When discussing the collapse of an ecosystem, scientists like to use an airplane metaphor. The extinction of any given species is like removing a rivet from the plane: one or two here or there makes little difference, but keep removing the rivets and before you know it, the plane is in a nosedive.
The collapse of theatrical moviegoing during the pandemic could borrow the same metaphor: the loss of a Scoob! here and an Artemis Fowl there probably didn't hurt much as studios bumped releases to next year or moved them to on-demand streaming. But Tenet was the last rivet holding the plane together, and it just caused the wing to fall off.
Billed as the movie that would save theaters, Christopher Nolan's end-of-summer puzzle box was supposed to bring American audiences flocking back to multiplexes. While about 70 percent of theaters were open in the U.S. in early September, the money-making markets of New York and Los Angeles remained closed, and Tenet made just $9.4 million in the U.S. over Labor Day weekend — a drop in the bucket of the $400-million-plus it needs to break even.
Worse still, Tenet's poor domestic opening gave other studios the jitters. Warner Bros.'s Wonder Woman 1984 subsequently got bumped to Christmas; Universal delayed its highly-anticipated Candyman to 2021; Marvel's Black Widow likewise fled for the greener pastures of next year. Plink, plink, plink go the rivets, with MGM's No Time to Die, rescheduled from Nov. 20 to April 2021 on Friday, being the latest to plummet earthward.
Now the fall movie release calendar is nearly empty (Pixar's Soul remains set for November at the time of writing, but The Wrap anticipates it will be delayed as well). What's more, Indiewire reported that "the average [theater] complex grossed under $5,000 (before concessions)" in mid-September, meaning theaters' operating costs were actually exceeding what they were making by being open. "If the status quo continues, 69 percent of small and midsize movie theater companies will be forced to file for bankruptcy or to close permanently," the National Association of Theatre Owners reports.
Sure enough, Cineworld — the second-largest theater operator in the world — announced Monday that it is once again suspending operations at nearly 550 Regal Cinemas locations in the U.S., and at over 100 more in the U.K. and Ireland. It might seem unfair to blame this development on Tenet alone; it's the unfortunate nature of the industry to be so vulnerable to a pandemic, and there were lots of rivets. But theatrical moviegoing is in a death spiral, and let's face it: the ground is getting real close.