a $205 million movie as a guinea pig during these unpredictable times. I know they have some agreement with Nolan about him getting a percentage of the profit, but I would think that even he would want the film to succeed and be a hit for WB, so I honestly don’t get why this still even a topic of conversation at this point. All other studios have moved the majority of their slate to the fall or 2021 to err on the side of caution.
Now, I am sure some of my film-loving friends are saying, “Scott, there is no vaccine yet, and there isn’t going to be one for at least six months to a year.” I know that, and I don’t want to wait a year to go to a movie theater either, so I feel your pain. I also know that Hollywood relies on people going to the movies and that for theaters to survive, they need to start getting butts back in those seats sooner rather than later.
Here are of my few suggestions:
1. Studios need to slowly start marketing their smaller to mid-sized releases to get people back into movie theaters. No, Unhinged is not the solution. Let’s be real; only a few people are going to go to a movie theater to watch a movie about an angry white man during times like this except maybe those who have no clue what is going on in the world or honestly believe that Donald Trump is our lord and savior. Sorry, Russell Crowe, but the timing for your movie isn’t the best. What I do think could work is a film like Candyman or Bill and Ted Face the Music, where the budget isn’t all that high, and they can spend a little money to market it before release. Movies like this would be easy to recoup any losses from VOD or Blu-ray sales if it fails to attract audiences into a theater.
2. Release something that already has been marketed and that a large chunk of the press has already seen. Films like A Quiet Place 2 and Mulan already had screenings and junkets. Use these two films, which already had traditional marketing campaigns, interviews, social media buzz, and strong word of mouth to build hype. On top of that, add some additional marketing money to create audience interest again that will make them go to a theater without as much of an effort.
3. Studios, if you are going to take a risk, make it a safer one by releasing something that already has a built-in audience. I’m talking about films like Top Gun: Maverick, Black Widow, Fast 9, and Wonder Woman 1984. These are movies that box office projections were already high, and people all across the world know about because they are well known established entities. Most of these are also spin-offs, sequels, or prequels. They have a built-in audience already and are easier sells to the general public since they are already familiar with the films and characters.
4. Give it a few more weeks/months. Since only a handful of states have opened and you don’t know what’s going to happen for the next few weeks, simply give it more time. Let people go out to eat more and see how comfortable they feel at restaurants and bars. Let word of mouth build that things are ok and if things start looking up, start marketing a few select films that you know are good and will get people back into theaters.