Old War, New Rules

“Tenet” and “Mulan” Fight For the Future of Movies

To say that 2020 has been one of the weirdest years in human history might be the understatement of the decade. Thanks to the likes of global pandemics, political protests, murder hornets and UFOs, the world as we know it has changed drastically over the last 10 months. Industries of all kinds are bleeding, and the film industry is no different. Dozens of movies have been postponed, shut down and taken off of release schedules entirely. In a world where movie theaters were already hurting badly due to the increased popularity of streaming services like Netflix, this is the last thing that they needed. 

Now, the streaming wars have come down to a one-on-one showdown between one of cinema’s last auteur filmmakers, someone who is involved in the film in almost every way, and a $130 billion powerhouse. Representing countless movie theaters around the world, Christopher Nolan’s new sci-fi epic “Tenet” is attempting to revitalize the cinematic experience. However, the Mouse House itself has dropped their newest live-action remake, “Mulan,” onto the new Disney+ streaming service in a misguided attempt to give families the option of safe entertainment. Although the two are vastly different from a storytelling perspective, both are eerily similar in several ways. Both cost north of $200 million and require around twice that amount in order to break even. Both of them have received the same critical reception. So, here’s the $500 million question: which film, if any, will succeed?

Let’s start with the lone defender of movie theaters: “Tenet.” Nolan’s decision to sacrifice the biggest blockbuster of the year in order to save cinemas was a brave move. However, it certainly wasn’t a profitable decision. After eight weeks since its domestic release on Sept. 3, “Tenet” has only grossed $52.5 million domestically. To provide some context, Nolan’s last film, “Dunkirk,” made around $50 million in its first weekend. That’s just terrible, and there’s really no way around it. However, the film has excelled internationally, grossing $289.1 million as of Oct. 27. That brings us to a worldwide total of $341.6 million. Now, as awful as that might sound, especially for a blockbuster like “Tenet,” it’s actually better than what experts predicted. Most analysts didn’t even think it would make it past $300 million. However, “Tenet” hasn’t fared well critically, especially compared to Nolan’s last few movies. Several critics have commented on the confusing plot and the deafening sound mixing, which makes it nearly impossible to hear the dialogue on several occasions. Good word-of-mouth is everything when it comes to action movies, especially during a global pandemic. However, “Tenet” has a few tricks that are still up its sleeves, which will be discussed later on.

Now, let’s move on to “Mulan.” The decision to dump a $200 million blockbuster onto streaming definitely ruffled a few feathers, and the high cost of $30 added to the cost of a Disney+ subscription definitely turned off several audience members. Disney has yet to report just how much money “Mulan” has made from streaming, which has led to several third-party estimates. Despite original estimates claiming that “Mulan” made around $260 million in its first week (which has now been shown to be false), it has been confirmed to have made $35.5 million in its first weekend, and it’s estimated to have grossed an additional $58 million over the next two weeks. To be fair, that’s really not that bad. However, it has already vanished from the trending page on Disney+, which presents a problem with streaming services. When a massive movie like “Mulan” is being released digitally, everyone who wants to see it will usually do so over the first few weeks, and not later on. That means that it’s most likely done. However, “Mulan” was still released theatrically in countries that don’t have Disney+, and to put it bluntly, it didn’t go well. Over its first eight weeks, “Mulan” has only made $66.8 million worldwide and only $40.7 million in China, where it was projected to do incredibly well. Instead, it was beaten by “Tenet,” which has already made twice as much in the same timeframe. That brings us to an estimated total of $165 million, more than twice as less as “Tenet,” which is still booming internationally.

The clear winner is “Tenet,” which still has two final blows to land. It’s common knowledge that the most profitable areas of the U.S. are Los Angeles and New York City, both of which are still closed down. The dates of when theaters in both cities will reopen are still unknown at this time of writing, although the rest of New York State is beginning to open up. However, there won’t be any new blockbusters until Christmas Day, when “Wonder Woman 1984” hopefully debuts. “Tenet” has a little under two months to wait until both cities decide to reopen, where it can still gain quite a bit of money. Due to an extreme shortage of big-budget entertainment for the rest of the year, there’s no reason why “Tenet” can’t stay in theaters until Christmas. Also, “Tenet” doesn’t have to stop making money after it leaves theaters. Unlike “Mulan,” which can’t be released anywhere else, “Tenet” will eventually be released digitally and on Blu-Ray, where those who had concerns over the safety of movie theaters can finally watch “Tenet” from the comfort of their living rooms. Thanks to these ancillary markets, composed of PVOD, Blu-Ray and eventual streaming on HBO Max, “Tenet” will most likely just break even, while “Mulan” has already been labeled as a financial failure.

However, it’s quite strange for a Christopher Nolan film to only break even after a release on home media, and it’s even rarer for a Disney movie to flop at the box office. That’s why it’s hard to say that “Mulan” is the loser here, because it isn’t. The real loser is the film industry as a whole. Due to Tenet’s lackluster performance in North America, upcoming movies like “Black Widow,” “West Side Story” and “Wonder Woman 1984” have been pushed back again, and more will likely follow. Until a COVID vaccine is available, and until all audience members can feel safe in a movie theater, this is the world that we’ll live in. We’ll just have to make do with what we’ve been given.