Tenet was the cinema industry’s guinea pig—a way for studios to gauge audience willingness to return to theaters in every country amid a pandemic. The reality is that most of the world has handled the coronavirus far better than America has: China averaged 26 daily cases over the past two weeks, Japan 543, and Canada 681. Given that Hollywood can no longer count on one of its biggest markets—the U.S.—it’s hard to know what course studios should chart next. Releasing movies on demand, even at a marquee price, to try to recoup costs isn’t workable for a film as expensive as Tenet or Wonder Woman 1984. Disney recently attempted a hybrid approach for Mulan, putting it in theaters internationally while charging Disney+ subscribers $30 to watch it at home. Its opening in China was underwhelming ($23 million), and although Disney hasn’t provided official data on streaming grosses, industry estimates have them pegged at around $33 million over Labor Day—not nearly enough for a movie budgeted at $200 million.
If things were already looking bleak for American cinemas, the immediate future now looks catastrophic. This past weekend, the total domestic box office was less than $15 million—Indiewire estimates that sum amounts to $5,000 per theater, which isn’t enough to pay for basic operating costs. As studios grow more skittish about releasing major films, those numbers will only dwindle. Tenet was supposed to be the industry’s lifeline; for now, Hollywood has nothing else to pin its hopes on.