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© 2020 Warner Bros.

Title: Tenet
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Christopher Nolan
Release Date: September 3, 2020
Domestic Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Rated: PG-13
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller


Box Office Information

  • Budget: $205 Million
  • Financed by: Warner Bros.
  • Domestic Box Office Gross: $58,456,624
  • Overseas Box Office Gross: $305,200,000


Framed in the twilight world of international espionage and armed with only one word – Tenet – the Protagonist embarks on a journey through time to save a depleted planet.

In a world where the future has declared war on the present, mistakes from the past can be rectified using a technology called inversion.

A visually spectacular riddle of a film – Tenet serves up triple helpings of visual goo and a plotline that makes your neurons work overtime.

Everything we’ve come to expect from Producer Christopher Nolan is packed into this 150 minute adrenalin-charged and narratively complex film.

Official Trailer



The idea for Tenet takes us back in time [sic] some 20 years – but writer and director Christopher Nolan didn’t put pen to paper until 2014 for this 2020 flick.

Described by Complex as a Bond film that deals with the concept of time inversion – Nolan wanted to make a movie that addressed the physical realities of time travel – these had first been explored in his widely acclaimed 2000 film, Memento.

Memento opens with a bullet flying out of a man’s skull and back into the gun.

Tenet manifests itself as a tapestry of effects and ideas that Nolan had already tried out in previous films:

There are things that you learn how to make, and everything in Tenet, interestingly, on the surface of it, they’re all versions of action or particular ways of filming things that I’ve tried before in a different form. You’re building on what you’ve done in the past.

Pre-production for Tenet began in late 2018, through to early 2019 – with Nolan and Production Designer Nathan Crowley scouting out locations in the first quarter of 2019.

Principle photography started May 2019 and involved a crew of over 250 people – with filming taking place across several countries including the U.S., India, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Denmark & Estonia. Striking when you consider that this was done during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The movie was shot using a combination of 63mm film and IMAX – using Panavision lenses for low-light conditions.

Post-production included some workarounds due to the pandemic – with Ludwig Göransson – chosen as the composer – recording musicians at their homes.

All in the Production budget amounted to some $200 million – making Tenet Nolan’s most expensive movie to date.

Tenet Box Office Numbers

Tenet didn’t seem to strike a chord with U.S. moviegoers – with only $58.4 million (16.1%) coming domestically – of course, the pandemic meant that a number of theatres were still shuttered.

The overseas box office gross was significantly more, bringing in a $305 million (83.9%) return. This is consistent with previous Nolan films – with releases overseas typically earning 50% or more of the overall gross.

Regardless, it wasn’t enough.

China saw the second-highest gross with $66.6 million and a September 4th release. In the rest of the Asia-Pacific Japan topped the bill with a $25.9 million return.

In Europe, with a late August release, the United Kingdom earned the third-highest Gross with $23.4 million; with France ($22.9 million) and Germany ($19.9 million) respectively.

Latin America trickled in with a meager $2.4 million taken in Mexico.

The release date for Tenet was pushed back a total of three times as Warner Bros repeatedly removed it from their release schedule. It was originally supposed to debut on July 17, then July 31, and then August 12. Finally hitting screens in the U.S. on September 3.

Time is of course money – with film executives estimating that each push back of a few weeks costs in the order of $200,000 to $400,000 in marketing fees alone.

Opening weekend saw Tenet ranked 3rd overall with a total of 324 theatres taking $1.7 million.

The film gained traction with its full [sic] U.S. release and increased some 445% in its second weekend – with 2,810 theatres bringing in $9.3 million or $11.9 million taking into account the Labor Day weekend.

The movie showed out at some 2,930 theatres during its widest release and ran for 312 days/44 weeks.

Tenet ceded top spot at the box office after its fifth weekend – having been there since the second weekend – with The War with Grandpa taking its place.

The production budget alone for Tenet was $200 million – but significant marketing costs and push-backs mean that we’re probably looking at $300 million to $350 million all in.

Due to the pandemic, the film did not follow a typical day-and-date release – and this was reflected in the marketing and distribution plans from Warner.

Regardless, Tenet would still need to have pulled in $450 million to $500 million just to break even – as estimated by Box Office analyst Jeff Bock.

It’s a Wrap

Tenet came in 9th overall in 2020 for Worldwide Box Office Gross – with only one other movie in the Science Fiction genre – The Invisible Man – ranking in the top ten and placed at 5th.

Given that The Invisible Man was put together with a shoe-string budget of less than $10 million – and took $139 million worldwide – the disconnect between Nolan’s reach and the numbers becomes apparent.

That said, the numbers must be judged in the context of the pandemic – with both New York City and Los Angeles (which account for 20% of domestic gross) not at capacity.

What’s next for Nolan?

Paul Dergarabedian at Comscore recently spoke of Nolan’s continued commitment to the theatre experience:

He is the biggest supporter of the movie theater experience so I think it’s not as much about the potential box office as it is about the good will it might generate as the first brand new high-profile theatrical release.

It is significant that all five of Nolan’s recent films have carried huge budgets and likely overran his appeal.

That said, as restrictions begin to lift, it seems that Nolan remains committed to traditional theatre releases and has not been perturbed with the poor numbers posted by Tenet.

It remains to be seen if studios agree.

One Comment

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  1. Despite the divisive reaction, I really liked it and it’s a real shame the film didn’t do as well as it could have, but that’s COVID for you. The aftermath of its poor performance, though, is very interesting indeed. Nolan’s professional relationship with WB broke up earlier this year after his disagreements with the HBO Max day-and-date release plan for 2021 (which might well have been put in place due to Tenet’s poor performance). It looks like Universal could well be the new distributor for all his films, assuming his Oppenheimer biopic is a success for them, but we’ll have to wait until 2023 to find out.

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