Long Range Box Office Forecast: Christopher Nolan’s Tenet

When last this column was published on a regular basis, we had the unfortunate distinction of reporting delayed release dates for major films in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a much happier turn of events for the industry and movie lovers everywhere, though, theaters are resuming operations and we’re back with the first long range forecast in over five months.

The Long and Winding Road… to Tenet

Regular readers likely remember this column would typically focus major wide releases eight weeks out on the calendar, as well as updated forecasts and tracking for other major titles throughout that window. For reasons which seem fairly obvious, but ones this report will break down a bit more, the structure of the column will be temporarily different until we reach a point on the calendar where at least one major wide release is slated on any given weekend.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll also be narrowing the inclusion of films in this public forecast to those scheduled roughly one month out as forecasting models continue to adapt during exhibition’s reopening phases. This week, we’re focusing on the imminent launch of the movie seemingly everyone has speculated and opined about all summer long.

That film, of course, is Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.

His latest original blockbuster is just beginning its international release as we speak, and will soon hit domestic theaters with special sneak previews on August 31, September 1, and September 2 before going into wide release on September 3 in markets deemed safe. We’ll have full daily and weekly coverage and reports on earnings when they are confirmed by the studio and/or reliable sources.

The State of the Market

That phrase “deemed safe” is an important element to factor into any forecast for Tenet and films slated for release in the near future. Entering the weekend of August 28, approximately 62 percent of theaters in the total grossing market are open domestically, and that excludes major states like California and New York alongside New Jersey, parts of Arizona, North Carolina, Michigan, Maryland, and New Mexico. Metro area theaters like Seattle, Miami, Portland, and Philadelphia also remain closed.

With that in mind, early pre-sales trends for Tenet have been very encouraging since they began last week. Viewed alongside the positive trends from overseas markets, domestic audience demand for a big new release in cinemas is driving hope for Nolan’s film to wash over the market in a very unique way.

For months, the common expectation has been that moviegoers will return to theaters in waves. Those most eager to return will show up within the opening days and weeks, while others more cautious (or those simply not near an open theater yet) will wait out the initial reopening and come back sometime further down the line.

That has been the throughline and the reasoning behind Tenet‘s constant status as the linchpin for exhibition’s reboot. Theaters need new product to bring audiences back, and as delays mounted throughout the summer, so did the wait for Nolan and Warner Bros.’ highly anticipated release.

As the restart has shown a slow-and-steady return of patrons during the first week so far, it’s clear that there are a number of scenarios we could see play out when Tenet hits.

Nolan’s Box Office History

Earlier this summer, we looked back at the track record of the filmmaker and his impact on popular cinema. Now, we can finally dive into the numbers a bit more and — hopefully — glean some meaning for Tenet‘s prospects.

Under normal circumstances, it’s likely the film would be readying for a traditional weekend release that would register north of $50 million domestically. The average debut weekend of Nolan’s last three original films (Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk) is $53.6 million. At $62.8 million, the former of that trio is the highest — and probably the most relevant comparison to Tenet given the global scale and action/espionage genre commonalities.

These aren’t normal circumstances, though. With some major markets yet to turn the lights back on, seating capacities limited by social distancing, a mid-week release strategy, and the variable element of how quickly consumers will return to theaters, we cannot expect the kind of opening this film would have ordinarily had — and we certainly will not be able to judge the success of its debut on opening weekend alone.

Staying Power: Before and During COVID-19

In fact, it may be weeks or months before we can fully contextualize whatever Tenet achieves at the box office. Nolan’s films are historically leggy to begin with, despite his own fan following that tend to show up in the early days, achieving an average domestic multiplier of 4.13x from opening weekend earnings.

That figure is well above the average of most tentpoles (especially franchise films), and is probably just a base line for how long Tenet‘s runway ends up being. The film is locked in to IMAX and premium screens for at least a month before Wonder Woman 1984 is scheduled to open in early October, and even then, only a handful of films are slated for wide release between Tenet‘s September 3 nationwide roll-out and the November 6 launch of Disney / Marvel’s Black Widow. That’s two months of wide open market space.

Already, theater owners are booking Tenet on as many screen as necessary to accommodate social distancing and demand for the movie itself. Sell-outs (particularly in IMAX and premium formats) are being reported for the film’s preview shows as fans scoop up tickets for the sneak previews and beyond.

Our parent company’s Showtimes Dashboard reports that Tenet accounts for 41 percent of booked films between Monday, August 31 and Sunday, September 6 — Tenet‘s first full week domestically. That’s more than the next four films — The New Mutants (19 percent), Unhinged (10 percent), The Personal History of David Copperfield (7 percent), and Words on Bathroom Walls (4 percent) — combined.

Clearly, and understandably, theater owners are prepared in case Tenet over-indexes as the first tentpole release in over seven months and draws significantly higher attendance than conservative models predict may be the case at first. Capacity in larger theaters shouldn’t be an issue (even with social distancing), and nor will be the need for the film to keep those screens and showtimes if a more staggered return is adopted by moviegoers throughout the fall.

Essentially, the advantage here is that Tenet doesn’t need to bow at anything resembling traditional blockbuster numbers. Slow and steady wins the race, and Warner Bros. has worked closely with theaters to ensure the film has every chance — and as much time as it needs — to succeed.

Opening Week Scenarios

Based on continuously adaptive models that strive to account for market availability and fluid consumer sentiment, we’re currently forecasting Tenet will exceed $25 million by the end of its first domestic weekend (September 6). With unconfirmed reports that Canada’s results from the August 28 weekend will be rolled into the United States numbers at some point next week, it’s likely that figure could go even higher.

Factoring in the non-traditional Thursday wide release, the above target would likely translate to a Friday-Sunday weekend between $15 million and $20 million. More bullish modelling and active pre-sales observations, however, suggest the overall seven-day figure (Monday through Sunday) could approach $35 million. That would include a projected three-day weekend around $25 million. (We’ll be revisiting these projections with next week’s Weekend Forecast column.)

In all cases above, a strong Sunday performance is accounted for given Labor Day will land on Monday, September 7. From Thursday, September 3 onward, we are projecting at least 2,400 domestic theaters will screen the film. It’s possible that estimate will increase as major chains aim for a third wave of re-openings in time for Tenet‘s holiday weekend showcase.

Long-Term Perspectives

If opening week and weekend are challenging to forecast in the era of COVID-19, the picture becomes even less transparent when discussing Tenet‘s long term playability.

First and foremost, word of mouth will be a key factor — for the film itself, and the experience of moviegoers as they visit cinemas for the first time. The industry has adopted and enforced a number of health and safety protocols, and it will be important for early returnees to spread the good word about feeling safe in theaters to their friends and family.

As for the movie itself, critics’ reviews are generally in line with some of Nolan’s most popular films, so the safe assumption is that Tenet will be another in his library of films which draws repeat viewings and, hopefully, interest from those who aren’t frequent moviegoers.

From there, and with the earlier notes in mind regarding minimal competition and Nolan’s staying power, we can start to see how Tenet can open well (in relative terms) and still end up playing like the super leggy blockbusters of old. It may not be a year-long run like those of Star Wars or Back to the Future… but never say never, these days.

Even with Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Widow in mind for October and November, it’s a safe bet that Tenet will still be playing in theaters come the final two months of the year. That would give it 17 weeks by the end of December, and that’s still considering No Time to Die and Dune will target similar audiences with their respective holiday corridor releases should they stick (as well as Pixar’s Soul, which will further target available premium screens).

For perspective, the shortest run by any of Nolan’s three original films post-Dark Knight was Dunkirk at 18 weeks. Interstellar ran for 20, while Inception was king of the crop with 25 weeks during its original 2010 run. Non-Nolan comparison points here should also include fall prestige titles like The Martian (24 weeks) and Gravity (31 weeks). In fact, given Tenet‘s newfound home in September, it’s arguably more of a fall tentpole the likes of those latter two films than a summer one as was originally intended.

So long as the industry doesn’t experience more significant setbacks due to the virus, we can somewhat safely presume a theatrical tail of at least 20 weeks for Tenet — perhaps closer to Gravity‘s 31 weeks if the film draws a high rate of repeat viewings and/or significant award season buzz, which will extend further into 2021 than usual. And while we hope for the best and no more major titles leave 2020, any delay of a major film in October, November, or even December would extend Tenet‘s box office life span to some extent as well.

Not to be forgotten in all of the math: those markets which have yet to open. New York and California, especially, could provide measurable boosts to theatrical — and Tenet‘s, by extension — attendance at some point in the coming weeks.

Week-to-Week Scenarios

From there, we can look at how similar films have performed week to week. Through its first seven weeks, Inception dropped an average of just 36 percent with every seven-day period. As fall and early winter releases boosted by award seasons and holidays, Gravity (32 percent), Interstellar (29 percent), and The Martian (29 percent) fared even better.

When expanding out to a full 25 weeks, the outlook is even stronger. Adjusting for theater expansions and other variables, the average drop of those four films over the course of 25 weeks was just 27 percent. And again, those were all during times of normal movie-going patterns and the nature of front-loaded performance trends.

Given the nature of films to experience stronger holds the later they are into their runs, that means Tenet could get ahead of the curve for the first few weeks if it meets the expectation of not opening to the same kinds of upfront numbers as those other hit films. With all of the reasoning mentioned here, that seems more than achievable.

With that said, if the film can reach our current forecasts for the opening seven days in North America, even an average week-to-week drop of 20 percent through the end of December would still get the film pretty close to Dunkirk and Interstellar‘s original runs of $188 million each. A five percent improvement to an average 15 percent weekly drop would push Tenet north of $210 million stateside.

A multitude of scenarios exist, and this only covers the domestic market for a film that indisputably should be (and is) viewed as global player. 64 percent of Dunkirk‘s global gross in 2017 was earned overseas, versus 66 percent for Inception a full decade ago. With China a much more significant player now, it’s conceivable that close to 70 percent of Tenet‘s earnings will come from outside North America. This is why the international market was so crucial in the studio’s decision to launch the film when overseas theatrical markets were operating and ready for new product before the United States was.

Based on similar modeling leading the film to a potential $200 million-plus domestic gross, that would translate to at least $700 million globally — a figure that may seem to hard to fathom after months of human tragedy, economic turmoil, quarantine and general doom and gloom. But, perhaps for those very reasons, it is an achievable goal as the first major film to welcome audiences back .

These forecasts are volatile by nature, and it’s easy to argue that they don’t represent the worst or even the best case scenarios. As we’ve all learned throughout the course of 2020, though, nothing is guaranteed. Theaters are open, though. While, understandably, not everyone will come back at the same time, many people are ready to (safely) leave the real world behind for a few hours of entertainment and escapism — and Tenet‘s time has come.

This Week’s Release Calendar Updates

  • The Broken Hearts Gallery (Sony / Columbia) has been re-dated for September 11, 2020 (previously unset).

  • Kajillionaire (Focus Features) has been re-dated for limited release on September 25, 2020 (previously September 18).

  • The King’s Man (Disney / 20th Century Studios) has been re-scheduled for February 26, 2021 (formerly September 18, 2020).

  • Nomadland (Disney / Searchlight Studios) has been dated for December 4, 2020 (limited release).

Long Range Forecast / 8-Week Wide Release Calendar

Release Date Title 3-Day (FSS) Opening Range % Chg from Last Week Domestic Total Range % Chg from Last Week Estimated Location Count Distributor
8/31/2020 Tenet $15,000,000 – $35,000,000 NEW $150,000,000 – $300,000,000 NEW 2,400+ Warner Bros.
9/11/2020 The Broken Hearts Gallery $3,000,000 – $8,000,000 NEW $15,000,000 – $35,000,000 NEW   Sony / Columbia
9/18/2020 Infidel         1,800 Cloudburst Entertainment
9/25/2020 Greenland $5,000,000 – $10,000,000 NEW $20,000,000 – $40,000,000 NEW   STX
10/2/2020 Wonder Woman 1984           Warner Bros.
10/9/2020 Honest Thief           Open Road
10/9/2020 The War with Grandpa           101 Studios
10/16/2020 2 Hearts           Freestyle Releasing
10/16/2020 Candyman (2020)           Universal
10/16/2020 The Courier           Roadside Attractions
10/23/2020 Connected           Sony / Columbia
10/23/2020 Death on the Nile (2020)           20th Century Studios
10/23/2020 Snake Eyes           Paramount

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