LOS ANGELES — “Tenet” was supposed to mark the return of the movie theater business in the United States. Instead, it has shown just how much trouble the industry is in.
After five months of pandemic-forced closure, the big movie theater chains reopened in roughly 68 percent of the United States by Labor Day weekend, in large part so they could show the $200 million film, which Warner Bros. promoted as “a global tent pole of jaw-dropping size, scope and scale.” But “Tenet,” directed by the box office heavyweight Christopher Nolan, instead arrived with a whimper: It collected $9.4 million in its first weekend in North America and just $29.5 million over its first two weeks.
Theaters remain closed in New York and Los Angeles, the two biggest markets in the United States and the center of Mr. Nolan’s fan base. In the areas where “Tenet” did play, audience concern about safety — even with theater capacity limited to 50 percent or less in most locations — likely hurt ticket sales. Box office analysts also noted that “Tenet” is a complicated, cerebral movie with little star power; a frothier, more escapist offering may have had an easier time coaxing people back to cinemas.
Whatever the reason, the bottom line was strikingly clear: People aren’t going to the movies at anywhere close to the numbers that Hollywood hoped, and things are not expected to improve in the near term. Studios are postponing big movies again — “Wonder Woman 1984” retreated last week, prompting at least three studios to convene meetings on Monday to discuss how to proceed with other scheduled releases — leaving theater owners without much new to offer for the next two months. Some analysts have started to re-sound alarm bells about the future of the theater business.
“We have no way of forecasting how long it will take for consumer comfort with indoor movie theaters to return,” Rich Greenfield, a founder of the Lightshed Partners media research firm, wrote in a report on Monday.
In recent days, Warner Bros. shifted “Wonder Woman 1984” to Christmas Day from Oct. 2, and MGM/Universal pushed back the slasher remake “Candyman” to next year. STX announced it was moving its Gerard Butler-starring disaster movie “Greenland” out of September to later this year. Marvel’s “Black Widow” and Pixar’s “Soul” are two films supposed to come out in November whose future now seems in question.
“I’m disappointed that the marketplace is still 30 percent unopened,” Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. president of distribution, said. “The markets we are missing are key markets where Chris Nolan movies have really performed well in the past.” Mr. Nolan’s last three non-franchise movies — “Inception,” “Interstellar” and “Dunkirk” — opened in the $50 million range in North America and went on to collect between $527 million and $837 million worldwide, with the bulk of sales coming from overseas.
Theater owners now must put their faith into two factors out of their control: studios staying the course with end-of-year releases, and New York and Los Angeles (along with San Francisco, the No. 3 market in the country) allowing theaters to reopen.
“Death on the Nile” from Disney’s Twentieth Century division is the biggest-budgeted movie still scheduled to come out in October. If “Black Widow” (Nov. 6) or the James Bond spectacle “No Time to Die” (Nov. 20) get pushed back or moved online — as Disney did recently with “Mulan” — theaters are likely to face arduous conversations about their futures with investors and lenders.
In addition, the longer the pandemic drags on, the more that streaming becomes a threat to theaters. At least a dozen movies originally destined for big screens, including “Hamilton,” “Trolls World Tour” and “Greyhound,” have been redirected to streaming services or online rental platforms. The move has kept money flowing to studios, but analysts say that it has undercut theaters by training consumers to expect new films to be instantly available in their homes.
“We’re learning that markets being opened, cinemas having safety protocols and studios releasing movies are all tied together,” John Fithian, chief executive of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said in an email. “Open markets need safe cinemas, movies need open markets, cinemas need movies. All these things raise audience awareness and comfort in returning to movies. You can’t do one at a time.”
Wall Street’s reaction to the “Tenet” opening and the “Wonder Woman” postponement is telling. AMC shares climbed to about $7 on Sept. 4, the day “Tenet” arrived in U.S. theaters, up from about $2 in April. They have since declined by about 17 percent. Cinemark has declined 18 percent since Sept. 4. Cineworld, the parent company of Regal Cinemas, is down 14 percent. (For context, the S&P 500 is flat for the period.)
“From a cash standpoint, we can see this thing through way into next year if need be,” Mark Zoradi, Cinemark’s chief executive, said by phone. The company, based in Texas, operates about 5,977 screens in the United States and Latin America. “The fourth quarter is getting our feet back on the ground. Next year is a transition year. 2022 is back to a sense of normality.”
He added that recent customer surveys had shown 97 percent satisfaction with safety protocols. “We’ve spent millions and millions of dollars getting this stuff right,” he said. “If we can convince the consumer that we have done all of these things, they are much more likely to want to come back.”
The nation’s largest multiplex chain, AMC Entertainment, declined to comment.
When it comes to the three largest film markets, expectations are tempered for both Los Angeles and San Francisco given the strict metrics California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced as part of its reopening plans. For New York though, exhibitors and studio executives alike are incensed that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has given no specific time table for when movie theaters can reopen, coupling them with other large-crowd places like concert venues and amusement parks, while allowing bowling alleys and restaurants to resume indoor operations. Not only is New York City crucial for sales, much of the media coverage and online buzz surrounding new movies is generated from there. (The New York Times typically does not review films that are not playing in New York.)
“The industry needs New York to open as soon as possible,” said Ken Thewes, Regal Cinemas’ chief marketing officer. “Governor Cuomo has done a great job getting it under control, but we really need him to give cinemas the same thought that he’s given to the restaurant industry and let us resume operations.”
If those markets don’t open, and the studios get skittish, theater operators may have to take some dramatic steps to weather the storm. Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro, said cinemas may start reducing operating hours to minimize expenses — perhaps going down to 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. screenings only, and foregoing matinees and early-evening screenings. In some cases, theaters have leases that require them to operate seven days a week. For those that don’t, showing movies only on weekends may be an option.
“The next stretch is going to be extremely hard,” Mr. Robbins said.
“Tenet” was not the only movie released in August, but the others — “The New Mutants”($15 million) and “Unhinged” ($14 million) — haven’t fared much better at the box office, although they cost less than half as much to make.
For Mark Gill, the chief executive of Solstice Studios, the studio behind “Unhinged,” the film’s grosses are not nearly at the level he hoped for five weeks after release. Yet he says the international performance of “Tenet” — it has brought in $177 million worldwide — illustrates that if the United States can get its public safety issues under control, people will start going out to movie theaters again.
“You can see that this just links to the public health situation here,” he said. “The longer it takes us to get that under control, the tougher it’s going to be. It’s not a permanent problem but it’s a large temporary problem.”