Weekend Box Office Forecast: What Tenet Might Have Made Last Weekend, & What It May Make In Its Second Frame

Photo Credits: Hoyte van Hoytema & Warner Bros. ("Tenet"), dir. Christopher Nolan

The box office restart continues this weekend with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet expected to remain the top draw in a domestic market still below full operational capacity. Meanwhile, Sony will open TriStar’s The Broken Hearts Gallery, a romantic comedy aiming for the young female audience as fall movie season (such as it is) begins in the post-Labor Day corridor.

Putting Tenet Into Perspective

Warner Bros.’ much-discussed film remains a lifeline for exhibition around the world, having opened to $152.3 million globally through Monday. That includes a $20.2 million estimated domestic take through the same point, although the studio has yet to detail daily performances or specify how much of that figure was earned before its “true” North American opening weekend began last Friday.

While understandable from the studio’s perspective as they strive to protect the perception of the film’s incredibly unique rollout and minimize misconceptions, it throws a wrench into the usual ability to assess performance and forecast holdover business.

We do have some markers to help guesstimate that performance, though.

Prior to the United States release, with sneak previews beginning Monday, August 31, it has been unofficially estimated that Canada accounted for somewhere between $3 million and $4 million during Tenet‘s first weekend between August 28 and August 30 (some sources estimate slightly lower, though). The studio is remaining mum on whether or not that is included in their $20.2 million domestic cume, but Canada is traditionally counted with the United States as the overall “domestic” or “North American” market. Therefore, let us assume its inclusion.

That being said, the United States portion of that launch looks to have been somewhere between $16 million and slightly over $17 million through Labor Day. That still includes three days of sneak previews and Thursday’s nationwide opening, though. Based on projected data independently retrieved and compiled from observable pre-sales trends and off-record sources, we’re estimating that Monday-through-Thursday period to have generated somewhere between $5.5 million and $6 million.

Basic math, albeit in broad strokes, leads to the deduction that between $8.5 million and roughly $10 million of the studio’s released estimate was earned before Friday, September 4.

If this projection is correct, and if daily holds have been comparable to what would be expected from a Nolan film, Tenet essentially may have earned somewhere between $10 million and $12 million over the proper four-day domestic weekend.

These are big “ifs”, though.

While one dominant assumption has been that films might perform in wildly different ways as regional and market circumstances surrounding the pandemic skew moviegoing habits and patterns, there have been varying observations in the early weeks of the return to cinemas.

For example, the limited samples of new wide releases are generally experiencing day-to-day increases and declines not far off what we’d see during normal times. The notable exceptions, however, are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays to some degree. Amplifying the uncertainty of those comparisons is the staggered re-opening process from week-to-week.

Here’s where we go further down the rabbit hole.

If Tenet earned between $10 and $12 million over the four-day holiday weekend last week, that would roughly translate to a three-day weekend somewhere between $7.8 million and $9.5 million — again, based on historical daily drops and Labor Day weekend splits.

There are a few key reasons why Tenet could throw these and future projections for a loop:

  • NRG and NATO reported that only 30 percent of moviegoers were aware of theaters being open prior to Tenet‘s U.S. opening weekend. With the film dominating movie headlines over the past week, and word of mouth (both regarding the film and theaters themselves) slowly catching on among friends and families, that awareness should see consistent upticks in the days and weeks ahead.

  • IMAX and premium screens are dominant in Tenet‘s global performance, and those formats typically see stronger day-to-day and week-to-week domestic holding patterns than traditional auditoriums. Compounding on that historical trend could be that, even though the film is being given carte blanche in terms of showings and screens as needed to counter seating capacities, it’s conceivable that audiences will hold out for good available seats in the biggest and best auditoriums — especially if they realize they’ll have ample opportunity to catch the film in socially distanced theaters for the coming month(s).

  • Approximately 30 percent of the domestic market was closed last weekend (including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and others). These are examples of major areas and potential suburbs where Nolan’s films often perform best, but where the film either isn’t playing yet, people aren’t aware of it playing in a nearby open theater, and/or some consumers are simply waiting out the first wave of the reboot with intent to return to theaters at a later time.

  • Unlike Memorial Day, the Labor Day frame is historically not known as a major movie holiday. In fact, studios have largely avoided it on a year-to-year basis and used the final few weeks of summer movie season to allow holdovers their time in the sun (so to speak). Warner Bros. itself has found great success releasing high profile films and blockbusters the week *after* Labor Day in recent years, most notably It in 2017 and the sequel, It: Chapter Two, last year. Audiences have been programmed to *not* expect a big blockbuster release on what is often viewed as the final weekend to enjoy summer weather and vacation time before work and school resume.

There are certainly other factors to consider, but these shape the context of any projection right now. And while the importance of Los Angeles and New York is worth noting when discussing the film’s modest — but symbolically successful — debut, those markets combined still represent a minority of typical box office revenue for a wide release, mainstream film.

Combined, NATO reports that Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, account for between 13 percent and 18.5 percent of the average film’s domestic box office footprint. Unless Tenet would have sharply over-indexed in those and similarly closed markets (and that is well within the realm of possibility), they probably would have tacked on another $5 million to $10 million above the $20.2 million 11-day domestic start.

While every dollar counts right now, and those markets — as mentioned — should not be under-valued, they are not the sole reason for Tenet‘s more-modest-than-forecast domestic start. This is a complicated and transitional era where consumer awareness and comfort are just as important across the geographic board as the perception of major cities and their contribution to box office shares.

Just this week, Comscore cited that audiences are already driving an upward trend in that regard. AMC itself announced on Wednesday that the company had surpassed 1 million in attendance in the United States since re-opening on August 20 (and more than 4 million worldwide).

These realities underscore why there are no true comparisons, and more importantly, why we must separate forecasting and traditional metrics of success from the reality at hand. The industry, and its observers, must exercise patience in the days and weeks ahead to fully assess the market’s reaction and recovery pace anchored by the only major tentpole film in release until October (at the earliest).

What to Next Expect from Tenet

With everything above in mind, let’s use the projected three-day weekend range ($7.8 million to $9.5 million) as a jumping-off point. Let us also presume the film is experiencing comparable daily holds as the other films currently in play.

Unfortunately, there are no updates regarding how much more of the market will reopen this weekend, but there could be a jump in moviegoer awareness and comfort in those areas that are operating.

Tenet, like several past Nolan films, is a generally well-reviewed film with some divisive reactions that inspire either second viewings or a casual patron’s attraction to see it and form their own opinion. That, probably more than the possible advantage of newly opened theaters on this particular weekend, will be the key factor in the film’s second frame performance.

Although Tenet is an original film with a non-traditional release pattern, it is still a Nolan picture — a filmmaker with a fan base that was, to some degree, eager to see it during opening shows. From a box office standpoint, though, it’s possible much of that upfront demand was burned off between Monday and Thursday of last week. That could negate any “front-loaded” nature there might have otherwise been for a big-budget, hyped-up Nolan project.

That last point is exactly why Tenet could experience a healthy hold this weekend. While a Friday-through-Sunday tally of $10 million or less one week ago may not seem like much, there’s a fair expectation that — for the reasons outlined earlier — the film can far out-perform the second weekend decline of fellow Nolan film Dunkirk (47.3 percent), and potentially Interstellar (40.4 percent) and Inception (32 percent).

All three of those had traditional wide releases on a Friday, with Interstellar being a very slight exception due to earning $2.1 million ahead of its debut frame from limited IMAX screenings. Somewhat obviously, they also opened to much higher box office results in a far more compressed time frame. Again, this is the contrast between a mid-pandemic and a pre-pandemic movie release.

All told, its reasonable to expect a drop between 15 and 30 percent for Tenet this weekend, leading to a rough forecast of $5.8 million to $7.4 million. A performance at the higher end of that range, based on the extrapolations above, could position the film to cross $30 million domestically through Sunday. These are somewhat bearish projections, but also volatile given the limited amount of available data to date.

Again, these seem like drops in a bucket compared to normal box office earnings, but they could be the first major steps toward achieving the long-speculated staying power hoped for during the theatrical restart. Time will tell.

The Broken Hearts Gallery Debuts

Not to be forgotten this weekend is the release of Sony / TriStar’s romantic comedy, The Broken Hearts Gallery. This is another title that was shuffled down the release schedule multiple times over the summer in an effort to remain tied to the early days of cinema re-openings.

Gallery will primarily target young women in the teenage and young adult demographics, and it won’t be taking any premium screens away from the Nolan film. That means little-to-no crossover and an audience mostly to itself. That said, pre-sale and social media trends have been softer than those of Unhinged and New Mutants, the two previous studio films to open wide recently.

Our parent company’s Showtimes Dashboard reveals that Gallery currently claims 16 percent of exhibitor showings between Friday, September 11 and Thursday, September 17. Tenet remains the runaway leader with a 34 percent share, while New Mutants stands at 15 percent and Unhinged clocks in at 10 percent from the available sample sizes (approximately 2,000 theaters in each film’s case).

Sony notes Gallery will have early Thursday shows starting at 7 p.m. in around 1,800 theaters. The film’s core audience is back in school at this point, so weekend play and staying power in the weeks to come will be important to watch.

Estimated Location Counts

  • Tenet (2,810+; not confirmed by studio)
  • The New Mutants (2,704)
  • Unhinged (2,365)
  • The Personal History of David Copperfield (1,203)
  • Bill & Ted Face the Music (807)

Weekend Forecast Ranges

  • Tenet ($5.8 million – $7.4 million)
  • The Broken Hearts Gallery ($1 – 5 million)

Weekend Forecast

Film Distributor 3-Day Weekend Forecast Projected Domestic Total through Sunday, September 13 % Change from Last Wknd
Tenet Warner Bros. $5,800,000 – $7,400,000 $28,400,000 – $30,000,000 -30% to -11%
The Broken Hearts Gallery Sony / TriStar Pictures $2,000,000 $2,000,000 NEW
The New Mutants Disney / 20th Century Studios $1,800,000 $15,000,000 -41%
Unhinged Solstice Studios $1,200,000 $13,500,000 -33%
Bill & Ted Face the Music United Artists Releasing $400,000 $2,900,000 -48%
The Personal History of David Copperfield Disney / Searchlight Pictures $260,000 $1,470,000 -21%
Words on Bathroom Walls Roadside Attractions $200,000 $1,920,000 -27%

All forecasts subject to change before the first confirmation of weekend grosses.

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Photo Credits: Hoyte van Hoytema & Warner Bros. ("Tenet"), dir. Christopher Nolan