Tenet was supposed to be the chosen one. After months without a new theatrical release due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Christopher Nolan’s latest and greatest was the foundation upon which the future hopes and dreams of the theatrical experience were built. Not unlike Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino, Nolan himself is a brand; a household name studios like Warner Bros. can leverage to draw moviegoers—both casual and hardcore—to theaters to great financial success. It was a smart business strategy to have a known quantity like Nolan and Tenet be the movie to open back up theaters (which is why it was delayed many times). The marketing wrote itself: Big movies are back! It’s safe to return to theaters! See Nolan’s film the way it was meant to be seen! Or so we thought.
Since its September 3 release, Tenet has earned $36.1 million at the domestic box office. To contextualize this further, Nolan’s previous film, Dunkirk, earned $50.5 million in its opening weekend. Analyzing typical box office results to pandemic box office performance is an inscrutable task. Much like COVID-19 in general, there’s simply not a precedent to draw upon during unprecedented times. Nevertheless, there are a few factors at play here that have inherently limited the ceiling Tenet’s box office performance from the onset. Examining them as individual pieces of a whole provides a larger clarity of how the odds were stacked against the movie from the very beginning.