Tenet Box Office: Christopher Nolan’s Thriller Debuts Modestly As Theaters Start To Reopen

Car explosion in Tenet

Hollywood has been anticipating this weekend for a while now. It was announced by Warner Bros. in late July that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet would be released domestically on September 3, and immediately everybody prepared to look at the launch as a litmus test to determine the potential for theatrical releases in what remains of 2020. Now the numbers are in from the thriller’s first three days on the big screen in America – and the results can be described as mediocre given the existing circumstances.

Per Box Office Mojo, Tenet played in 2,810 theaters this past weekend (presumably all of them taking proper precautions and following safety protocols), and the final figures show that the film made $20.2 million. Obviously there is an asterisk to be applied given the larger circumstances of the moment, but the numbers make the movie Christopher Nolan's third weakest domestic debut – with a silver lining being that it made more than both 2006's The Prestige (which made $15 million) and 2000's Memento (which made $235,000 in limited release).

That three-day haul, notably coming from the first three days of a four day holiday weekend, doesn’t look like much when it’s taken into consideration that the film was made with a $200 million budget (not including marketing and publicity costs), but there still does exist the potential for the movie to still be profitable thanks to its performance overseas. Tenet got an early release in some foreign markets starting at the end of August, and adding in those grosses means that worldwide the feature has made north of $146 million.

And to state the obvious, now that analysts have witnessed what Tenet was able to do in its debut weekend, there will be continued scrutiny in the weeks ahead to determine what kind of legs the movie has. Will people continue to go see it as it continues to play on the big screen, or will the numbers ultimately be frontloaded?

The reason why Tenet will continue to receive a great deal of attention is because studios are likely going to heavily factor in its numbers while continuing to consider putting out major movies between now and the end of December. Warner Bros. alone has Wonder Woman 1984 (currently dated for October 2) and Dune (December 18) set to be released in what remains of 2020, but there’s also big examples like Disney’s Black Widow (November 6), and United Artists’ No Time To Die (November 20) holding firm to their respective dates on the calendar.

There exists a point of no return for all of these films – which is to say a date when the studios are going to have to make a call whether or not to move forward with their publicity and marketing campaigns promoting a certain date. There will be some titles that wind up blinking, either by shifting their release dates or making streaming/PVOD plans, but it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see other movies that mirror Christopher Nolan’s philosophy and remain steadfast in big screen plans.

Those who follow box office numbers regularly will know that it’s typical for a film to drop somewhere between 40 and 60 percent from its first to second week, which means that normal circumstances would suggest that Tenet will make $8-12 million in its next Friday-to-Sunday, but we’ll just have to wait and see how that pattern may or may not be upended by the pandemic. You can be sure that we’ll have another box office report next week analyzing what goes down.

For now: do you think that you’ll be going to see Christopher Nolan’s Tenet during its second weekend in theaters? Answer our poll below, and stay tuned for more of our coverage here on CinemaBlend about the film and everything else hitting the big screen.

This poll is no longer available.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.