Tenet is just a pawn in a much bigger game

Christopher Nolan's blockbuster is about the future of Hollywood now

A new Christopher Nolan film is an "event." It's something that gets speculated about years before it's confirmed. Full articles are written about it even when "nothing else is known" aside from that it's happening. It gets a Fortnite event. It certainly gets a firm release date.

Had a microscopic virus never mutated into a highly-contagious, deadly, and human-transmissible form, we would all be watching Tenet this evening, on its original release date of July 17. As it happens instead, the movie has warped from being an exciting new puzzle box by the Inception director into being a desperate and absurd example of the flailing of the entertainment industry in the face of the pandemic. More compelling at this point than whatever the movie turns out to be about is how Warner Bros. ends up handling it — a decision that has implications far beyond the film itself.

When the first trailers for Tenet dropped in December (punctuated at the end by the reverse-reveal of the promised release date: 7.17.20), they teased a return to form for Nolan, whose most recent film was the World War II epic Dunkirk in 2017. Viewers joked that they didn't have any better understanding of what Tenet was going to be about after seeing the trailer than they did before, a bizarre marketing choice that could only be pulled off successfully by a Nolan joint. The film, which stars John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki, apparently has something to do with time travel, or maybe not, or possibly international espionage, or maybe preventing a third World War? But then came the pandemic and the closed theaters, followed by the domino-fall of studio tent poles as they caved to the inevitability of delaying their releases: the new James Bond pushed from April to November, Fast & Furious 9 bumped back to 2021.

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Tenet, though, stubbornly held on. Even as the calendar cleared, Warner Bros. appeared to be making a point by refusing to budge on the midsummer premiere. When the worst of the pandemic seemed to lift by late May and early June — what we now have the hindsight to see was only the eye of the storm — it appeared for a moment like the studio's gamble was going to pay off. With other big-budget films shelved, Tenet became the entire hope of Tinseltown. Yes, there was still uncertainty (seven weeks out from the release date, a new Tenet trailer dropped, suspiciously without mention of a release date this time) but also confidence. "Hollywood couldn't have scripted a better potential comeback story for the movie theater industry," The Los Angeles Times wrote on May 22. The idea was, the film would premiere, it would be successful, and it would open the movie-going floodgates once more.

But then as summer neared and theaters appeared no closer to reopening, Tenet accepted the inevitable and delayed. Only, not by much: The film was pushed back a mere two weeks to July 31, as if it would take only 14 days for it to magically be safe to go to theaters again. Sure enough, a few weeks later the movie was delayed a second time, to August 12, where it holds at the time of writing. But having delayed the movie by such short amounts of time twice now reveals Warner's hand: that their aims extend beyond the peachy optimism that theaters will reopen soon. Wonder Woman 1984, after all — also a Warner Bros. film — was pushed back to October without quite the same visible hand-wringing. The studio, then, appears utterly determined to get Tenet in particular into theaters at the soonest possible chance.

But why?

It can't be a question of money, though Tenet is Nolan's most expensive film yet with a budget of over $200 million. If it was only about the film's ticket sales — the film needs to "gross $800 million worldwide in order to break even in theaters," Indiewire reports — then Tenet would surely follow probable box office hits like James Bond, Fast & Furious 9, the live-action Mulan, and Wonder Woman 1984 by choosing a safer release date.

No, this is, without a doubt, because of Nolan specifically.

As a director, Nolan has carved out a reputation as being the dark knight (if you will) of film, combating uninspired scripts and digital cameras. While he's made superhero movies, he did them far more artistically than everybody else had before him; he famously shoots on film, plays with aspect ratios, prefers practical effects, adores IMAX. Most of all, he believes firmly in the theatrical experience, writing for The Washington Post in March that "the past few weeks have been a reminder, if we needed one, that there are parts of life that are far more important than going to the movies. But, when you consider what theaters provide, maybe not so many as you might think." As Shawn Robbins, the chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro, put it to the Los Angeles Times: "He is Mr. Cinema. I don't think there's a bigger advocate for seeing movies in a theater." Especially revealing was a Chris Lee article in Vulture this week that noted "Nolan and Warner executives discussed releasing [Tenet] internationally ahead of the North American rollout," with Nolan balking at the idea of abandoning American theaters in their time of need.

Nolan, for his part, has waved off the idea that he's here to save the movies. "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," he told Entertainment Weekly. Still, while there's a noble ambition to trying to save the theatrical experience, it isn't, and could never be, a one man job. And at this point, many studios have clearly moved on from waiting to see what happens with Nolan's noble Tenet experiment, pursuing VOD options or tossing in the towel until next year.

Analysts are now predicting that Tenet will be soon delayed again — the question will be, until when this time? There's an argument to be made that against Nolan's wishes, the best thing for the cinema would be to release it online. Reopening theaters won't be a unified event, in any case: likely only pockets of theaters will reopen as the pandemic gets under control regionally (when it gets under control), which would of course drain all the mystique out of a movie as shrouded in secrecy as Tenet.

But by having a major blockbuster for fans to rally around at a time when all the other big-budget films have pulled up the stakes — perhaps there's something to be gained in that, even if it's a digital-only release? It's as Nolan himself has written: "In uncertain times, there is no more comforting thought than that we're all in this together."

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at TheWeek.com. She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.