How Warner Bros. is selling the single most important movie of the year.
The stakes could not be higher. Whether or not theaters are open, and how safe they might be amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, has been endlessly discussed and debated. It’s been the subject of more hot takes and think pieces than defunding the police.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, Tenet is finally here.
Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest film comes with more baggage than Princess Vespa fleeing her wedding on Druidia and more expectations than an only child going to the same college where her father was student body president.
John David Washington stars as The Protagonist, a man who is recruited into a mysterious spy organization, given only the word “tenet” to guide him as he’s ushered into a world where terrorism and war can be prevented by examing the artifacts that fall backward through time from the future to the present. The war in question is one that seems to be caused by Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch married to Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Helping him are the scientist who explains how time inversion works named Laura (Clémence Poésy) and his handler Neil (Robert Pattinson).
Warner Bros. originally planned a July release for the film, putting it in the middle of what was sure to be a hot summer movie season. The world had other plans, though, and after a number of delays because of theater closures resulting from the pandemic it is finally coming to U.S. theaters, a week after its international release, which brought in about $53 million. Over the course of 2020 it has been held up as the great savior of theaters, the title that would bring audiences back after months of watching movies at home or at drive-ins.
Now we see if that hope was in any way justified. Nolan is a beloved filmmaker whose work is largely praised, but initial reviews have been somewhat mixed, giving it a 78 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That lukewarm reception may be giving theater owners additional concern. Even if they acknowledge that recovery may not be quick, this is the basket in which they have placed most – if not all – of their eggs. AMC Theaters has put off reopening a few times, largely in reaction to this movie’s delays, but is now touting how 70 percent of its locations will be open this weekend. Other chains like Regal have also promoted how many of their screens will be open and in what states, depending on local restrictions on group gatherings.
In some ways, it benefits by not actually being the first big studio release to come back to theaters. After a few smaller titles have come out recently, last week Disney put The New Mutants on screens, and while the $7 million take for that film might have been disappointing, it essentially served as the warm-up act for this week.
With all that on the record, let’s look at how Warner Bros. has selling the film over the last several months, right up to release.
The Protagonist strides toward the camera on the first poster (by marketing agency BOND), released last December. The image is split down the middle, showing him walking away on the other side, which is also turned upside down, hinting at the fractured nature of the story.
In July the second poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts) came out, once more showing a split image of The Protagonist, a scene of apparent devastation in the background. Note that this one still has the mid-August release date.
An IMAX poster came out later in July that features multiple versions of The Protagonist placed around the expanded canvas, similar war-like scenes again shown in the background. Nolan is not only mentioned on this one but also identified as the director of Inception and Dunkirk.
The first trailer (24 million views on YouTube), released in December, is as enigmatic as you’d expect from a Christopher Nolan movie. The Protagonist has passed some kind of rigorous test and now finds himself in “the afterlife,” though whether that’s the name of an organization or some other designation is unclear. Whatever the case, he’s now part of a team tasked with preventing the end of the world, and his role allows him to see things in a non-linear, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey kind of way. There are car chases and expertly choreographed action sequences and, at the end, more questions then there were at the beginning.
The Protagonist is introduced to the word “tenet” almost as soon as the second trailer (28.7 million views on YouTube), released in late May and debuting in Fortnight, begins. From there he – and we – learn about the job he’s undertaking, one that has implications including preventing something much worse than armageddon. There’s discussion of how the time “inversion” he and others are capable of works and how it helps them do their job, and a more or less clear statement of who it is behind the threat they have to extinguish. Throughout the trailer the audience is reminded that Nolan is the creative force behind the film and, at the very end, an emphatic statement that the movie will be coming to theaters.
The “final” trailer (9.8 million views on YouTube) came out in late August, just after release plans were finalized by the studio. There’s a bit more of the story offered here, though not enough to come close to fully explaining what exactly is happening. But we see how The Protagonist is being trained and is given a mission to, essentially, prevent a war that hasn’t happened yet by manipulating time. It’s all very slick, sold like a James Bond adventure complete with fast car chases and more. Notably, it features an end card reminding fans the film opens September 3 “where theaters are open.”
Online and Social
Unless I’m missing something, the official website for the movie seems to just have the trailer and a gallery of posters along with a button to buy tickets. There were also the usual social profiles that offered promos and links over the last few months.
Advertising and Publicity
In a surprise move, the first teaser was attached to Hobbs and Shaw when it was released in early August. That teaser was not immediately released online, generated more questions about the movie – still in production at the time – than it answered, but it certainly created a good amount of buzz.
A brief look at the still-secret film was shared with attendees of CCXP in Brazil in December of last year.
As the first trailer was being released a massive ad buy took place, including a big digital ad on Times Square signage.
The second trailer received a similar but different big stage, debuting and screening hourly in Fortnite, an attempt to gain the attention of that game’s players. Some of Nolan’s previous films were also screened within the game environment.
A video was released in mid-August by Skyscape, a company that trades in the history and techniques of spycraft throughout the ages. Narrated by Hayley Atwell, the video digs into the mysteries surrounding the word “tenet” that date back to ancient times and some of the places it has appeared along with what those appearances might mean.
Initial U.S. screenings were scheduled for three days beginning August 31 at select venues like Chicago’s Music Box Theater and others. Tickets went on sale for those previews went on sale on 8/21.
Rapper Travis Scott teased a song he created for the film, one that was previewed before its scheduled debut during TNT’s broadcast of the Mavericks/Clippers game on 8/21. The song was released online that day and is featured in the final trailer.
Washington, Pattinson, Debicki, Branagh and others praised Nolan in a behind-the-scenes featurette that explored how massive the movie is, what the primary story themes are and how it was all made.
Media and Press
Casting and other details came out last year in fits and starts, adding to the mystery of the project while building anticipation.
Because shooting had just begun there wasn’t footage to show, but Warner Bros. still included the film among the upcoming releases it promoted to CineEurope attendees in June of last year.
A first look photo was released just before the first trailer came out.
Around May the movie began to become something of a lightning rod with regard to the state of movie theaters. In the weeks prior some states had begun to open up the economies a bit more, releasing some of the pandemic-restricting rules, including on theaters. It seemed likely, then, that Tenet would become the first major studio release since almost all screens were closed, and theater owners were hoping built up anticipation could push it to a $100 million opening weekend.
Nolan even publicly stated that he hoped that would be the case, reiterating his commitment to theatrical releases. And Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff made similar statements, name-dropping this movie specifically, all in an attempt to both set audience expectations that it would not be coming to streaming and to reassure theater owners the studio was not abandoning them entirely.
But rosy predictions and wishful thinking may not be enough to convince people who are still skittish about public gatherings to sit in the dark with dozens of strangers, even if theaters put social distancing guidelines in place. And it became clear WB was going to need theaters to be open in at least a half-dozen major markets to make it worth moving forward. NATO was reported to promise WB that 90 percent of theaters would be open by mid-July, but what that assurance was based on wasn’t immediately clear, especially considering not only public hesitancy but also the logistical complexities of bringing workers back on and ramping up operations that have shut down for months.
Around the end of May the scale of the production began to become the focus of the press, including interviews with Nolan where he talked about the massive practical effects employed. At the same time Washington commented on the fan theory that this was some kind of sequel to Nolan’s Inception.
One theme that was consistent in the press through June was that the cast wasn’t much more in-the-know than the audience. A profile of Washington had both him and Pattinson talking about how little they understood the mind-bending nature of the story, with similar comments made by Branagh. Nolan, though, stated he thought the cast got what was happening. He also spoke about helping editor Jen Lame get the rhythm of the story down and more.
A lot of previous ground was covered in an EW cover story package that included fresh looks at the film along with the usual comments about its groundbreaking nature. Debecki revealed a few new details about her character in another interview while also talking about working with Nolan and more.
Let’s address a few open questions and issues.
First, the campaign is pretty great. It sells a slick spy thriller wrapped in a time-twisting sci-fi adventure, James Bond meets “Legends of Tomorrow.” Many of the hallmarks of Nolan’s brand of filmmaking are present, from the slick production values to the stylized lens everything is viewed through. Nolan’s movies are known for being layered mysteries the audience is asked to wade through and that’s exactly what’s being sold here, with few of the story’s details being revealed while lots of great set pieces are shown off.
But the question remains whether the combination of the strength of the campaign and pandemic cabin fever will turn out enough of the audience to make Nolan and WB’s insistence on a theatrical release for the $200 production worth the hassle. They’re aiming for the sweet spot on three overlapping groups: 1) Those interested in the movie on its face, 2) those living in areas where theaters are open for business and 3) those willing to put health concerns aside and endure the frustrations of spaced seating, mask requirements and more that are in place at theaters.
Reports of ticket presales are imperfect measures to gauge actual intent, and overseas results are no more helpful given most countries outside the U.S. have done far better in getting the pandemic under control. So we wait and see if Tenet will provide the way out of the darkness industry insiders and others have been waiting for.