Can Hollywood survive the lack of North American moviegoers?

moviegoers wearing maskes at tenet screening 2020

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, theaters couldn’t wait to reopen assuming that moviegoers would flock back in droves, but something major has changed in the past six months in North America. With over 200,000 people dead from the virus, people are realizing that risking their health and life just isn’t worth it for a movie. Even for a Christopher Nolan film.

About three quarters of the country’s movie theaters are open, but Americans are not going back in significant numbers in the COVID-era, even with new films coming into the marketplace weekly. Compared to 2019, the box office numbers are down nearly 90 percent. Having New York and California theaters still closed has put a major hurt on Hollywood.

Nolan’s film “Tenet” bringing in $251 million worldwide after a month in worldwide distribution makes it a huge commercial failure, but also a decent box office for a big budget spectacle. This is the world of movies today. If theaters in California and New York remain shuttered, expect a global result between $325 and $350 million worldwide. Yup, most megamovies bring that in in just the first weekend, but again, times have changed, and North America isn’t the center of the universe for box office sales.

“Tenet” was Nolan’s most expensive film to date, costing $200 million with about $90 million in marketing makes it a tough one to regain its money, even with the archaic ‘studio’ accounting. Blockbusters have only gotten more expensive to produce with studios relying heavily on international box office grosses to balance things out. This high-risk, too big to fail system (thought it probably will) was already having trouble, but not life in a pandemic is bringing everything to light much quicker.

With the shut-in, streaming made people realize they didn’t really need to go out for great offerings. While “Tenet” may offer some spectacular scenes, when you have 40 new shows or movies each month on Netflix alone, is one movie really worth the risk? The North American box office is showing that it isn’t.

The biggest movies continue to limp along. According to studio estimates Sunday, Warner Bros.’ “Tenet” earned $4.7 million in its third weekend from nearly 2,930 locations, Disney’s “The New Mutants” added $1.6 million in its fourth weekend, “Unhinged” brought in $1.3 million and Sony’s rom-com “The Broken Hearts Gallery” picked up an additional $800,000 in its second frame.

And newcomers aren’t faring any better. The faith-based “Infidel,” which stars Jim Caviezel, did the best with $1.5 million from just over 1,700 theaters.

This weekend also saw the limited release of two adult dramas, IFC’s “The Nest,” with Jude Law and Carrie Coon, and Bleecker Street’s “The Secrets We Keep,” with Noomi Rapace. Both played in under 500 theaters across the country and neither got much more than $200 per location. “The Nest” earned an estimated $62,000 from 301 locations and “The Secrets We Keep” brought in just under $90,000 from 471 theaters.

“There’s no question that this is an extraordinarily challenging marketplace, especially for North America,” said Paul Dergarabedian, Comscore’s senior media analyst. “This is a slow roll out. It’s going to take some time.”

The nation’s biggest chains have been open for about a month after nearly six months of being closed due to the pandemic and a lack of new releases. But since reopening with enhanced safety measure and the promise of new blockbusters, they haven’t gotten the infusion of business they were hoping for. Indoor theaters are still not open in two of the country’s biggest markets, New York, and Los Angeles.

The North American earnings have not been promising for studios with theatrical releases on the horizon either. Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” has only earned $36.1 million from North American theaters to date. The performance has led some studios to push back releases even further and some wonder whether more will follow. The next major release on the calendar is Disney and Marvel’s “Black Widow” on Nov. 6.

“It’s natural that we’re going to see release date changes for many movies,” Dergarabedian said. “It’s a very unpredictable marketplace.”

Globally “Tenet” has also managed to cross a major milestone this weekend: The $250 million mark.

Still, just because theaters are doing more business internationally does not mean a new movie will be a surefire hit, as Disney’s live-action “Mulan” has proven in China.

After a disappointing debut in China last week, “Mulan” dropped 72% in its second weekend where local audiences have criticized it for being “inauthentic.” The film added $6.5 million in China and $10.9 million total, bringing its international total to $57 million. The $200 million production was supposed to be a massive global theatrical release back in March and The Walt Disney Co. revised plans a number of times before settling on a hybrid release. “Mulan” is currently available for a $29.99 rental for Disney+ subscribers and playing in theaters where the streaming service is not available.

But the industry is also just getting its footing in this new COVID-era marketplace. The box office tracker Comscore was able to release a domestic top 10 chart for the first time in six months.

“Just having a full top 10 chart is a real win for the industry,” Dergarabedian said. “The question is how many big movies are coming out in the next few weeks and months and will the marketplace be able to sustain itself? That remains to be seen.”

We were already heading towards a new normal of cinema attendance, wherein general audiences saw the theatrical experience as one exclusive to those Event movie blockbusters — mostly the output of Disney — while everything else was dismissed as streaming fodder. But now, even the Event films aren’t cause enough to get people into the screenings. No event is big enough to stave off the terror of a pandemic, no matter how much governments lie, or corporations reassure us of our safety.

Without government assistance or the benevolent generosity of a few billionaires, a whole lot of cinemas will not survive this pandemic. AMC Entertainment has already been working overtime to avoid bankruptcy this year. Independent theaters have their own host of problems too. This is a business with a notoriously slim profit margin, one made all the more precarious thanks to studio restrictions and often baffling requirements for showing their films (Disney, in particular, is infamous for the ways it demands a higher cut of ticket prices and long-term commitments in terms of screenings.)

If even the bigger cinema chains in America are forced to pack up business, what happens next? Well, given the recent news that the Paramount Decrees could soon end, thus once again opening up the possibility of major studios owning their own theaters, we very well could see one of the Big Five (or Netflix) putting in a bid for the likes of AMC. Frankly, I’ll be stunned if Disney hasn’t already considered this costly but beneficial investment.

What the coronavirus has done is further expose pre-existing concerns and financial weak spots in the film industry. These blockbusters were always too big and the over-reliance on unreliable international investment a questionable long-term decision. Now, the unease surrounding such issues has been exacerbated in record time, and all the panic over the future of the theatrical experience is louder than ever, and for good reason. It could take a very long time for the industry to feel confident returning films to theaters, and even longer for people to feel comfortable or safe doing the same thing. Time is the key, but it remains to be seen if there’s enough of it for the cinema as a whole to withstand the damage.

tenet tops box office in north america christopher nolan

North America Box Office

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

1. “Tenet,” $4.7 million.

2. “The New Mutants,” $1.6 million,

3. “Infidel,” $1.5 million.

4. “Unhinged,” $1.3 million.

5. “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” $800,000.

6. “After We Collided,” $304,986.

7. “SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run,” $210,000.

8. “Alone,” $190,000.

9. “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” $187,761.

10. “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” $150,000.