Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ Lands September Debut in China

Chinese moviegoers are set for a Christopher Nolan bonanza on the big screen: his sci-fi epic “Tenet” will launch in Chinese theaters on Sept. 4, a week after an Aug. 28 re-release of “Inception.”

Meanwhile, the theatrical re-run of his 2014 “Interstellar” is blasting past competition at box office as the top film nationwide since it hit cinemas on Sunday, Aug. 2, bringing in $7.6 million so far in just five off days.

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Three other major U.S. titles also announced China release dates Thursday. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Women” will launch on Aug. 25. Disney and Pixar’s animated fantasy adventure “Onward” is now slated for Aug. 19, while Universal and Dreamworks’ family film “Trolls World Tour” is set for Aug. 21.

Neither of the latter had strong theatrical release elsewhere due to COVID, meaning that their China run will likely be their most significant globally. “Trolls” made headlines in April for controversially being the first to skip its planned theatrical outing for digital due to the coronavirus. “Onward” also skipped theaters for a premiere on digital and Disney+.

“Tenet,” starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, is expected to be the first China release for a major new Hollywood title — that the rest of the world has not already had access to for months –since the country shut theaters in January.

A number of Hollywood blockbusters originally scheduled to hit China in February, including “Dolittle” and “Sonic the Hedgehog,” have premiered since authorities re-opened cinemas on July 20. Despite technically being new to the China market, these stale films have seen lackluster sales, in part because many viewers interested them have already seen them pirated online.

“Tenet” was approved for release in China last week. There remains, however, some uncertainty around how cinemas will program the title.

urrent official Chinese guidelines for operating under COVID-19 request that cinemas not to play films that exceed two hours in length. Yet contradicting that directive, authorities have approved numerous films (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Wolf Warrior 2”) that run far over 120 minutes — including “Tenet,” which clocks in at just over 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Cinemas in some regions have been asked to program a five-minute intermission into longer titles, including Nolan’s “Interstellar.” Others, afraid to contradict a directive from a national-level authority, have decided it’s not worth the risk of accidentally doing so by programming longer titles.

The confusion has not stopped most cinemas from playing these films, and there will likely be greater clarity on the matter long before “Tenet” hits in September.

Authorities will want to resolve the issue in time for its hottest competitor, the long-anticipated Chinese blockbuster “The Eight Hundred,” to make a proper splash. After its release was abruptly pulled last summer due to censorship concerns, that title, the biggest local film to announce a theatrical run post-COVID to date, is set to release Aug. 21, but runs long at 165 minutes.

The release of “Tenet” is welcome news for exhibitors in China. Though cinemas haven gotten permission to open, box office sales have been sluggish in recent weeks due to the lack of new content.

China is far and away the most important foreign market Nolan’s films.

The Chinese box office for almost every movie he’s made as either director or executive producer has blown away earnings from other territories by a large margin. The only exceptions are “Dunkirk” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” for which China was the second largest market globally behind the U.K., and “Batman Begins,” which hit the Middle Kingdom all the way back in 2005, when its box office was still comparatively nascent.

Of the Nolan-directed films, “Dunkirk” made $51 million in China in 2017, while “Interstellar” grossed $122 million there in 2014. The “Dark Knight Rises” grossed $52.8 million in 2012 and “Inception” $68.4 million in 2010.

Films executive produced by Nolan have also seen strong showings in the country. They include “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” with $96 million, “Justice League” with $106 million, “Transcendence” with $20 million, and “Man of Steel” with $63 million.

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