As if there weren’t any bigger problems in the world during a pandemic…but, yes, Warner Bros. and Sony are shielding their box office hourly figures from rival studios in Comscore on their respective releases Tenet and The Broken Hearts Gallery.
We’ve known about this for a while, but it’s becoming a bigger deal now as the blackout was only expected to last a week for Warner Bros, and now it’s extended into a second weekend, with Sony joining in.
Comscore is the data crossways between exhibitors and distributors. As movie theaters make their money each hour on titles, distributors and exhibitors can observe in Comscore how a film is doing at the box office in real time and project what it will make for the day or the weekend. Rival studios pull from this data, create their own internal top weekend industry box office chart twice a day (or more) on a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and throughout the week, and share this with their top brass and filmmakers.
This Warner Bros.-Sony box office cover-up is also preventing us, the press, from providing you, the town, with box office figures on Friday and Saturdays and throughout the week. We only get numbers on Sunday when Warners sends it to us, and it’s only one number. And hence, as the press discovers what the box office is on Sunday AM, so are rival studios. Rival studios are no longer finding out about the figures in real-time.
We, the press and rival studios, are still in the dark on the daily breakdown on Tenet. Sources, who have pulled intel from exhibition, believe the $20.2M 11-day domestic breakdown of the Nolan film was as follows=$2.5M for the first weekend in Canada, $11.2M for the 3-day, around $12M for the 4-day and the rest in previews. We’ll come back to all of this in a moment.
Why are rival studios ticked off by this?
Essentially not having access to box office hourlies prevents distribution executives from doing their job and providing their filmmakers and top executives with the health or lack thereof in the marketplace. If they can’t drill down and see how theaters in Chicago, Detroit, or Tupelo are doing, how can they decide whether it’s good or bad to release a movie right now? I mean, we all know it’s not good overall right now at the box office. But certain films can play in the red states, which are more open to heading to the cinemas right now, i.e. Solstice Studios’ Unhinged, which is up to $12.1M as of Thursday. With Warners making these last-minute theatrical date changes, i.e. pushing Wonder Woman 1984 from Oct. 2 to Christmas Day, another distributor could swoop in, program films, and provide exhibitors with product so that they can survive. Having access to drill-down theatrical hourlies helps immensely; it truly helps the industry overall. Apparently, some big circuits can see how Tenet and Broken Hearts Gallery are doing in Comscore, but little theaters having access to the service cannot (such intel is apt to be on a premium tier). And those exhibitors, which are closed, and unable to see Tenet hourlies are at a greater disadvantage because they need the information to determine whether they’ll open or not. Chew on that, Warner Bros. One way studios are monitoring the health of Tenet is via their access to advance ticket sales systems.
If there’s no transparency in the box office figures between rivals going forward, then expect them to amp up their snark on each other in the near future.
Why is Warner Bros. (and Sony) doing this?
Essentially, Warners on Tenet, knowing that box office wouldn’t be robust due to the pandemic, wanted to control their own narrative in the press on how the Christopher Nolan film was doing. Far too often, and incorrectly, the Wall Street media jumps the gun, reports that theatrical is dying, that exhibition is done and that streaming is king.
Warners is trying to protect exhibition, and bang the drum on their message that Tenet‘s box office play wouldn’t be normal, but to be determined in the long run, especially with coastal cities like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles closed, which is where Nolan’s movies play. They didn’t want the press jumping the gun and reporting a box office figure on the film that was leaking from a rival studio. Rivals, out of respect to Warner Bros. because they were the first studio which was vying to resuscitate movie theaters, asked the press to only deal with each studio on their own box office figures. At the end of the day, the variance between what a studio reports and a rival reports on the weekend is within a decimal point; there really isn’t a big gap between estimates.
Comscore can’t speak to the press about this topic. But some rivals are considering exiting the box office share system if Warner Bros., and now Sony, continue with their game. Now, I don’t think it will come to that; sources say this box office shielding is temporary for another month or two, maybe until New York and LA open.
Now, Warner Bros., step into my office, take a seat for a minute and close the door. Sony, you can listen in, too. Nobody in town, and I mean nobody, wants Tenet to fail. Nobody.
However, box office numbers speak for themselves, and to push an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ take on box office figures, that this is the new world order, doesn’t do anyone any good. Everyone knows that $20.2M in 11-days isn’t very good, and indicates that we’re still in the rebuild phase in regards to moviegoing during the pandemic. Only 70% of all theaters are open, with reduced auditorium capacities at around 25%.
It’s quite possible tomorrow AM that Warner Bros. might provide us with one running domestic total instead of a second weekend breakdown on Tenet. Because if Tenet is going to make $7M-$8M this weekend, that would rep a 63% second weekend drop on the film if you compare it incorrectly to the 11-day $20.2M total. So, what now, Warners? Better to tell us that Tenet made $11.2M over its 3-day last weekend, and is holding well in weekend 2 with a -33% hold, that is, if it comes in at $7.5M.
It’s fine to say you’re here to revive theaters, and this movie will do what it can. However, there is a big question and concern given the social media era we are in (which, duh, wasn’t around in the 1970s, impacting tentpole platform releases) whether Tenet is in it for the marathon. Not until the entire exhibition infrastructure is back on line can we expect robust grosses for any movie.
The big challenge for Warner Bros. right now with Tenet: How do you climb back from a B Cinemascore and so-so PostTrak exits? Keep in mind that those polled by CinemaScore are the most committed and loyal moviegoers; those who were willing to come out first during a pandemic. They aren’t a hodgepodge group of folks. (And, by the way, I understand CinemaScore does not poll in LA and NY typically, rather suburban, so nothing was drastically off-kilter last weekend. Polling in NYC and LA would mess with CinemaScore’s box office formula, which is tied to exits).
Tenet on PostTrak was 79% overall positive, with a 49% definite recommend. Dunkirk had a 63% definite recommend. Warners, you previewed Tenet for three days prior to opening. Word of mouth is out there, and the reviews weren’t Nolan’s strongest, at 74% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a movie with its non-star cast, long running time, and plot complexity that plays in big cities, not Middle America. In addition to opening the movie over Labor Day weekend, moviegoers’ weariness to return, Tenet may not have been the ideal movie initially which audiences will go out of their way to see as society reopens from the pandemic. Let’s not forget one of the golden rules of box office: The marketplace is product-driven. Some believe that once Nolan cities San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles reopen, that Tenet could see a revival in its grosses. Warners will definitely spend the P&A in those markets when the time comes, and clearing Wonder Woman 1984 out of October helps Tenet.
Now putting Tenet‘s box office figures in the proper context, which is something Warner Bros. wants the press to do, Tenet‘s opening weekend figures (which I gave you above) are very much in line with those resulting from a digital campaign. There was some TV spend on Tenet during NBA games (not so much cable), but largely, the pic’s opening weekend had a digital/online campaign. iSpot TV spot spend estimates support this. Before this weekend, Warners spent $8.5M in TV spots on Tenet, versus Disney’s overall $35M spend on Mulan ($14M of that coming from its latter PVOD push). WarnerMedia Studios & Networks Boss Ann Sarnoff told us that the P&A spend on Tenet wouldn’t be front-loaded, rather spread out, as the pic will be the marquee feature in cinemas for the next 11 weeks (really, until Disney/Marvel’s Black Widow arrives on Nov. 6). So perhaps as the studio spends more in TV, we’ll see an incremental difference in Tenet‘s box office.
Warner Bros., it’s awesome what you’re doing here by releasing Tenet to bring exhibition back. But it’s fine if the movie doesn’t do well in the long run. Tenet will probably lose money — just deal with that. Really. Seriously. Deal with it. You’ll recoup down the road on another movie. And it doesn’t mean that exhibition is dead or that the theatrical windows model has gone the way of the dinosaurs. What you’re doing here by releasing Tenet, as slow as turnstiles are, is so noble, it’s a loss well worth taking. Exhibition won’t forget about it and they love what you’re doing. Remember, what movie theaters hate the most is when a studio sends a film to streaming or PVOD; that’s the biggest stab in the back.
At a dire time when everyone demands truth and accountability, even from those in the highest perches of government (and you know who I’m talking about), it does the industry no good, Warner Bros., to hide box office figures.
Chin up, and share those figures.
You too, Sony.