'Tenet' Stuck in Limbo

What is Christopher Nolan to do? Ideally, the right thing.

Chaim Gartenberg of The Verge makes the case that Christopher Nolan should release his new film, Tenet, online:

Put simply, this attitude is dangerous and will put lives at risk. While there’s still a lot we don’t know about how COVID-19 spreads, it’s apparent that spending long amounts of time indoors in close proximity with other people is a major contributing factor. And movie theaters — with close-together seats, circulating air conditioning, guests removing masks to munch on popcorn, and lengthy films — seem to fit that bill perfectly. Everything we know about COVID-19 tells us that the kind of wide-release cultural event Nolan wants will lead to more cases, more hospitalizations, and more deaths.

Tenet is undoubtedly important to Warner Bros., Nolan, and theater chains — I really want to see it, too — but it’s important to remember that it’s just a movie. A movie that isn’t worth risking your life or anyone else’s to go to a theater until the United States has a far better handle on containing the virus than we do right now.

Obviously, it’s a compelling argument. I believe there’s almost no way Nolan agrees to it, but I think the flip side of Gartenberg’s message is equally true. By giving up his quixotic crusade to get Tenet in theaters this year, Nolan would send a message that we need to continue to take COVID-19 very, very seriously until it’s truly under control. It would be the symbolic equivalent of wearing a mask in every photo op. You know, like Bane. And now, even reluctantly, like the President. Leading by example.

Given his love of cinema in particular, I’m guessing Nolan will instead wait until 2021 to release Tenet, if he has to. And I do think he might have to. Because even if we get COVID somewhat under control this year, how many people are realistically going to step foot in a movie theater? I know I’m not. And I love movie theaters. It’s just not worth the risk. Again, obviously.

And so again, Nolan should recognize the state of Limbo Tenet is in and turn the negative into a powerful positive. Release the film online. Help keep people at home. I’m not saying he has to go streaming, he could do iTunes and sell it for $20 a pop. Hell, even more if he wishes. People will pay. So many people. Have you looked at iTunes movies recently (yes, it’s still called iTunes movies)? It’s a pretty sparse situation with regard to marquee new films. Maybe Apple or one of the other companies that runs the rental platforms could even subsidize some of the Tenet release just to keep the lights on at those stores?

This may not fully square the theatrical box office circle — though we all know how well Trolls did thanks to AMC’s reaction to it — but this shouldn’t be about the money at this point, and I don’t think it is. Nolan feels as if he’s holding the entire cinematic industry on his back. But this isn’t the time for that. There are bigger things at stake. As a wise Nolan character once said: “But as a symbol..”