What Does Tenet’s Optimistic Box Office Mean For Indian Theatres?
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It took just three days after its release for exhibitors and distributors to begin calling Christopher Nolan’s Tenet a lifeline for theatres after the country. 

The sci-fi action film grossed Rs 4.25 crore in its opening weekend — the highest for any film since India’s theatres reopened in October. Of the 2 lakh tickets sold over the weekend, trade analysts estimate that the bulk were for shows playing at multiplexes in metros such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. “That’s the nature of the content and the nature of the fan following that the director enjoys,” says Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO of media consulting firm Ormax Media. Collections in tier-2 and tier-3 cities were equally promising — film exhibitor and distributor Akshaye Rathi, who has operations in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, says ticket sales are on par with what they would’ve been in a pre-pandemic world.

What does this mean for the future of Indian theatres at a time when the country is estimated to have lost 10% to 12% of its screens over four-and-a-half months of covid-19 shutdown? “It means that fear psychosis among the people is dead. People have realized that as long as they follow the right safety protocol, they’ll be fine. Exhibitors have realized that the only thing they need is compelling content. Put it out and people will come in big numbers,” says Rathi. 

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The film’s US release in September was met with a more muted response. Warner Bros, Tenet’s distributor, initially refused to break down collections by day and territory, adding its Canadian grosses to the US numbers and confusing analysts. It eventually revealed that the film had earned $9.4 million dollars over its four-day-long Labour Day opening weekend in the US. Tenet’s US and Canada collections are now estimated at a combined $57.6 million. Internationally, the film has grossed $359 million, making back its $200-million production budget, Nolan’s highest for a film.

A mid-pandemic release wasn’t the only challenge to Tenet’s India’s box-office. Its delayed release, by which time low-quality pirated versions had been circulating online for months, and mixed-to-poor reviews calling it “far from Nolan’s finest work” and “a loud, oppressive math exam” didn’t bode well for exhibitors. Over the weekend, it released on roughly 700 screens across the country, with an average of three daily shows per screen. “You can’t do more than three shows a day for a film like Tenet because it’s long and the sanitization procedures undertaken after each screening also take time,” says Rathi. While most of these shows ran at 50% capacity in accordance with government guidelines, some theatres capped occupancy at 25%.

What worked in its favour was being the sole blockbuster film to release in theatres this weekend — other big titles Mank, Sound of Metal and Mulan all dropped on streaming platforms, giving Tenet what PVR CEO Kamal Gianchandani calls a “heavily saturated release, with way too many shows at every multiplex possible”. After two months of theatres screening reruns, the film’s relative novelty is also what drew in viewers. “Multiplexes with four or five screens had been operating only two since theatres reopened in October. They opened the remaining for Tenet,” says Kapoor. 

Now, exhibitors and analysts are pinning their box-office hopes on Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984, which releases on December 24. The success of its first installment, glowing early reviews, release during a festive holiday season and low advance threats of piracy have made them hopeful. Kapoor estimates it will do “double or triple” Tenet’s numbers. “Of course the English version will do extremely well, but its dubbed Indian-language versions will too. That’s the confidence that Tenet has given us,” says Gianchandani. For filmmaker Nikkhil Advani, whose production Indoo Ki Jawani hits theatres this Friday, the plan was always to release the comedy theatrically despite an offer from Netflix. Still, he calls Tenet‘s opening weekend figures a “start”.

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The film may have galvanized theatres for now, but what about the long run? “What we need in India is India’s answer to Tenet — a local film that is as relevant as Tenet was globally,” says Rathi. The hope is that big films such as Rohit Shetty’s cop movie Sooryavanshi and Kabir Khan’s cricket biopic 83, both of which were meant to release earlier this year, will still opt for a theatrical rollout over a digital one. In the meantime, exhibitors are grateful for the lifeline. 

Tenet’s collections have given lakhs of screens globally a new lease of life. It was possibly the difference between cinemas filing for bankruptcy in the middle of a pandemic versus sustaining themselves until now,” says Rathi. “That makes it the most impactful film of the decade.”

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