Let Them Watch Bootlegs
So, Christopher Nolan—which also means Warner Bros., which also means IMAX (but I’ll get to all that in a second)—has decided to release Tenet overseas next month and then in the U.S. (at least theoretically—but I’ll get to that in a second) in September.
By writing about this two posts in a row, it’s going to sound like I’ve got it in for Nolan. Not really, but it wasn’t my decision to make this year’s entire film market—and potentially the fate of the entire current approach to film production and distribution—
hinge on the release of his film. That seems like a situation it might be kind of important to understand.
Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on film distribution, and I’m assuming that all involved thought this decision through the best they could. What I do know is that we’re currently living in a world where all bets are off and where traditional expertise in any area can buy you a cup of coffee and not much else.
Because figuring out how to parcel out films to the masses really isn’t my métier, what follows doesn’t qualify as much more than a thought experiment. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a little bit of meat on its bones.
In “Is Christopher Nolan Too Much of a Purist for His (& Our Own) Good?” I tried to think through the implications of launching Tenet into foreign markets before the film makes it, one way or another, to American shores. At the time I wrote that piece, the “overseas first” idea was mainly just being floated as a “what if?” but it had a feeling of inevitability to it. The common response I heard was, “No
way Tenet doesn’t get shown both here and there at the same time,” but Warner and IMAX had to have looked at the current state of the pandemic, considered the contractual obligations that said the film had to be released in theaters first, and decided to try to grab the 50% or more of the projected total gross they could reap in foreign lands.
There are many, many implications to all this, but there are two I want to highlight here: As I pointed out one post ago, this makes it not all but inevitable but inevitable that the U.S. will be awash in a tsunami of Tenet bootlegs the second the very first theatrical screening of the film ends. To repeat myself, this means that, with the nation savoring his opus at 360p from a proper-aspect-ratio-be-damned file surreptitiously captured off some movie screen in parts unknown, Nolan will have completely undermined his conviction that people first had to see his film in a movie theater or not at all. (Actually, they will be experiencing it in a theater first, but virtually and in the worst possible way.)
And—as if there wasn’t already more than enough irony here to go around—by bestowing his masterwork upon foreign theaters first, he could be primarily responsible for generating the greatest boon the piracy market has ever seen.
Here’s Point No. 2: I could be utterly wrong about this, but the whole “We’re going to release Tenet in the U.S. in September” part of the announcement smells like a massive exercise in butt covering. Unless the Tenet forces have access to scientific data the rest of us aren’t privy to, there is no way the virus is going to be sufficiently under control a month from now to justify opening movie theaters on any meaningful scale. Even the New York metro area, which pretty much has the situation under control and would be responsible for a large chunk of Tenet’s U.S. take, isn’t in a big hurry to reopen its theaters out of concerns they could help spawn a second wave.
So my potentially meaningless reading of the announcement is that they’re dead serious about releasing Tenet overseas but are being something less than truthful (now there’s a euphemism we should all learn to hate) about the prospect of the film being shown here anytime soon.
At the time of writing, Nolan/Warner/IMAX had, once again, decided to release Tenet to theaters. What I don’t think any living soul honestly knows for sure is when, or if, American theaters will ultimately end up being part of that equation.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs,
a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.