Source: ©2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment / Melinda Sue Gordon


Since UK cinemas started reopening on July 4, UK and Ireland box office has risen from 2.22% of 2019 levels for the first week of operation to 5.77% for the week beginning August 7.

While it’s encouraging to see those numbers moving in the right direction, buoyed by releases including Russell Crowe road rage thriller Unhinged, box office remains massively down on a year ago. In countries such as Spain and South Korea, strong local titles have brought audiences flooding back but the UK and Ireland market has yet to benefit from a strong title.

That looks all set to change next Wednesday (August 26) with the release of Tenet. And it’s fair to say that not just UK exhibitors but also rival distributors are rooting for Warner Bros to succeed with Christopher Nolan’s spy thriller.

So how robust will the Tenet numbers be? Warner Bros has not revealed its advance box office, so Screen spoke to several exhibitors to gauge how the film is performing in their sites.

The Light, which operates 10 multiplex venues in England with a total of 78 screens, is reopening all its sites today (August 21) in readiness for Tenet. Founder Keith Pullinger revealed pre-sales for the film were “pretty good” and 40% higher than benchmark title Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (£21.5m lifetime in UK and Ireland) at the same stage ahead of release.

The Light has been faced with the challenge of communicating that its cinemas are reopening, as well as that Tenet tickets are on sale. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard that cinemas that have been open for a few weeks, their pre-sales are higher than in cinemas that are just opening now, which is understandable,” said Pullinger.

“There’s only a certain amount of films that really sell much over a week in advance,” he added. “Most people plan cinema three or four days out. For us, it’s picking up now that the TV campaign has cut in. There’s a lot more awareness and marketing out there.”

UK Cinema Association CEO Phil Clapp canvassed reports from a range of exhibitor members, including major chains. While unable to share details, he said: “What we’re hearing is uniformly a positive story, and in some cases very positive. No one that I’ve spoken to from the significant circuits is expressing disappointment. But everyone understands that a film like Tenet -  where, for the best of reasons, Warner Bros has kept plot details under wraps - makes it a slightly more difficult sell.”

Clapp defends the deep programming of Tenet by UK cinemas, with larger multiplexes offering scores of individual showtimes on opening day. “No one wants to have a monolithic programming approach, but this is the time for pragmatism,” he said. “It’s not the time for audience development. If you can get people into your cinema as paying customers, you need to do what you need to do to.”

Boutique chains

At Curzon, six days ahead of Tenet opening, the chain had achieved advance bookings 75% ahead of Joker at the same stage, and 22% ahead of Sam Mendes’ war epic 1917. These are titles that rank fourth and fifth respectively on the Curzon leaderboard since the start of 2019.

However, advance bookings were 59% down on Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winner Parasite at the same stage (six days prior to release) and 89% down on Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker.

Curzon has reopened six cinemas to date and will open five more on Monday (August 24), in time for Tenet.

Owing to the lack of competition from other releases, Curzon is playing Tenet on more screens than ever in its history, with showings of the film in all but one of its 38 available screens on August 26. The chain is limited to around 40-50% seating capacity, due to social distancing policies.

At fellow boutique chain Everyman, which has all 35 of its cinemas open, advance sales six days ahead of release were in line with Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Elton John biopic Rocketman. “Which is terrific,” said Everyman CEO Crispin Lilly. “If Tenet ends up doing £25m, we will all be very happy.”

“Obviously, what we don’t know is whether or not there’ll be a variation in the advanced booking pattern,” he added. ”Maybe it won’t build as quickly next week as it normally does in those last few days before release, or maybe it will build quicker. We still don’t have high confidence, but it is all looking encouraging.”

”Audience nervousness”

Independent cinemas approached by Screen were experiencing variable sales on Tenet. Belfast’s Queens Film Theatre (QFT) has sold out its first showing of the feature on August 26 and has nearly sold out its second. However, due to distancing rules - which are more onerous in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland than in England - the cinema can only sell around 45 tickets in its bigger screen, which has 204 seats.

The venue is allowing 45 minutes cleaning time between programmes. Add in the adverts and trailers, and given a 150-minute running time for Tenet, it’s a challenge to find the right showtimes for the film.

QFT head Joan Parsons said that in comparison to pre-sales on Parasite, Tenet is “nowhere near”.“Based on the pre-sales we’re looking at now, I would say that if we could sell 204 seats, we wouldn’t be looking at full sellouts in the same way we had on Parasite,” she said. ”That makes me think that there is still a fair amount of audience nervousness out there. And also perhaps the saturation of the film [at other Belfast cinemas] is a factor for us.”

In Dublin, where the Light House Cinema was the first theatre to reopen (on July 27) in the city centre, the venue reports strong advance sales on tickets, with several sellout shows, equivalent to Nolan’s Dunkirk and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood at the same stage ahead of release.

In the main 277-seat screen, it is not so much distancing measures but Ireland’s capacity cap for gatherings that limits sales: 50 people for arts venues. Since reopening, admissions have been at around 40% of 2019 levels. The Light House is showing Tenet in two of its four screens, with a choice of 35mm and digital, and 48 shows on sale for the initial 16-day booking period.

“We’re selling out the 35mm screenings a lot faster than the DCP,” said Light House general manager Christian Kavanagh. “And bookings are more spread out across the week. Our pre-sales for midweek are doing really well.”

In East Sussex, where the family-owned Picture House Uckfield and the charity-backed Depot Lewes operate nine miles apart, advance sales have been more modest. At Uckfield, owner Kevin Markwick has not got the sense that his customers feel an urgency to book in advance. “At the moment, it’s not at the top of people’s things that they’re thinking about.” he said. “If the film is good, and word of mouth is good, that’s something to look forward to.”

Similarly, advance sales for Tenet are not strong at the Depot, according to director Carmen Slipjen, although they are beginning to pick up.

“Tough” commercial terms

The commercial terms offered by Warner Bros, including what has been reported as tough conditions on payment times, and fortnightly commitments for holdovers, have elicited complaint from the exhibition sector, and not just in the UK.

“There are the highest terms you will ever pay, and they happen rarely on very large films,” said one exhibitor. “A film likely to exceed £50m in the UK is the normal precedent for those terms.”

Payment terms are typically 28 or 30 days for cinemas, and these have reportedly been reduced to seven, with daily reporting of box office. This may be as a result of certain operators making late payments to distributors on revenues still owed when venues closed during the recent lockdown.

“The shortened payment period shouldn’t be something you do across the board,” said another exhibitor. “This should only be for late payers. I was disappointed by that.”

Another operator offered a more balanced response. “Warners have gone out with a huge risk. And let’s be honest, if this kick-starts a return to a normality of sorts, were hugely indebted to them,” they said.

“The financial terms – are they a bit rich? Yes. Are they scarily rich? No. And they’re not asking for advance payments. They’re just asking for us to be quick passing on their share of the cash.

“The conversation I had with them was: the only thing they have to understand is that this cannot be a precedent for a new norm, because it would be unsustainable in the long term. And they’ve given me absolute assurances that it’s not.”

Warner Bros declined to comment when approached by Screen.

Final outcome

With five days until release and unknowable factors around how the virus crisis may or may not have impacted audiences’ willingness to book in advance, predicting a final outcome for Tenet presents challenges.

At the start of the year, cinema advertising company Digital Cinema Media predicted Tenet would rank third in the UK in 2020 - behind James Bond feature No Time To Die and animated sequel Minions: The Rise Of Gru, now a 2021 release - with £36m. Those expectations have now reduced. “I’d be very happy with £20m-plus,” said DCM content business director Tom Linay.

Gower Street Analytics offers a release date optimisation tool rather than box office forecasting, but nevertheless projected box office outcomes are an essential part of its algorithm. Gower Street has released its latest projected top 10 titles for 2020 in UK and Ireland, with Tenet in fifth place, behind No Time To Die, 1917 (which has grossed £43.9m), West Side Story and Pixar’s Soul, and ahead of Peter Rabbit 2, Death On The Nile, Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow and Sonic The Hedgehog (£19.2m).

“When Covid hit in March, our UK lifetime estimate for Tenet dropped by nearly 20%,” said Gower Street director of theatrical insights Robert Mitchell. “It’s now more or less back where we had it at the beginning of the year. Not quite, but pretty close.

“The main difference is the rest of the market. This might be conservative, but we are projecting it to achieve 80% market share in the UK on opening weekend, ie Friday to Sunday.”

One multiplex operator, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Screen that their advance sales were in line with other Nolan titles such as Inception, which achieved £35.8m in UK and Ireland, and Interstellar (£20.7m).

This exhibitor cautioned against over-hyping Tenet’s ability to bring audiences flooding back to cinemas, which carries the risk of “everybody jumping on the ‘cinemas are dead bandwagon’ again” when box office records are not broken.”

”This is not Avengers, this is a £20-30million movie,” they added. ”Tenet plays a little older, like all Nolan films. It is unfortunate that Mulan was pulled because the combination of Tenet and Mulan would have been an amazing one: all age groups, all demographics, everything.”