What Tenet's Commercial Failure Means To Its Maker And Showbiz

Nov 12, 2020 Sreejith Mullappilly

Millions of people in the world have decided to wait out the coronavirus pandemic. In the world of entertainment, nowhere has this customer behavior had the bigger impact than on show business. This is evidenced by the release of many big-budget films being postponed to the first quarter of 2021. One, in particular, Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet', hit the screens late August, only to see its big directorial ambitions come crashing down. Hot on heels of Tenet's failure came the news of MGM, the producers, and Universal Pictures postponing the release of the latest Bond movie, 'No Time To Die'.

Christopher Nolan is one of the few modern Hollywood visionaries. His every film before Tenet had been a commercial success. He is one of those directors who makes grand movies out of what seem like independent ideas on paper. Whether it is a man with short-term memory loss putting his life back together in Memento, or a corporate spy invading the deepest corners of the mind in Inception, Nolan's cinema has often bridged the gaps between commerce and art in unprecedented ways.

He is not just some big-name director who only makes big, often great, movies. Nolan is also committed to the art and craft of cinema like few other filmmakers are. He has often talked about his penchant for shooting on film instead of the digital medium. He has shot his earlier films with conventional cameras. The same goes for Tenet; Nolan used no digital camera to shoot the big-budget film. He often bats for the big-screen experience over the streaming platforms. He is not alone in preferring the IMAX experience over digital. For instance, Tom Cruise, who braved the epidemic to catch Tenet in a theater, summed up his experience in three sentences on Twitter. His Tenet Tweet read thus: 'Big Movie. Big Screen. Loved it."

As his Interstellar co-star, Matthew McConaughey once said, "He won’t indulge in retakes unless he feels it’s completely necessary." With Tenet, Nolan continued another one of his pet indulgences: shooting big explosion scenes without CGI. He used a real aircraft to film the crashing sequence in Tenet instead of relying on computer graphics. Suffice to say, there is a method to Nolan's madness. And, studios like Warner Bros., were perhaps the first to realize it. They have always been supportive of Nolan in his endeavors. The film's budget explained why Nolan took all that effort to have Tenet released on limited screens. But the growing fears over the virus spread has resulted in his long-held visions for cinema being challenged, dare I say, 'threatened'.

I have not seen Tenet, but knowing Nolan's brand of cinema, I could safely say that the film's quality was never the issue. Even with the most puzzling Nolan films, there is always the big spectacle to fall back on (Interstellar fans, here is looking at you). Tenet has a positive rating on all the review aggregator platforms. So, it is safe to assume that in an alternative universe, without COVID-19, it would have been as grand a success as his other science-fiction epics.

The big news in November was that Tenet would be available on home video and digital as early as December 15, 2020. Suppose, the pandemic does not subside by April 2021, would the other tentpole film producers take cues from Tenet's failure and push back their release dates? It is a difficult question to answer. And, if early signs are to be believed, there is no easy answer around the corner.

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