‘Tenet’ is Either Coming Soon Or It Isn’t

A definitive timeline of the most controversial movie release of the COVID-19 age

“Coming to theaters.”

A variation of those three words appear at the end of most movie trailers. But with Tenet, that phrase has never been more loaded.

The second trailer for Christopher Nolan’s upcoming film dropped last Thursday with no release date attached at the end. Even as coronavirus cases and deaths continue to rise and most theater chains have closed worldwide, Nolan continues to insist on a July 17 release date for the film.


In the spirit of time, Nolan’s favorite muse, here’s a timeline for how the release date for Tenet became the most controversial date in film history.

July 18, 2008; July 16, 2010, July 20, 2012 and July 21, 2017

The wide release dates for The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk, respectively, all fall on the third Friday in July. This date goes on to become a sort of lucky charm for Nolan and Warner Bros., as each of the above films except for Dunkirk placed in the Top 10 box office for that year. (Dunkirk placed 12th, but was the highest-grossing film of 2017 not based on existing intellectual property.) July 17, 2020 is the third Friday in July.

March 2019

Casting begins on Nolan’s 11th film, Tenet. John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh and Dimple Kapadia will star.

May 2019

Shooting begins in Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States. The film’s plot and script are kept secret. It is shot on a combination of 70mm film and IMAX. Variety will later report the film’s budget as being Nolan’s most expensive original film at $205 million. Other reports put the budget at anywhere from $190-$225 million.

In order for the film to be profitable, it will need to make at least $450 million to recoup budgetary and marketing costs, according to some analysts. Rumor says that Nolan will receive 20% of the film’s first-dollar gross, meaning he won’t have to wait to profit until the film makes a profit. In order to make that kind of money, analysts say at least 3,500 American theaters in cities like Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco would need to show the film, as well as more than 30,000 screens worldwide.

August 2019

The first teaser trailers for Tenet debut. The studio still keeps much of the film  secret. “A secret agent is tasked with preventing World War III” is the only logline known to the public.

Dec. 31, 2019

The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission in China reports a cluster of pneumonia cases in the Hubei province of Wuhan. We all would soon know it as the coronavirus, or COVID-19.

Jan. 21, 2020

The CDC confirms the first case of coronavirus in America–a Washington state resident who recently returned from Wuhan.

Feb. 6, 2020

The first coronavirus-related death in America occurs.

March 11, 2020

President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the Oval Office, promising “emergency action” to provide financial relief to Americans affected by COVID-19.

March 17, 2020

As coronavirus case counts and death counts rise in America, movie theaters begin to scale back on how many people they’ll allow inside for screenings. Many shut down entirely. NBC Universal announces its plan to distribute upcoming films on demand as a way to bypass theater chain distribution.

March 20, 2020

Nolan writes an opinion column in the Washington Post titled “Movie theaters are a vital part of American social life. They will need our help.” In it, he argues that while closing theaters is the responsible thing to do, theaters are a valuable social good and Americans will be hungry to go back to the cinema once coronavirus is over:

“When this crisis passes, the need for collective human engagement, the need to live and love and laugh and cry together,will be more powerful than ever. The combination of that pent-up demand and the promise of new movies could boost local economies and contribute billions to our national economy. We don’t just owe it to the 150,000 workers of this great American industry to include them in those we help, we owe it to ourselves. We need what movies can offer us.”

April 2020

AMC and other theater chains hold steadfast to the promise of a tentative July reopening date centered around the release of “Tenet.” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp says movie theaters and other businesses can re-open across the state. Most choose to stay closed on April 27.

May 1, 2020

Texas gets the green light to reopen movie theaters. Only two theater chains, Santikos and EVO, take Gov. Greg Abbott up on his offer.

May 12, 2020

GQ publishes a profile of Pattinson where the actor says he still hasn’t seen Tenet and also doesn’t quite understand the movie. Nolan, also quoted in the profile, says Pattinson was “slightly fucking with [GQ]” about his confusion. Pattinson also shares an absolutely bonkers pasta recipe, which also might be a troll job.

The movie stays in secret as hype builds and more and more people wonder if they will release the film in July.

May 21, 2020

The second trailer for “Tenet” appears. Hype and apprehension around the film’s release date intensifies.

May 22, 2020

The CDC reports a total of 94,150 deaths related to coronavirus in the U.S. Rebeller, an entertainment outlet known for pissing people off, posts a tweet that pisses a lot of people off, suggesting L.A. and New York City were the holdouts keeping Tenet from seeing theaters. The outlet then proposes a “reverse rollout” where Warner Bros. “give[s] the rest of the country TENET first and let the metropolises catch up when they’re ready to rejoin the world.”

There’s still no word yet on a change for the release date for Tenet.

July 17, 2020

Who knows?

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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