Dear Christopher Nolan: Please Don’t Release TENET In July

Calling on the world's most time-obsessed filmmaker to wait a little bit.

Dear Christopher Nolan,

I like your movies. You’re an exceptionally skilled filmmaker: fluent in cinematic grammar, capable of telling exciting, huge-scale stories, and partially responsible for a resurgence in original, ideas-driven science fiction. I also think that underneath their cerebral plotting, your stories have more heart than many critics give you credit for. It’s that heart that I want to call on when I beseech you and your friends at Warner Bros. to stop fucking insisting that your new film TENET will come out in July.

I live in New Zealand. As has been well documented in the worldwide press, New Zealand acted swiftly and boldly, enacting sweeping measures to not just curb but eradicate the COVID-19 pandemic within its borders - and so far (touch wood), it’s working. We’ve seen multiple days with zero new cases of the virus, and as of this writing, our known active case count now sits at just sixty-five. As of this week, much of the country has been allowed to open again - including its 140-odd cinema complexes. While I’m still anxious about the possibility of a rebound outbreak, I have faith that our public health officials’ guidance is reasonable. But I don't run a cinema, and cinemas are playing it safe here: only a handful of indies are open, and the two big chains have given no indication as to when they will reopen.

All of this is to say: you could probably open TENET pretty safely here in New Zealand, or in other countries who have seen some success in fighting the coronavirus. But many countries are still in the thick of infection, and the country facing the most catastrophic outbreak of all happens to be your biggest market. Though cinemas are gradually reopening in the United States, the way things are going, there’s simply no way you’ll achieve a wide and safe domestic release of the film in July. The country's reopening is premature, its government response unacceptably lax - and its cinemas simply unsafe, no matter how many temperature checks they perform at the door. A day-and-date global release? Forget it. 

Unless I’m missing some arcane business-brain logic, attempting a traditional summer tentpole release of TENET looks like a phenomenally stupid business decision. Even if the major theatre chains reopen - many have refrained from doing so, despite states and cities allowing them to - they literally will not be able to serve large audiences. Social distancing guidelines mandate that theatres only sell a portion of their seats, and some areas have caps on how many people can congregate in one place. At best, you’d have to aim for a slow but steady release (as discussed by James Shapiro here at BMD); there’s no physical way to get the big explosive opening weekend that’s been standard operating procedure for decades now.

Even then, you'd still need to convince people to go to the movies. Releasing TENET in July - with the according "can't-miss" marketing - is a potential death sentence for anyone who decides to attend that must-see release, picks up the virus from an asymptomatic carrier, and subsequently develops terminal respiratory (or other) symptoms. All audiences will receive a muted experience: audience response will be replaced by the dead air of empty seats, contagious laughter and gasps by contagious disease. Anecdotally, I travel in circles who love - LOVE - going to the movies, and many of my friends have zero desire to place themselves in a room with dozens of strangers anytime soon. Even here in New Zealand, where the air is clear and work on AVATAR 2 continues unabated.

I realise this isn’t just you, Chris. Warner Bros. must be leaning heavily on you to help them claw back some revenue from the season. Cinemas will be gagging for business as their furloughs drag on and on, and their employees will be suffering too. I get it - a lot of livelihoods are affected by movie theatres closing, folks staying at home, and new movies being held back. Hell, my livelihood is among them. But big releases need and attract crowds, and theatres in the United States simply can’t accommodate that yet. You don't want your PR to centre on having killed a bunch of people - you’re not William Castle.

This is independent from your fight for the theatrical experience, for which I have immense respect. Your essay in the Washington Post spoke to the shared experience we all love, and I admire the way you’ve used your success and platform to push theatres toward your grand vision of celluloid exhibition. But the movie industry has to balance its will to survive with a will for people to survive. The theatrical experience will keep. Indie cinemas will innovate in their programming to sustain audiences. We might lose a few multiplexes along the way, but as James addressed in his article, we can handle that. What we can't handle is theatres full of people re-enacting that one scene from OUTBREAK.

COVID-19 isn't just an inconvenient roadblock on the path to TENET's release. I don't think that's how you view it, but Warners' stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality and move the release strikes a sour note, as if the studio is bent on putting the movie out come hell or high pleural fluid. July was an optimistic projection of safety back in March; eighty thousand dead Americans later, it seems wildly unrealistic. Just look at Los Angeles' three-month extension of its stay-at-home order if you want backup on this. I want to see your movie very badly; I just don't want see it so badly that I will risk death to do so. I think that's a bar most people would accept.

Just delay the motherfucker, man. I'll wait.