Why Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Other Summer Tentpole Movies Won’t Go to Digital

A box office analyst explains why the Christopher Nolan-directed Tenet or other prospective blockbusters like Warner Bros. tentpole Wonder Woman 1984 and Disney's live-action Mulan won't release directly to digital, even as most movie theaters remain closed amid the coronavirus pandemic. The animated Trolls World Tour and Scoob! skipped planned theatrical runs and were released digitally — priced at $19.99 for a two-day rental — while some of the most anticipated films of the year, including Marvel's Black Widow and James Bond sequel No Time to Die, were postponed until the fall. If theaters are unable to meet expectations and reopen by July, could summer movies like Mulan or Wonder Woman 1984 follow a growing trend and release on digital?

"Unless there is a drastic setback from current plans to gradually reopen cinemas, I wouldn't bet on it," Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, told CNN Business. "The blockbusters remaining on the schedule have too much dependency on box office revenue."

A digital release might also "cannibalize the profits of a major title," Robbins added, referring to potential home video sales and global box office returns. In the case of Tenet, a twisty thriller starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, Nolan remains committed to the theatrical experience.

The director of Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy is among those pushing hard for theaters to reopen and would contest any decision to release his film into living rooms and televisions instead of movie theaters and IMAX screens.

"Unless aliens possess his frontal lobe, Nolan will not cave to the cries of digital," said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at entertainment research firm Exhibitor Relations. "And if Warner Bros. decides digital is the right move, he'll likely never work with them again."

According to a separate report, Warner Bros. requires 80% of the world's theaters to be open for Tenet to keep its July 17 release date — some 3,500 theaters in the United States and roughly 30,000 other screens worldwide. If those conditions aren't met, Tenet will reportedly be shifted to the August 14 release date held by Wonder Woman 1984, pushing the superhero sequel to December. Such a shift would then likely nudge Denis Villeneuve's Dune off its December 18 date and into 2021.

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In the case of the costly Mulan, Disney's live-action remake of the 1998 animated film scheduled for March 27 before it was delayed until July 24, the new movie has "too much global potential to skip a traditional release in theaters." Disney CEO Bob Chapek recently squashed speculation high-profile films like Mulan or Black Widow might skip theaters for digital releases, either on premium video on-demand or on the Disney+ streaming service.

As for Wonder Woman 1984, currently the third major release still scheduled for theaters behind Tenet and Mulan, Bock said, "While I'm sure it would absolutely destroy digital record books, I think it still makes sense to play the wait and see game with this title."

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