Box Office Sabermetrics: ‘Tenet’ and Box Office in a Pandemic

As well as my Atlanta Braves have been doing this season despite only having roughly two starting pitchers, I’m having a hard time buying in on this shortened season of baseball. Rather than the regular 162 games, we’ve only gotten 60 this season. That’s just over a third of a regular season, so it’s really hard to know what’s real and what’s a hot streak/slump. It’s usually not until we’ve played 60 games in a regular season that you start to get a firm sense of which teams are real. It’d be like if the NBA said the next season would only be 25 games – how seriously would you consider it an actual season if it’s that short? It’d be exciting on some counts but overall just not the real thing. For example, Christian Yelich, one of the best players in the game right now – winning the NL MVP in 2018 and coming in 2nd place last year – is having the worst season of his life. A guy who led the national league in batting average, slugging and OPS in the past two years is now yucking up a trash line of .208/.451/.796 which if you don’t follow baseball, is a very bad line. But keep in mind, this is over just a 40 game stretch, which in a regular season would just be considered a bad slump. Over 40-60 games, teams and players will get hot or cold but it’s usually just considered a stretch in a regular 162 game season. Yelich’s 9 home runs and 19 RBIs would still look bad over a 40 game stretch in a regular season, but in this shortened season people will look at his stats and go “what the hell happened that year???” How real is Yelich’s down year? There’s no way this is real. I refuse to believe he’s actually that bad, and we’re instead just witnessing the worst 40 game stretch of his career that would just be a slump in a 162 game season. Does that make sense? Now, I give you all this information to ask you this: how real are the box office returns for Tenet?

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, coming out almost 3 months later than originally planned, is the first real test for large studios on whether or not it’s worth releasing a big budget film in this climate. Now, I’ve already written about what an idiotic idea it is to go to the theater right now – it is a certifiable dumb bitch move – so I won’t repeat all that and instead just focus on the numbers. With a budget of $200 million, it was set to be one of the biggest releases of the year, but now is being released in the movie theater equivalent of a 60 game season with about half of the theaters it would normally be playing in. 

As to be expected, the returns so far for the film are underwhelming even under the circumstances. While internationally (in countries that have successfully reopened because they can handle their shit, especially big market countries like China and Japan) it’s sported a relatively healthy $178 million return, but domestically it has been grim – like myself and anybody with a working brain could have predicted. Its opening weekend starting September 3rd, it brought just $20 million in. And the second weekend? It suffered a miserable dropoff, bringing in just $9.5 million. Not even $30 million domestically for one of the biggest releases of the year.

Now, some things to consider. Because of the pandemic, Tenet is essentially playing in half the theaters it normally would stateside. It opened in 2,810 theaters which may seem like a lot, but consider Nolan’s last film Dunkirk whose widest release was in 4,014 theaters. So essentially Tenet was going into domestic release with the handicap of only having just over half the theaters to play in. Again, 60 games instead of 162. Continuing, Dunkirk opened to the hearty tune of $50 million domestically and hit $288 million domestically by the end of its run and over $500 million worldwide. Dunkirk had the full market to play with, while Tenet obviously didn’t. 

So what do we do with this info? Nothing, if you want. You could easily say that without covid, the film would have opened to an easy $50-70 million domestically with a full roster of theaters to play in. Just like I can argue Yelich would have had a much better season if it was 162 games. It’s an easy argument to make, but one with little impact on actuality. Warner Bros and Nolan have to ask themselves, was it worth releasing a film that likely would have scored $500-600 million worldwide that will now instead likely top out at $300 million? Was it worth the cost just to have it in theaters this year? How do they analyze this information?

I don’t think we’ll hold this bad stretch against Yelich when we look back on his career. But I do think the film industry needs to hold this bad stretch for Tenet against themselves and realize it’s simply not worth the losses to release big budget films right now. You think these studios want to watch Wonder Woman 1984, No Time to Die and Dune hemorrhage money just so they can release them this year? I’m no businessman, but I just don’t find that a viable plan to release something in a climate that’s positioned against it making money, especially when these big budget films are only profitable once they go past half a billion in returns. Like I’ve said before, studios need to realize this year is done at the theaters. They need to release whatever is viable on VOD and hold out for next year. I do not have faith in them to do the right thing here, but I still hold out hope. In the meantime, I must once again ask that you do not go to the theater right now. No movie is worth the risk. And to studios, the math is simply not on your side. You need to pack it up and like Yelich just get through this bad stretch so you can do the real thing next year.

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