by Brandon Butler
On Releasing Tenet Online 7/20/2020

Chaim Gartenberg for The Verge, ‘Christopher Nolan should release Tenet online’:

A lot of that anticipation is coming from Christopher Nolan himself. The director has been insistent on not only debuting Tenet in a theater, but using it to herald the return of theatrical release in general, “to show faith in the form and solidarity with exhibitors.” Nolan previously romanticized the theater experience as “a vital part of social life” that only a communal viewing can provide, and he wants Tenet to be the film that will help save it.

Put simply, this attitude is dangerous and will put lives at risk. While there’s still a lot we don’t know about how COVID-19 spreads, it’s apparent that spending long amounts of time indoors in close proximity with other people is a major contributing factor. And movie theaters — with close-together seats, circulating air conditioning, guests removing masks to munch on popcorn, and lengthy films — seem to fit that bill perfectly. Everything we know about COVID-19 tells us that the kind of wide-release cultural event Nolan wants will lead to more cases, more hospitalizations, and more deaths.

Gartenberg goes on to argue for the release of Tenet online, and I couldn’t agree more with his arguments.

I definitely wonder when the last time Nolan set foot in a public movie theater to watch a movie with a general audience. People on their cell phones, people talking to each other, someone coughing, people having to leave to use the restroom and miss a chunk of the movie, children crying, someone nearby smelling like pot and/or alcohol. There’s nothing romantic about the theater experience of the early 21st century, and I suspect Nolan is recalling his childhood days at the local cinema in Highgate, the very expensive London suburb where he grew up in the 70’s. The social and cultural norms for going to the cinema in Highgate, England in the 70’s are likely very different from those of, say, Bakersfield, California, or Palm Bay, Florida of today. Nolan is remembering a time when people didn’t have a maximum attention span of 8 minutes, and a loud, bright distraction in their pocket. And a time when people were just plain respectful to each other in the cinema.

I have friends with beautiful home theaters. Surround sound, 70-inch 4K screens with HDR or projection systems on 100+ inch screens, comfy couches, Cokes and popcorn that cost a reasonable amount of money from the grocery store, and a pause button. My own system is fairly minimal as I’m in a bit of a nomad phase now, but it works for me. I would rather watch Tenet at home even before this pandemic, and it will be a long time before I’m willing to return to the theater.

There is a matter of money, and there is discussion that Tenet can’t earn back it’s budget on a home streaming release, but I disagree completely. The right marketing push, on Instagram and TikTok as well as traditional TV commercials, will get people to rent the film, even at $20 a pop. And with the pandemic, you’re likely only getting two or four people watching that $20 rental at once. That’s the biggest issue, because normally a $15 theater ticket admits one, and a couple or group would be buying multiple tickets. There’s no getting around that, unless Warner sells a ridiculously overpriced single download. Even at $20 I can see people balking for a “home” rental, so maybe offer a free rental or digital download of Inception, a ten year old film by now, if they spend the $20 on the digital ticket for Tenet. Warner stopped making money on Inception a long time ago, so give it away to get people in front of Tenet.

But Warner needs to face facts here: American theater box offices are going to be dismal for years. The pandemic is not going away. American leadership is nonexistent and COVID-19 is getting worse, not better. Releasing a movie in theaters anytime this year is both irresponsible and no way profitable. Either Warner sits on this movie until 2024, or they offer a home release. The theater release, for the foreseeable future, is dead.

Of course, I’ve said all of this before, but like Gartenberg, I can’t understand why Nolan is so adamant on pushing audiences back into theaters at a time when the pandemic is again on the rise. I understand being proud of your work and wanting an audience to enjoy it, but an audience in the safety of their home can still enjoy this film just as much as if they were in a theater. And of course, from personal experience, I’d argue even more so.