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Why Does Christopher Nolan Want ‘Tenet’ in Theaters Next Month?

The director seems set on having his upcoming film come out on its original July 17 release date. But sending a movie to the big screen this summer seems ill-advised.

Warner Bros/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If there’s one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has made even more obvious about Hollywood, it’s that the industry and the powerful people within it can be hilariously out of touch. A bunch of celebrities, social distancing in their mansions, thought the best way to cheer up the populace when millions are out of work is to come together and sing a John Lennon song verse by verse. (It didn’t work; frankly, nobody cares that you guys are starved for attention.) Unfortunately, Christopher Nolan might have everyone beat, because apparently he and Warner Bros. believe that the world is ready to go see Tenet next month.

While the releases of most of 2020’s summer blockbusters—Fast 9, Top Gun: Maverick, Black Widow—have been pushed back to later in the year or 2021, Tenet has boldly kept its original release date of July 17. At first, it felt like a hopeful plan from Nolan and Warner Bros. that assumed the coronavirus would be under control by the summer and that people would be able to flock back to theaters again, but the closer we get to Tenet’s release, the clearer it is that any sense of normalcy is nowhere on the horizon. And yet! It still appears Nolan and the studio are going to stick with the date. It’s hard to say for sure what will happen if Tenet comes out next month—how many theaters will actually be open, and will people be willing to go to them?—but the film might be the litmus test for whether we get any blockbusters before Christmas.

From a purely financial standpoint, releasing Tenet this summer doesn’t make a lot of sense. Even if most theaters in the United States are reopened by that point, social distancing guidelines would make it so that only a partial number of seats could be sold for a showing. In Los Angeles, one of the country’s biggest markets, theaters would only be able to operate at 25 percent capacity, with strict measures in place for things like coverings on the seats and how attendees are shuffled in and out of the screenings to avoid congestion. Sounds … fun? The only thing that could make the situation any stranger would be if a movie tried to beat Tenet to theaters and—oh wait, yeah, there is one coming out at the beginning of July and it’s literally called Unhinged.

This is hardly a recipe to turn a profit on something that cost over $200 million to make, and if the process of going to see a film will make most imagine an experience not unlike the characters making their way through the world in Contagion, it’s probably a bad idea. But don’t just take my word for it. When The New York Times spoke with over 500 epidemiologists about when they’d feel comfortable returning to certain activities, only 3 percent said they would go to a “play/concert/sporting event” this summer. While movies weren’t explicitly mentioned in the piece, I think they’d fall under the same category, since going to the theater means congregating in a space with lots of other people.

So why are Nolan and Warner Bros. so insistent on Tenet coming out next month? My Galaxy Brain take is that Nolan wants Tenet’s release date (7/17) to fit the palindromic nature of the film’s title. More seriously, though, is that Nolan is one of the biggest proponents of the theatrical experience in Hollywood. He penned an op-ed for The Washington Post in March pleading for Congress to help struggling theater chains and their employees, and seems to genuinely believe in the power of cinema. “When this crisis passes, the need for collective human engagement, the need to live and love and laugh and cry together, will be more powerful than ever,” the filmmaker wrote. “The combination of that pent-up demand and the promise of new movies could boost local economies and contribute billions to our national economy. We don’t just owe it to the 150,000 workers of this great American industry to include them in those we help, we owe it to ourselves. We need what movies can offer us.”

Anyone who’s a true cinephile, and prefers seeing something on the big screen versus pulling up something on your laptop from Netflix, would side with Nolan here. It’s great that one of the most successful directors of this century is such a firm proponent of going to the theater. But human lives are more important than the futures of theater chains, and I don’t think Nolan or anyone at Warner Bros. will want to feel like they’re contributing to another rise in cases when states prematurely reopen and coronavirus cases spike (as they currently are in Florida, Texas, and other parts of the country). Maybe the fact that Fortnite was the best avenue to promote a new Tenet trailer is enough of a sign that the world isn’t quite ready to welcome theaters back with open arms.

Hopefully I speak for everyone when I say that Tenet, like my beloved Fast 9 and Venom: Let There Be Carnage, should be put on hold. Don’t put this baby on a streaming service—though I doubt Nolan would ever sanction such a move—I’m willing to wait until July 17, 2021, if I have to so that Tenet can keep its precious palindromic release date and we can all see it on the biggest possible screen. Nolan blew up an actual 747 for this film. None of the actors seem to have any clue what Tenet is about. (No, but actually, Kenneth Branagh isn’t even sure if he’s the villain or not.) In the latest trailer, John David Washington’s character corrects Robert-Pattinson-with-Christopher-Nolan’s-hair that they aren’t doing time travel but rather “inversion,” like we should know what the fuck that even means. This is Peak Nolan shit. I haven’t wanted to watch a movie high as badly as Tenet since Aquaman.

But there are things we should value more than movies, and 2020 has been nothing if not a succession of events that make going to the cinema the furthest thing from anyone’s minds. And based on everything we know about Tenet and Christopher Nolan’s time-bending sensibilities, I’d rather give this film my undivided attention without having to worry about what might happen if I share a bucket of popcorn.