Christopher Nolan films usually bring in at least $50 million just in North America on opening weekend, but we are quickly learning that a $20.2 million opening is the new success. Even during a holiday weekend. This was Hollywood’s best domestic tally since the middle of March when the COVID-19 pandemic forces theaters to shut down.

As the coronavirus continues spreading throughout America, 93,908 new cases were reported on Friday and Saturday alone, “Tenet” was seen by many as a test for Hollywood. A huge test for big spectacle films like “Wonder Woman 1984” and the latest James Bond (and last for Daniel Craig) “No Time to Die.” With these numbers, the studios are scrambling to see if pushing these into 2021 could be a better bet. With all the confusion over a vaccine coming just in time for the election, many Americans are already stating they won’t take it fearing that Donald Trump has turned this into a political thing. There is also the possibility of streaming services, but big films are meant for big screens.

The result could be greeted as either the rejuvenation of U.S. cinemas — more Americans went to the movies this weekend than they have in nearly six months — or a reflection of drastically lowered standards for Hollywood’s top blockbusters given the circumstances.

David A. Gross, who runs Franchise Entertainment Research, a film consultancy, assessed the domestic turnout for “Tenet” as “fair.”

“Audience concern with theater safety remains a deterrent,” he said in an email. “‘Tenet’ is a strong release, and Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. deserve enormous credit for their effort. For now, this is as good as it gets.”He estimated that “Tenet” would have collected about $50 million over its first three days under normal circumstances. “Tenet” cost roughly $200 million to make, not including marketing costs. Ticket sales are typically split 50-50 between studios and cinemas, but Warner Bros. was able to negotiate a 65 percent share, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Warner Bros. chose to remain silent with just a news release stating it was “very pleased” with the initial domestic result, while stressing the $129 million it has made overseas.

About 70% of U.S. movie theaters are currently open; those in the country’s top markets, Los Angeles and New York, remain closed. Those that are operating are limiting audiences to a maximum of 50% capacity to distance moviegoers from one another. “Tenet” played in 2,810 North American locations, about three-fourths of what most major releases typically launch in.

Warner Bros. declined to split up U.S. and Canadian box-office receipts. Theaters in Canada, where COVID-19 cases are much lower than in the U.S., began showing “Tenet” a week earlier. The film debuted stateside with nightly preview screenings Monday through Wednesday, and the official opening on Thursday. Warner Bros. included all of the above in its estimated gross Sunday, along with expected returns for Monday’s Labor Day.

“Tenet” opened stronger in China. It debuted there with $30 million in ticket sales from Friday to Monday. Overall internationally, “Tenet” has exceeded expectations. In two weeks of release, its overseas total is $126 million, with a global tally thus far of $146.2 million.

Warner Bros. has emphasized that the usual opening weekend calculus is out the window. Few onlookers felt it was possible to gauge how “Tenet” would open. The film, which cost $200 million to make and at least $100 million to market, will need to get close to $500 million to break even.

In the film’s favor:

It currently has the big screen almost entirely to itself. Some multiplexes played “Tenet” as much as 100 times over the weekend. And with little on the horizon, Warner Bros. is counting on a long run for “Tenet.”

“Tenet” did not play drive-in theaters areas where indoor theaters remain closed, prompting some fans to fly out of state to see it. Warner withheld the film from certain drive-in cinemas to protect eventual ticket sales at indoor theaters in those markets. Concerns about piracy, keeping the plot under wraps and sound quality also played a role.

Not in the film’s favor:

Audiences didn’t love Nolan’s latest time-bender. Moviegoers gave the thriller, starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, a “B” CinemaScore, the lowest grade for a Nolan release since 2006′s “The Prestige.”

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Hollywood is watching closely. With the majority of the studios’ top productions delayed until next year, the industry is experimenting with how to release its most expensive movies in the COVID-era. The Walt Disney Co. this weekend also debut its $200 million live-action “Mulan” remake, but did so as a $30 purchase for Disney+ subscribers.

Disney on Sunday didn’t share digital returns for “Mulan” — a practice that’s been common among streaming companies and previous anticipated VOD releases like Universal’s “Trolls World Tour” and Disney’s own “Hamilton.” But “Mulan” is also playing in theaters in some overseas territories. It began with $5.9 million in Thailand, Taiwan, the Middle East, Singapore and Malaysia. Next week, it debuts theatrically in its more important market: China.

The release of “Tenet” was also hotly debated, given the health risks associated with indoor gatherings. Several prominent film critics said they wouldn’t review “Tenet” over ethical concerns.

Theater chains, meanwhile, are struggling to remain solvent. Exhibitors have argued that they need new films to survive. Last weekend offered the first significant opportunity for U.S. cinemas to convince moviegoers to come back. Disney’s “The New Mutants,” a long delayed “X-Men” spinoff, collected about $7 million in 2,412 locations last weekend. Its total is now up to $11.6 million.

IMAX said that “Tenet” provided $11.1 million in global ticket sales over the weekend — a new high-water mark for the chain for September, which is typically a sleepy month for visual spectacles. “It proves that there is a lot of pent-up demand,” Richard Gelfond, IMAX’s chief executive, said by phone on Sunday. “Where theaters are open and people feel safe, they want to go.”

In weeks since theaters have started to resume business, a handful of new releases, such as “The New Mutants,” Russell Crowe’s road-rage thriller “Unhinged” and “The Personal History of David Copperfield” starring Dev Patel, have debuted.

Disney and 20th Century’s “The New Mutants” is aiming to generate $3.5 million through Labor Day, taking its North American bounty to $12.3 million.

Searchlight’s “David Copperfield” is expected to pull in $470,000 from 1,550 theaters over the four-day holiday weekend. That should push its domestic tally to $1.13 million through Monday.

“Unhinged,” in its third weekend in theaters,” made $655,000 on Saturday and looks to collect $1.67 million over the weekend. Through Monday, the movie is projecting $11.67 million total.

north america theaters open after conoronavirus shut down

United States Theaters Waken From Pandemic Slumber

With the previews about to start, a trickle of masked moviegoers made their way into one of the first U.S. screenings of “Tenet” at the Bow Tie Majestic 6 in downtown Stamford, Connecticut. They took their seats Tuesday night, eyeing the empty seats between each other and a little giddy at being back at the movies for the first time in many months.

Philip Scarante and Andy Flores, both 25, went every Tuesday religiously before theaters closed in March. “It’s just our thing,” Scarante said. Seeing Nolan’s latest mind-bending spectacle later on a smaller screen held no appeal. They sat down in center seats, up close.

“Everyone seems to have a mask on,” Scarante noted, looking around in the sparsely populated theater. “I didn’t expect that many people to show up.”

More Americans will make their way back to the movies this weekend than any since the pandemic shuttered theaters in March. After a few weeks of catalog films and minor releases, the $200 million “Tenet” is the first must-see main event of the pandemic, a mega-movie litmus test for how ready U.S. moviegoers are to return to cinemas.

At the same time, another $200 million movie, the Walt Disney Co.’s live-action “Mulan” remake is debuting not in theaters, as it originally intended to back in March, but on the streaming service Disney+. In an innovative, untested release, “Mulan” will be available for $30 only to Disney+ subscribers Friday.

Each movie could chart a new way forward for Hollywood in the COVID-19 era, and potentially beyond. “Tenet,” which grossed a hefty $53.6 million in 41 international territories last weekend, could prove that blockbuster moviegoing can be resuscitated with half-capacity theaters and safety protocols — or that people aren’t ready to sit in the dark with strangers. “Mulan” could open up a new premium on-demand window to the largest film franchises — or prove that big-time box office (“Mulan” had been projected to make around $750 million in theaters) can’t be replicated in the home.

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Labor Day weekend, usually among the sleepiest days of the year in theaters, has turned into a dramatic showdown with maybe the fate of the industry at stake, as two high-priced experiments test the possibilities of a new reality.

“The world we’re in right now, the concept of releasing the film absolutely everywhere for everyone to go and see on the same weekend, clearly that’s absolutely not an option for the foreseeable future,” said Nolan in an interview. “So if that pushes the industry into different ways of thinking and some of them being older distribution models, that hopefully can work.”

Warner Bros. is rolling out “Tenet” where they can. After debuting in Europe, Canada and Korea last weekend, “Tenet” on Thursday lands in the 75% open U.S. theaters, along with cinemas in China on Friday. Some states, like New York, have kept theaters closed, though more are coming online just in time for “Tenet.” New Jersey and some California cinemas are to reopen Friday.

The strong international launch of “Tenet” proved that many people are eager to come back. The U.S., though, may be a different story. Though COVID-19 cases and deaths are declining, they are still far more elevated than in most parts of the world. Cases are approaching six million in the U.S., with deaths surpassing 180,000. Epidemiologists, most more concerned about school re-openings, remain cautious about any large indoor gatherings.

Meanwhile exhibitors are clinging to survival. New product, they’ve said, is essential to their making it through the pandemic. Connecticut’s Bow Tie Cinemas opened earlier this summer and then closed when major releases were again postponed. At the “Tenet” preview screening Tuesday, the married couple Trudy and Phil Davies, with a tub of popcorn between them, said they came for “the chance to do something different” but also to contribute to the recovery.

“We came here to help things get back up and running,” Trudy Davies said. “Not just for the movie businesses, for everybody. As long as it’s done in a sensible way.”

As difficult as the circumstances are, Warner Bros. also sees opportunity. “Tenet” has virtually no competition in cinemas and will play continuously for not just weeks but months. It has the big screen to itself. At one Boston AMC, “Tenet” is playing 86 times from Friday to Sunday.

Disney has released other, smaller films into theaters (Fox’s “The New Mutants” and Fox Searchlight’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield”) but it has thus far either postponed or sent to streaming its bigger movies. Like “Hamilton,” “Mulan” will be used to boost the 60 million-plus subscriber base of Disney+. Announcing the release plan last month, Disney chief executive Bob Chapek called it a “one-off.”

“We don’t see this as a new window, but it’s an opportunity to learn,” Disney’s distribution chief Cathleen Taff said. “The one thing about this pandemic we’ve learned is we can’t be set in our ways. We have to be fluid.”

The move didn’t please theater owners, but Wall Street has endorsed it. Benjamin Swinburne, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, said in a note to investors that he sees premium on-demand “as long-term structurally beneficial to film studios, and likely less cannibalistic to moviegoing than feared.”

Which way things break is anyone’s guess, but the releases of “Tenet” and “Mulan” may go a long way to redefining a movie business in the midst of technological and social upheaval. The movies lying in wait — “Wonder Woman 1984” (Oct. 2), Marvel’s “Black Widow” (Nov. 6), Pixar’s “Soul” (Nov. 20) — will be watching.

Settling in for “Tenet,” Jose Alvarez, a 20-year-old from nearby White Plains, New York, was thrilled to be back at the movies.

“Because movies are amazing. We’re saving a lot of money because now we’re at home,” said Alvarez with his mask pulled below his chin. “Not much to do there. Staying inside is not good for the health.”