An Overseas Hit, ‘Tenet’ Takes In $20.2 Million in U.S. Debut

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“Tenet,” the Christopher Nolan sci-fi spy thriller that Hollywood is counting on to bring consumers back to theaters, took in an estimated $20.2 million in its U.S. debut, a cautious home opening for a film that has been received well overseas.

The estimated domestic total reported byWarner Bros. on Sunday includes results from the Aug. 31 preview showings through the Labor Day holiday weekend. Analysts estimates for the film, which is making its debut in theaters with sharply limited capacity due to the virus, ran both below and above that number.

The film continued to do extremely well internationally, with its running tally for ticket sales now at $126 million. The numbers suggest that foreign filmgoers are more comfortable going to theaters than Americans. The film took in $30 million in its opening weekend in China alone.

“This is an encouraging start for the film considering major markets yet to open domestically as we continue to view the film’s release as a marathon run,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, an industry researcher. “There is no basis for comparison to any film pre-pandemic.”

In another closely watched release,Walt Disney Co.’s “Mulan,” a live-action remake of the 1998 animated hit, generated $5.9 million in smaller overseas markets such as Singapore and Thailand. The countries it has premiered in so far represent about 6% of the international marketplace, Disney said. The film will get a wider international release next week, including China on Sept. 11.

“Tenet,” about a CIA agent who has to save the world from a coming global conflict, has become the trial balloon for moviegoing in the Covid-19 era, with director Nolan publiclysupporting the big-screen experience.

It was originally supposed to hit theaters in July but was delayed because so few theaters were open. The studio,AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros., decided to try a rolling approach, opening “Tenet” ininternational theaters in late August and in U.S. “previews” days later. Even this weekend’s wide release excluded some key markets, such as Los Angeles and New York City, where theaters are still closed.

Because “Tenet” had a big budget, some $200 million, and cost tens of millions more to market, it’s unclear yet whether Warner Bros. will be able to earn a decent return on the investment. The director’s previous efforts, including “Inception” and “Dunkirk,” typically built their audiences over several weeks in theaters.

“Nolan films always have long tails,” said Rich Gelfond, chief executive officer ofImax Corp., which showed the film in more than 300 of its jumbo-sized North American theaters. “We’ll play it as long as it works.”

“Mulan” is a test of a different sort. That picture, another big-budget production, was also supposed to be released in theaters earlier this year, before Covid-19 changed everyones’ plans.

Disney opted instead to allow subscribers of its Disney+ streaming service to watch the film at home for an additional $30 in markets where the service is offered. The company isn’t expected to immediately release how many online purchases it received.

— With assistance by Yueqi Yang

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