Cinema owners will be holding their breath next Wednesday when Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi film Tenet becomes the first Hollywood blockbuster to be released since March as it is the first test of whether movie fans are ready to head back to big screens in their masses.
The UK cinema industry, destined for the worst year at the box office in almost three decades, has been struggling to get back on its feet since the government gave the green light to reopen theatres last month. In the past week the top 10 films in cinemas in the UK and Ireland made just over £800,000 at the box office. Last year, an average week notched up £24m.
With a schedule devoid of new Hollywood blockbusters, cinema operators have had to fall back on low-grossing classics and old hits, from Inception and The Empire Strikes Back to franchises including Twilight and Harry Potter.
Earlier this month, cinema owners were dealt a blow when Disney pulled its new blockbuster Mulan from schedules, in favour of a release on the streaming service Disney+, leaving the Warner Bros’ Robert Pattinson-led Tenet as the great hope to reignite their year.
“There is no getting away from it, it’s the first big commercial release,” said Crispin Lilly, chief executive of the boutique chain Everyman. “Tenet will be a very important step. This is the one that could get it all going. The uptake, the interest, the buzz is that it is going to do what we need it to do, which is re-kick cinema to the wider audience.”
Tickets went on sale last week and Lilly said the rate of sales pegs Tenet at a box-office take similar to the Elton John biopic Rocketman or Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which took about £25m, or possibly even The Joker, which notched up £50m. “That would be superb,” Lilly said. “It is looking incredibly encouraging, it really is.”
Tim Richards, the founder of Vue, one of the largest cinema operators in Europe, delayed reopening its 91 cinemas in the UK and Ireland until this month. Early ticket sales look strong, at levels matching Nolan’s Inception (£40m) to potentially as high Sam Mendes’s 1917 (£60m).
“We have done a staggered opening over three weeks to make sure we are game ready when Tenet comes out,” said Richards. “Pre-bookings right now are really strong. With Warner Bros’ marketing and promotion muscle behind it, expectations are that it is going to do pretty close to pre-Covid levels of business.”
The pre-sales figures suggest that the government’s regulation that cinema-goers must now wear face masks hasn’t deterred the majority of fans. But the physical distancing required means that cinemas are only able to run at about 60% capacity.
Cinema owners, however, believe the distance rules will not have a big impact on ticket sales, because the pandemic has led to a step change in habits with the overwhelming dominance of weekend movie-going now at an end.
“People are being cautious … many are now going on a Tuesday afternoon or a Wednesday evening instead of the traditional Friday and Saturday night,” said Richards. “Capacity restrictions are not such a big issue as we move to a true seven-day-a-week business.”
However, one source cautioned that with the industry so badly needing Tenet to be a hit, the film may be in danger of being overhyped as it is unlikely to be to everyone’s tastes.
“I think it will do well, but this is not Avengers we are talking about, and I am a little concerned that because it is the first big movie release it is being turned into something it is not,” said the source.
If Tenet pulls in the crowds, and a second wave doesn’t result in a renewed shutdown, there are still plenty of box-office pounds to be salvaged this year. Marvel’s Black Widow, The New Mutants – the next instalment in the Kingsman franchise, Bill & Ted Face the Music starring Keanu Reeves and, of course, James Bond: Never Say Die are all set for release in the coming months.
“If Tenet proves that the broader audience is there to come back and there is business to be done then that’s really powerful,” said Lilly, who opened three new Everymans in Chelsea, London and Lincoln during the pandemic. “Then [the year is] there to be recovered to be honest.”
Top 10 films in the UK and Ireland (week starting 14 August)
1. Inception (10th anniversary), box office: £207,675
2. Unhinged, £136,347
3. Pinocchio, £108,626
4. Onward, £92,092
5. 100% Wolf, £83,938
6. Broken Law, £52,748
7. Trolls World Tour, £42,370
8. Baby teeth, £38,977
9. Jurassic Park, £29,051
10. American Pickle, £27,926
Total: £819,750 Source: Comscore
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