A few days ago, Seth Rogen made a joke. Not entirely surprising—the man does comedy for a living—but this one had a sharper ring of truth than the average zinger. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Rogen noted that as he and his production partners attempt to navigate filmmaking during Covid-19, they’ve been following one, um, tenet: “'WWCND' is basically what we're saying at all times. 'What would Chris Nolan do?'” Rogen said, referring to the director. “For a while, it seemed like the answer was to kill his greatest fans. But that's not the answer of today, it seems, so that's good. But we have no idea. We don't want to be the first to rush into anything.”
On the day of Rogen's interview, Warner Bros. had just announced that it would be releasing Nolan’s movie Tenet internationally on August 26, and in US theaters where it's safe to do so on September 3. The studio previously planned for an August 12 release date, but that seemed increasingly likely to expose American moviegoers to the coronavirus—hence Rogen's quip about Nolan and his fans. Rogen recently released his own new film An American Pickle on HBO Max instead of giving it a theatrical run, and his is just the latest film to find its way to streaming as many US cinemas remain closed amidst Covid-19 lockdowns. For a while, it seems, many Americans are going to have to see new releases at home.
This point became exceptionally clear on Tuesday when Disney made the somewhat jarring announcement that its highly anticipated live-action reboot of Mulan would premiere on Disney+ in the US on September 4—for $30 a pop. Meanwhile, the movie will be released internationally in markets where Disney+ is not available and where theaters are able to operate safely. In a conference call with investors, Disney CEO Bob Chapek called the move a “one-off,” adding that the company believed it was important to “find alternative ways to bring [Mulan] in a timely manner.” In other words, Disney may not pull this same trick with other delayed films like Marvel’s Black Widow—but if new coronavirus cases in the US keep climbing, they might have to.
Not to be too hyperbolic, but the future of moviegoing in America is kind of hanging in the balance right now. While studios can seek out other distribution models to recoup some of their massive movie budgets, US theaters and theater chains are losing billions of dollars by remaining closed. Last month, in an unprecedented move, AMC Theaters struck a deal with Universal to allow the studio to release its movies on premium VOD a mere 17 days after hitting US theaters. Theatrical “windows” are typically much longer—three months or so—but under this new deal AMC will likely share in some of the VOD revenue. Universal’s film Trolls World Tour made some $100 million in three weeks on VOD, and other family-friendly fare could make as much or more. (It seems worth noting here that Trolls World Tour cost $20, compared to Mulan’s $30.) At a time when a full nationwide reopening of theaters still seems a ways off, that’s much-needed cash.
Frankly, at this point, everyone should take what they can get. The US government's response to Covid-19—fights over masks, when and how to reopen various cities and states—has been fraught and anemic at best. Studios might be waiting a while to see a boffo box office weekend here. Hollywood “should stick with their dates and release their movies, because there’s no guarantee that more markets will be open later this year,” John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theater Owners, told Variety last month. “Until there’s a vaccine that’s widely available, there will not be 100 percent of the markets open. Because of that, films should be released in markets where it is safe and legal to release them.” There are, Fithian noted, many places where theaters could open and show films. Moviegoing is a multibillion-dollar business; a fraction of billions is better than a fraction of nothing.
Which brings us back to Seth Rogen’s comments about Christopher Nolan. In many ways, there’s a lot riding on the release of Tenet. It was expected to be one of the summer’s big tentpoles—for a minute it felt like the only tentpole—and presumably a lot of Hollywood will be watching to see how the rollout goes. It could easily be a harbinger for how the rest of 2020 looks when it comes to film releases, and perhaps beyond.
Last week, David Sims wrote a piece for The Atlantic simply titled “Hollywood Is Finally Admitting the US Is a Lost Cause.” For years, the US has been the market when it comes to a movie’s success, but its poor response to the pandemic is causing the country to release that toehold. “Tenet is quite intentionally being positioned by its studio as the hinge point, the beginning of a return to normalcy,” Sims wrote. “If the film opens internationally and makes real money, expect more studios to follow suit and bypass America until US caseloads have dropped. The cinema industry has waited as patiently as it could for its flagship market to get its coronavirus spread under control; instead, things have only gotten worse.” In a world where America, and Americans, are falling behind and studios can release films online while putting them in theaters that are deemed safe, you have to ask yourself: What would Christopher Nolan do?