Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic, made $20m in box-office sales in its debut weekend in the US, in an important test for cinemas looking to roll out blockbusters after the pandemic locked down Hollywood.

After months of shuttered theatres, Hollywood has hung its hopes of jump-starting their business on the shoulders of Mr Nolan, a film-maker with a strong record of churning out box office hits, and one of the cinema’s most ardent defenders. 

The director behind Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy has delivered in markets outside the US. The movie had made $126m in the rest of the world before its US debut. 

In the US and Canada, the film drew about $20.2m over the Labor Day holiday weekend, according to ComScore. Tenet was not screened in two major markets, New York and California, where cinemas remained closed due to the pandemic. 

The results were “on the low end of expectations”, said Jeff Bock, a longtime box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations.

Mr Bock expects this weekend’s results to inform the fate of cinemas for the rest of this year. “Warner Bros no doubt put Tenet in there as a guinea pig. It’s a very expensive guinea pig,” he said. “You have to give audiences a carrot that is worth chasing. And Tenet is that.”

He had predicted $30m and higher would be a strong opening for Tenet, and reaffirm Warner Bros’ plans to release its next blockbuster, Wonder Woman: 1984, in cinemas next month. With about $20m taken domestically, the fate of future blockbusters this year was less certain, he warned.

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Rich Gelfond, chief executive of Imax, said the Tenet results were strong enough to warrant a Wonder Woman theatrical release this year. 

“What [Tenet] was about was proving that people would go to the theatres in significant numbers. It definitely proved that,” said Mr Gelfond, pointing to strong results in China. 

The results in Tenet’s first US weekend were “very strong in the context that a lot of North America still wasn’t open”, he added. 

Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at ComScore, said the initial results for Tenet were “solid”.

“It’s going to be all about the long-term playability,” he said, predicting that the film would gain more traction as more cities opened in North America in the coming weeks.

Mr Nolan has long sought to preserve the cinema even as attendance has waned and streaming services have invaded. In March, as the pandemic took hold in the US, he wrote an impassioned defence of the cinema, calling it a “vital part of social life”. 

“In uncertain times, there is no more comforting thought than that we’re all in this together, something the moviegoing experience has been reinforcing for generations,” he said. 

Via Financial Times