'Tenet' is Struggling at the Box Office and Theaters Are Worried

Christopher Nolan movies are supposed to make money...

Movie theaters opened across the US and the globe. They were supposed to be a sign that our economy was ready to reopen and theaters would be okay.

But they are far from it. 

While only around 70% of theaters are open in the United States, this past weekend, Tenet only earned $6.7 million at the box office in the United States. That's down 29% from the week prior when it only had $9.5 million taken in. 

According to Box Office Mojo, here are the totals as of right now: 

  • DOMESTIC (14.3%): $29,500,000
  • INTERNATIONAL (85.7%): $177,500,000
  • WORLDWIDE: $207,000,000

Obviously, these numbers are okay, but with Tenet's budget estimated to be around $200 million, and that's not even counting marketing, it looks nearly impossible for Warner Bros. to turn a profit on this original science fiction movie. 

John David Washington and Christopher Nolan on the set of 'Tenet'
John David Washington and Christopher Nolan on the set of 'Tenet'

Look, while many top-grossing locations in New York and Los Angeles remain closed, these numbers are still very depressing. 

Theaters and the people who run them are suffering massive losses. Those losses are felt not only in jobs for people (high fives to anyone who has ever worked at a movie theater) but also the very idea of having theaters not run by Hollywood studios. 

On top of that is the constant battle we are fighting to have original stories with actual scope and scale. Tenet was a Christopher Nolan movie, it should have done gangbusters, but it was instead relegated to a subpar turnout.

That could dissuade studios from taking chances on less famous writers and directors.  

On the other side of this coin, we know that Mulan made a ton of money on its digital release while struggling in international theaters, especially in China. 

Warner Bros. and Nolan were so determined to release Tenet in theaters, it is maddening they didn't even consider a simultaneous release on digital. You have to think the movie would have had an insanely profitable run. It's a PG-13 actioner with recognizable stars and the most famous director working right now. 


So what happens next? 

You have to think Warner Bros. will explore releasing Tenet online, while also leaving it in theaters as long as it still makes money. But for the future of Hollywood, it looks like movies are really hamstrung by coronavirus, limited capacity, and public fear. 

Will studios sell off titles to Netflix or Apple? 

Will they make them available for digital download instead of even attempting theaters? 

And how long will these huge theater chains be able to remain open if no one is filling the seats? 

There are no clear answers, but I think we're going to see studios begin to dump smaller titles into streaming and move huge titles like Wonder Woman 1984 deep into next year. If a studio wanted to get ahead, I say take a page from Disney and release it online ASAP. Especially if you have family titles. 

People are dying for things to watch and paying $20-30 to do so.  

Got predictions? 

Let us know in the comments.      

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Your Comment


I wanted to see Tenet at the local teather. But I find a burden to spend 2 hours+ with a mask on my face to a place I use to go to be entertained/relaxed! I'll wait for digital release. Besides, I'm thinking to buy a new HDR, 4k, lager TV. They look better everyday.

September 14, 2020 at 1:43AM

Javier Diez

I would love to see Tennet but I go to the cinema to relax not think about when the seat was last cleaned, how shit the air conn is, do I wear a mask / do I not, oh here comes the riff raff to talk through another film, oh look that mark on the screen is still there etc etc

Here in the UK the whole process feels more and more extortionate nowadays and I personally would rather stream it anyway.

I love the cinema I don't want to see it die but the big cinema chains are not doing much to help themselves either

September 14, 2020 at 1:53AM


I will see TENET when it's $4.99 for renting. If that doesn't pay for the budget+marketing, well, make the film for 4 times cheaper. Particularly for Tenet, they could have restrained shooting in 6-7 different countries, or shooting on IMAX (and yes, I know how Nolan doesn't even want to hear the word "digital"). Memento was shot for $14mil (in today's dollars) and it's a film that (apparently) connects with the audience much better than the all-spectacle, no-intelligible audio Tenet.

September 14, 2020 at 2:32AM, Edited September 14, 2:36AM

Eugenia Loli
Filmmaker, illustrator, collage artist

Nolan departed into Nolan-Land some time ago. His undecipherable soundmixes are the result of his hubris, he really thinks of the voice track as kind of an ambient sound he may drown below the music. Completely nuts. His last few movies were garbage and I guess Tenet will be no difference.

September 14, 2020 at 5:47AM


Tenet would make much more entries if it was a good movie. But, being a Christopher Nolan fan, a SF fan, and a spy movie fan, I can tell you it is not. My 16€ ticket for seeing Tenet on Imax was definately not worth it. This could lead us to talk about how pricey movie tickets have become in some movie theaters. Don't you think this could play a role in keeping people at home viewing streaming, when they'd pay 4€ for the whole family, instead of 46€ ? Wait...what ? Did they just have me pay 46€ for 3 tickets ?!!

September 14, 2020 at 6:34AM, Edited September 14, 6:39AM


As a fan of movies where I can't hear the dialog, and that are full of exposition to the point of boredom, I loved it (heavy sarcasm).

September 15, 2020 at 5:38AM


I saw it in the cinema at like 11 at night when there was literally no one there and loved it.
I then sneakily watched a little bit at the drive-in, i was supposed to be in the other lot sponge-bob but I was thirsty.
Loved it and would easily pay $30 to own it on digital right now, just do it Nolan.

September 14, 2020 at 7:35AM, Edited September 14, 7:37AM


I'm a film fanatic and thought I loved the cinema but I've been quite surprised to find that the experience of going out to watch a film is way down on my list of social events that I'm missing, in fact I'd go as far to say that I haven't missed it at all. And I don't think it's just the fact that it still seems risky to sit in a room with a group of mask/popcorn nosebag, wearing strangers for 2 hours. After all my friend went to watch Tenet last week and was alone in the theatre so it can be quite safe.

I think what's happened is that the enforced break from the cinema has caused me to simply let go of something which was already on its way out. In truth things had changed, even before Corona. Screens have shrunk over the years and are so often creased or marked. Digital projection is often badly up-rezzed and soft. The sound bleeds through from the movie playing next door and the choice of non-franchise comic book movies has dwindled. I saw 'The Lighthouse' at my local cinema last year and it was cropped off at the wrong aspect ratio and turned into green and white by the over zealous fire exit lights.

The only real draw the cinema has left for most people is a false one - The availability of new releases. Once studios begin to realise they can inflate the price of a digital premiere release and make the same or likely even more money than their cut at the cinema, that remaining unique feature will surely no longer be worth protecting.

We can watch more or less anything we want whenever and wherever we want and I can't help feeling that this enforced break has made the cinema seem as obsolete as an Internet cafe. "Damn honey, the pandemic closed down the building where we go to watch movies, what the hell are we going to do now?!." Click. Netflix/iTunes/Amazon logo appears on TV screen and hundreds of movies begin to tile across it. (I still haven't touched the back wall of the Netflix cave, it feels like a full time job some nights.)

When a habit or way of thinking isn't used for a while we tend to loose it. There's a gap that becomes filled with another habit and I'm afraid that might be happening to me. I can feel the cinema synapse, slowly closing down and growing over no matter how much Nolan tries to wedge it open with his clumsy, 70mm IMAX forceps.

And if a total film fanatic like myself is thinking like this, will people who don't care about the medium, really get into their cars and drive to "the building where they show the movies" once it's safe to go back?

I think I will be heart broken, to see cinema's disappear but the pandemic may not spare this particular elderly and infirm institution, I hope I am very wrong.

R.I.P dear multiplex, I will never forget you. Click. Netflix logo appears.

September 14, 2020 at 8:44AM, Edited September 14, 8:52AM

Paul fern
Film maker

They say "pride goeth before the fall". Only wanting this as a theatrical movie/debut in the current state of the world, instead of streaming/DL or even both, was very shortsighted. Not only is a large portion of the population still unwilling to go to the theater, but a lot cities/states are still not even allowing theaters to open. And I don't want to sit in a theater for ~2 hours wearing a mask or constantly moving it as I eat popcorn and drink my drink. I have 120" 4K projection and 5.1 in my den. Offer this for ~$20 for a 4K stream/DL and I'd probably rent it.

September 14, 2020 at 9:12AM


To give credit where it's due, all the theaters around me are doing as much as they can to minimize risk while staying open. However, I simply don't trust other moviegoers to actually abide by the rules. These are the same people who talk and text during movies despite the giant message on the screen asking them not to; am I meant to believe they'll all keep their masks on for 2-3 hours, in the dark where nobody else can see? All it takes is one fool breathing on me to negate all the precautions in place.

September 14, 2020 at 1:09PM, Edited September 14, 1:09PM


Not worth it. To risk your life. Priorities have shifted. It will take decades to undo this.

September 14, 2020 at 5:32PM

Sketkh Williams

WB hasn’t even begun to make money on Tenet. First, NY, LA and DC theaters are closed (probably other large cities I can't recall offhand, is Chicago open?) and Tenet has no real competition until Black Widow opens on Nov 6 (assuming it doesn’t move, which it very well might). Second they will make a killing in PVOD, digital and even Blu Ray sales (the first two of which are profit rich, especially the second), foreign is just getting started, then you have cable rights, network TV rights (domestic and foreign), in flight and hotel rights, etc. They will be goosing this movie for another 18 months, at least.

I understand the desire to Monday morning quarterback, especially in a pandemic where biz decisions can further viral spread, but this was a calculated risk (knowing foreign would be a lot of the gross + Nolan's love of theatrical exhibition). This is a tax write-off for theater chains and it will get some butts back in seats (and some theater workers a paycheck).

September 14, 2020 at 6:04PM

Alan Page

Theaters are going to have to up their game just like they did years ago to compete with television.

September 14, 2020 at 6:31PM


As long as I can simulate an IMAX field-of-view by sitting too-close to my 4K TV, I'm not risking a viral infection that could kill someone I come into contact with, if not myself.

September 15, 2020 at 5:38AM


More and more people are willing to watch big-screen movies on their tablets and laptops. it may not be what the filmmakers had intended but eyeballs are getting to the content!

Maybe it is time to take a look at the numbers and just like any business start the painful but necessary adjustments to their trajectory. No business has ever survived betting against the customer base - Cough... Nokia!

September 16, 2020 at 9:29AM


So sad to see comments of people, mostly filmmakers that are preferring to see the films on the small screen. TENET is such a great film and it has also all the elements to be watched in the cinemas. I understand there is the COVID issue now, so hope Warner keeps the film in the cinema for a while until people feel safer to go, but GO!

September 16, 2020 at 12:55PM