Film News

If They Open It, Will You Come?: Tenet & Moviegoing in a Pandemic

Christopher Nolan’s thrice-delayed blockbuster Tenet is finally playing in my local movie theater, and I can’t quite believe it. (Frankly, I’m a little stunned the theater is open at all.) As The Atlantic’s James Hamblin recently joked, “I feel like we jumped directly from February to September and it somehow also took a hundred years.” Yes, it’s 2020. Time, ha, has no meaning, which maybe makes this the perfect moment for a twisty Nolan thriller about…um, I wanna say, super-secret spies who gain the ability to experience time in reverse?

Full disclosure: I don’t really know what Tenet’s about. Haven’t seen the film. Didn’t understand any of the trailers. Yet, like the rubes watching the magic tragics in The Prestige, I’m not really looking for clarity. I don’t really want to know. I want to be fooled, but more than anything else, I want to be entertained and then immediately talk about it with all of my friends. Pesky plot holes, indecipherable dialogue, holy-shit action sequences, what-does-it-all-mean-theorizing – yes, to all of that. Let’s go full Reddit message board on this.

Does that pent up need for blockbuster monoculture conversation mean I’m also willing to sit in a closed room with strangers in movie theaters that seem to have inconsistently enforced social distancing rules during a once-in-a-century pandemic? Welllllll….

Let’s step back.

Back In March, a Hundred Years Ago

“When this crisis passes, the need for collective human engagement, the need to live and love and laugh and cry together, will be more powerful than ever. The combination of that pent-up demand and the promise of new movies could boost local economies and contribute billions to our national economy. We don’t just owe it to the 150,000 workers of this great American industry to include them in those we help, we owe it to ourselves. We need what movies can offer us.”

And who says Christopher Nolan doesn’t have a heart? Those were his words in the Washington Post op-ed he authored in March as part of an industry-wide effort to lobby the United States Congress for a bailout. Nolan’s high-minded ideals about filmgoing’s communal spirit and empathy machine power – hat tip, Robert Ebert – seem particularly aching when read now, what with the country currently stuck in a rapidly worsening cold war between Blue America and Red America. Elsewhere in the op-ed, however, Nolan bottom-lined it: the movie theater industry employs thousands and adds billions to the economy, and it’s simply not good in the long-term for all of that to disappear.

Tenet Vs. Mulan

In the seventh months that have passed since Nolan’s op-ed, Congress passed the CARES Act, movie theaters just barely managed to stay in business despite 90-plus days of no business, and Tenet was delayed three times as Disney – via its own blockbuster, Mulan – and WarnerMedia engaged in a game of chicken to see which studio would be the first to put its full muscle behind opening a big movie in theaters in the middle of a pandemic.

Disney eventually blinked. Mulan, in the States at least, is heading to Disney+ for a thirty buck rental fee; Tenet is opening in theaters around the world. In fact, many of those in Europe and Canada have had Tenet for a week now. Disney did, however, put The New Mutants into theaters last weekend, with hardly any fanfare and thus far meager returns. So, I guess they did technically beat WarnerMedia back to theaters, but a long-delayed, orphaned comic book movie with no realistic chance of a sequel is a far different beast, financially, than a Christopher Nolan blockbuster (or live-action remake like Mulan).

The Dire Financials

The American theaters will take whatever they can get. Even with the CARES Act and various other sources of loans, it sure feels like we were this close to AMC – the country’s largest theater chain – declaring bankruptcy. At its lowest, AMC furloughed its own CEO and posted a 98% revenue drop. Thanks to some $500 million in long term debt loans, AMC now says its financially secure through the end of the year, but not every chain can say the same. As of this writing, the National Association of Theater Owners is still lobbying Congress for stimulus relief, arguing that movie theaters stand alongside hotels, travel companies, amusement parks, franchise businesses, and shopping centers as the hardest hit by the pandemic.

Who knows when or if Congress will pass more stimulus relief. So, where permitted, theaters around the country are re-opening with new social distancing measures like mandatory masks and limited seating capacity, as you can see below via Variety. As Wired reasoned, “Moviegoing is a multibillion-dollar business; a fraction of billions is better than a fraction of nothing.”

How Badly Do You Want Movie Theaters Back?

Back in May, it was a far different story. The only theaters opened were in states like Texas that had yet to experience their true first wave of COVID-19, but the people there didn’t feel safe risking it just to see a movie. The CEO of Texas theater chain Santikos Entertainment told Vulture the company wasn’t really making any money; it was just giving people a place to go. Not too long after that, a national survey found that nearly three out of every four Americans said they missed going to movie theaters. (As a reminder, recent MPAA data indicates around 70% of the US/Canada audience attends at least one movie a year.)

Nostalgically missing something in May, however, is far different from actually going out to see that thing in September. For example, The Hollywood Reporter found that nearly half of survey respondents would wait at least a month before heading to a movie theater after its re-opening, presumably preferring to sit back for several weeks to see how everything plays out. For example, the first time someone I knew ventured back into a movie theater my first instinct wasn’t to hear their take on the film they saw – I just wanted to hear about their moviegoing experience and whether they felt safe.

Because, honestly, when New York governor Andrew Cuomo recently offered the following explanation for why his state has yet to re-open theaters I couldn’t passionately disagree:

“On a relative risk scale, a movie theater is less essential and poses a high risk. It is congregant. It is one ventilation system. You are seated there for a long period of time. Even if you are at 50 percent capacity with one or two seats between the two of you, this is a risk situation and … movie theaters are not that high on the list of essentials.”

High Risk, Low Reward

Tenet, at the end of the day, is just a movie – a big, expensive Christopher Nolan assault on the senses and linear storytelling, of course, but still ultimately just a movie. Sure, there’s an entire industry with thousands of related jobs riding on Tenet doing well so that other new movies might actually play in theaters later this year, but just about every other industry across society can mount a similar argument about the extreme stakes right now. What used to be “we’re in this together” has since become “we’re all pretty fucked, so why not herd immunity.”

Not the greatest strategy but it’s where America is at right now. As Vanity Fair film critic Richard Lawson put it while debating the ethics of reviewing a movie like Tenet right now and thus tacitly encouraging people to risk it all for a trip to the theater: “With no central guidance on how to maneuver the undulating circumstances of COVID, we’re left to worry and negotiate with ourselves and immediate communities. We’re still suffering without any unified idea of What We’re Supposed To Do. That trickles all the way down to entertainment, a necessary and benign diversion only to the point that it steers us headlong into further disaster.”

In one earlier calculation of how this was all supposed to go, movie theaters were supposed to be a high risk, Phase IV-level institution meaning they wouldn’t re-open until things mostly seemed back to normal. Countries like China and South Korea have met that threshold, and China’s movie theaters are now posting big business. We haven’t been nearly as successful, but we’re trying anyway because there’s no real plan/further stimulus and until there is everyone’s just doing the best they can.

Yeah, But Is It Even Safe?

Yet, going back to a movie theater – even in a country that has botched its COVID-19 response as thoroughly as America – might be safer than you think. Throughout the pandemic, Vulture has been checking in with Dr. Robert Lahita – chairman of medicine at St. Joseph’s Health in New Jersey, professor of medicine at New York Medical College, and adjunct professor of medicine at Rutgers – to get his take on whether it’s safe to go to a movie theater right now. Back when the pandemic was new and our understanding of the science limited, he didn’t see how moviegoing could be safe until there’s a vaccine. Now, however, he thinks it’s doable as long as the theaters honor the social distancing measures – updated air filters, mandatory masks, reduced seating capacity, mandatory spaces between people who didn’t come together, routine deep cleaning – they’ve put in place and moviegoers comply.

“We tell them to wear a mask, we keep social distancing, you can buy food — but don’t eat the food until you get into the theater,” Lahita advises. “[Family members] can sit next to you because you’re with them all the time and you know their health situation. But the [other] people in the theater should be at least two rows apart.”

“Nothing is 100 percent safe,” Lahita adds. “But I would say you’re 95 percent safe if you go to the movies [with all of the stated measures in place].

This, however, is far from the consensus opinion. The AV Club dialed up a bunch of scientists to ask the “is it safe” question. “Short of renting out an entire theater, which is obviously not an option for most of us, there is no scenario in which going to a movie theater is a good idea,” says Dr. Anne W. Rimoin, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center For Global And Immigrant Health at the University Of California, Los Angeles. Her sentiments are echoed by Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: “It’s just about the last thing I’d do right now,” says the physician and epidemiologist, who is also a former city health commissioner and host of the podcast America Dissected.

Sidebar: You can actually rent out an entire theater at the Alamo Drafthouse for $150, though not at all locations. So that’s a thing that’s happening now.

The medical experts interviewed by Healthline were a little more varied in their opinions:

Dr. Chaitanya Mandapakala, a pulmonologist in Kentucky and self-avowed Christopher Nolan stan: “There is no movie that is good enough for me to risk going to a movie theater at this point.”

Dr. Vinisha Amin of the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health: “Going to the movie theater is still medically considered a high-risk activity which can predispose greater numbers of individuals to acquire the virus. Having a cozy movie night with the immediate family within the comfort of one’s own home remains a great option.”

Mariea Snell, assistant director of the Online Doctor of Nursing Practice program at Maryville University, says she’s looking forward to “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” and that “nothing is without risk during this time.” If possible, however, she advises we choose a drive-in theater over a brick and mortar location.

Dr. Supriya Narasimhan, the division chief of infectious diseases and medical director of infection prevention at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, says movie theaters should have even stricter standards than schools: “Extrapolating to the movie theater question, it is even harder to make such decisions because we cannot necessarily check the address and prevent people from one area with high COVID rates from going to an open theater in another area which has low COVID rates. So I would require a much lower county-wide transmission rate to open an indoor entertainment venue than say a school. But of course, this is a public health and political decision.”

She’s looking forward to Wonder Woman 1984, but she’s going to wait for it to hit streaming.

It’s Not Like We Don’t Have Other Options

The streaming wars haven’t gone anywhere. There’s still the entire history of TV and film at your fingertips to explore from the safety of your home. This weekend alone is stacked with various possible must-watch options like Charlie Kauffman’s new film I’m Thinking of Ending Things on Netflix, The Boys’ second season on Amazon Prime, Hilary Swank’s buzzy sci-fi series Away on Netflix. Then of course there’s also Mulan on Disney+, charting a brave new course for film distribution history while Tenet and WarnerMedia admirably seek to save the old.

But we’re publishing a review of Tenet this morning. (Update: here it is.)  Julianne went to a Regal IMAX movie theater to see it and felt safe. I’m planning on seeing Tenet later this evening at the local drive-in. We are each fortunate enough to have those as options. If you don’t, I’m sorry. If you do and don’t feel comfortable with the related risks – even at a drive-in, for example, you can be exposed to COVID if you use the bathroom – I understand that as well.

As many of us have grown so fond of intoning, it’s 2020; everything’s fucked. How you choose to distract yourself – well, at least you still have that choice. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have new episodes of The Boys to watch and I really need to finish that first season of Cobra Kai. From my couch.

Are movie theaters open in your neck of the woods? If so, do you feel comfortable going back? Or would you rather talk about Cobra Kai? Like, is adult Daniel LaRusso kind of blah? And, bringing it all back to The Boys, does Elisabeth Shue ever show up for a cameo? Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. I’m only on episode 5. I do, however, assume the Hillary Swank Karate Kid movie – yeah, they’re pretending that never happened. 

Please share your Cobra Kai – er, I mean movie theater and Tenet-related thoughts in the comments.


  1. Firstly Glad to know you and Kelly are both well as you have been quiet of late and figured with lockdown there would have ben increased articles of classics or genres on streaming. My two cents? It aint safe going back and Tenet is the test case for cinemas. Nobody understands it but the marketing has been about making us curious to see it. I will wait for streaming? Why? Because it looks like it will give me the same reaction on the small screen (which isnt a small screen as I have a huge TV) and COVID has just given me another reason to wait for streaming. All the movie distributors want to distribute to streaming but the cinemas are bullying them into not doing so (Fast 9 anyone?). So its the final nail before we lose cinema. As for Mulan? Yep Im gonna pay to stream it. I got kids and an extended bubble famiy that will make the payment worth its while compared to taking them all to the cinema and hope they dont put their sticky hands all over the seats and armrests. And yeah I loved Cobra Kai and cant wat for the 3rd season. TV streaming channels are taking risks with franchise movies like th karate kid that movies would never dare do. Kudos to Youtube for getting what is special about CK.

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