'Tenet’ Could Bring the Summer Blockbuster to Labor Day
After multiple delays since the initial planned release in July, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is finally hitting US screens, giving audiences one of the first major new releases since US theaters shut down due to COVID-19. How the film will perform has been a major box office story, as Tenet’s numbers are expected to be an early signal of how well the film industry and theaters might recover from the pandemic.

Reviews are mostly positive, with a critic's score currently at 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is the same range as Interstellar and The Prestige. Just as important as great word-of-mouth will be the reopening process for theaters around the country. AMC reports 70% of their theaters will be open, and across the board, capacity restrictions will limit how many people are allowed in each screening with typically 25% to 50% of seats available depending on local rules.

While all eyes are on Tenet’s debut, its second and third weekends may end up being just as important as its opening. At $74.6 million (adjusted for inflation), Inception was Nolan’s biggest domestic opening and overall gross for a non-Batman film; it is also the closest film in spirit with Tenet, as both are high concept, cerebral sci-fi action-thrillers that balance their mind-bending narratives with innovative visual spectacle. Inception did not see a drop above 40% until its 13th weekend. With no major competition on the schedule until Wonder Woman 1984 on October 2, Tenet has all of September to play relatively unchallenged, and a mid-sized but consistent audience over several months could still result in a blockbuster-level performance for this film.

Being the first major new release since US theaters shut down may not be Tenet’s only box office legacy. While it is likely to be Nolan’s lowest opening since The Prestige’s $14.8 million bow in 2006—with all of his subsequent films opening to at least three times that number—it has a chance of breaking the Labor Day weekend record. The holiday weekend is typically a low-grossing end to the summer season, so Tenet’s shift there is just one of the year’s many improbabilities. As the start of the blockbuster season rather than the end of it and a rare tentpole Labor Day weekend opening, Tenet has a shot at beating the record of $30.6 million ($41.7 million adjusted for inflation) for the four-day weekend set by Halloween in 2007. We also expect that it will give Robert Pattinson his highest post-Twilight opening, as it is the first wide release for the actor since the vampire saga ended.

Beyond domestic performance, Tenet’s numbers in China may provide a boost when it opens there on Friday. It will face the local war epic The Eight Hundred, which has become this summer's biggest blockbuster, grossing over $275 million in China alone. This bodes well for Tenet’s fortunes in China, though The Eight Hundred also gives Tenet some tougher competition than it faces in other regions. How Tenet holds in the territories it already opened, where it racked up $53 million last weekend, is a big story as well, as it may give us a hint at its domestic future.

Tenet is taking up most of the conversation this weekend, but there are some other films coming into play. Warner Bros. is paying tribute to Chadwick Boseman with a re-release of 42, which Deadline reports is showing at 740 locations. The 2013 film where the late actor played Jackie Robinson made $97.5 million worldwide in its original run, and while the $100 million mark seems unlikely, it certainly has a chance of stealing home.

Unless Disney’s The New Mutants and Solstice Studio’s Unhinged collapse beyond 50% drops, they should cross $10 million over the long weekend, which would make them the first films to pass that threshold domestically since the start of the pandemic—likely along with Tenet.

Coming in limited release are the faith-based My Brothers' Crossing, the inspirational Critical Thinking from Vertical Entertainment starring John Leguizamo as coach of a high school chess team, and the Gravitas Ventures dramedy The Argument with Maggie Q and Dan Fogler. Bill & Ted Face the Music, The Personal History of David Copperfield, and Words on Bathroom Walls are all continuing in wide release as well.