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Warner Bros. postpones 'Tenet' in U.S., considers overseas release first

Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington star in "Tenet." The movie, originally meant to be a tentpole of the 2020 summer season, has now been delayed indefinitely. It might be released overseas before it is in the U.S.

WARNER BROS. PICTURES/TNS

By STEVEN ZEITCHIK | The Washington Post | Published: July 20, 2020

The saga of "Tenet" took another turn Monday as Warner Bros. said it was taking the anticipated Christopher Nolan thriller off its planned mid-August release date, confirming what many in the movie industry believe: with covid-19 cases surging in California and other large states, no major new films will be released in the U.S. until at least September.

Warner Bros. left the door open for the movie to come out in other countries by the end of the summer - before it is released in the U.S. But that too will depend on conditions overseas.

The postponement scuttles Hollywood’s plan for a mid-summer reopening and is likely to delay other entertainment-reopening plans across the country. Disney, which had live-action reboot "Mulan" slated for nine days after "Tenet," does not want to come out before that film and is almost certain to follow suit with its own U.S. postponement.

The twist in Monday’s "Tenet" announcement is the possibility that it would be released elsewhere before it is released in America, in contrast to conventional Hollywood practice.

"Our goals throughout this process have been to ensure the highest odds of success for our films while also being ready to support our theater partners with new content as soon as they could safely reopen," Toby Emmerich, chairman of the studio’s Pictures Group, said in a statement. "We’re grateful for the support we’ve received from exhibitors and remain steadfast in our commitment to the theatrical experience around the world. Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to proliferate, causing us to reevaluate our release dates."

But, crucially, Emmerich also said that, "We are not treating ’Tenet’ like a traditional global day-and-date release, and our upcoming marketing and distribution plans will reflect that" - suggesting the possibility of a release first in overseas territories.

The studio said its fall and winter plans - with "Wonder Woman 1984" and its splashy new take on the science-fiction classic "Dune" set to be released Oct. 2 and Dec. 18, respectively - remain on track. Another planned late-summer release, "The Conjuring 3," scheduled for Sept. 10, will move to next June. A studio spokeswoman declined to provide further comment.

The U.S. postponement deals a blow to the hope of U.S. movie theaters, which badly need revenue after more than four months of staying closed or playing old films.

The overseas question is a tricky one. Hollywood studios have been highly resistant in recent years to putting more than a week, if that, between release dates in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Piracy and plot leaks are both concerns, as is a studio’s desire to maximize its marketing budgets without having to promote two separate release windows.

But the pandemic has changed the equation, forcing studios to rethink large-scale simultaneous releasing both in the U.S and overseas.

It is not expected that "Tenet," which cost some $200 million to produce, would get any kind of online release in the U.S. While clamored for by some fans, such a move, even at a high rental price, would limit the film’s economic upside and also be rejected by Nolan, one of the theatrical business’ most fervent advocates.

While theaters around the world have been steadily reopening, "Tenet" will face a hurdle in China. The world’s second-largest movie market is scheduled to reopen theaters in many regions this week after a long hiatus due to the virus but is requiring that movies run no longer than two hours to limit social interactions. "Tenet" clocks in at about 2 hours 30 minutes. It’s possible Warner Bros.’ is waiting to commit to a new date after it sees when China will lift that restriction.

The release backstory of "Tenet," which stars John David Washington as a man trying to prevent a worldwide disaster, has become almost as mind-bending as one of its director’s films. Originally scheduled for July 17, the film held onto that date even as many other films moved, in large part on Nolan’s hopes that the film could reopen movie theaters around the U.S. Covid-19 surges across the U.S. forced a push to July 31 and then Aug. 12 before Monday’s ambiguous delay.