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'This is everything': Why the release of Tenet today is a big moment for Irish cinemas

The latest Christopher Nolan film hits cinemas today.

Image: John David Washington

IT’S NOT BEEN a great year for cinemas, and the remaining months are unlikely to see things returning to normal any time soon.

But today sees the release of one of 2020′s biggest films – which has even more riding on it than usual in the Covid-19 world.

As you probably know by now, given the slew of press that has accompanied it, that release is Tenet, the latest big-budget feature from British-American director Christopher Nolan (he of Interstellar, Dunkirk, the Dark Knight and Memento, to name but a few from his back catalogue). 

Every Christopher Nolan release comes with its own unique fanfare, thanks to the director’s place in the pantheon of big-budget directors. His ability to fuse complex ideas with audience-friendly visuals and high-profile casts means that he’s an instant draw to get bums on cinema seats. Though he’s also somewhat of a Marmite figure, even those who love to hate him will want to see the film to know exactly what they’re giving out about.

Added to the Nolan excitement is the fact that now cinemas are open, businesses can start to recoup some of what they’ve lost since the country shut in March. 

Just last week, the Irish Film Distributors Association and Cinema First launched #Lovecinema, a nationwide campaign “designed to capture the attention of audiences across the country and remind them of the unique experience that only the big screen can offer”.

Source: Love Cinema/YouTube

One insider told TheJournal.ie of the Tenet release that “this is everything” – it’s the first chance cinemas get to have a blockbuster on their screens since Covid-19 emerged, and a way of sussing out what audience interest is there.

All eyes will be on how Tenet performs. The only issue is that the metrics for what makes a good box office performance have changed. We talked to three cinema experts  – from the Light House Cinema, the IFI and the Omniplex group – about why this film is such a big deal.

 ‘Intellectual James Bond films’

Charlene Lydon is the programmer for the Light House Cinema in Dublin’s Smithfield.

Not being a multiplex, the four-screen Light House has a dedicated core of cinema fans who lap up regular programming that includes plenty of cult and arthouse movies. But a lot of these cinephiles – and more besides – will want to go see Tenet too.

However, Lydon points out that the Light House’s position means that it doesn’t just depend on a Tenet to draw in audiences. “Since we reopened we’ve had some really good but small films showing,” she says. “People reacted well. We’ve sold out most of our screenings now with very limited capacity.”

At the Light House, they know they’ve dedicated customers who would get back to the cinema regardless of the films on show, but they also have “another three, four tiers of people who really love going to the cinema but need something to push them, and it looks like Tenet might be the thing”, says Lydon.

“We have been getting on really well without Tenet – I think it’s different for multiplexes. Their audiences aren’t used to watching the less mainstream [films].

“Tenet for us will be massive – we’ve sold load of tickets. But if there was never a Tenet we were doing ok.”

A Christopher Nolan film “is a big deal any time” but particularly now, says Lydon.

“There are so many reasons for it – there is always such intrigue when it comes to Christopher Nolan films,” she says.

“Nolan makes what I’d call ‘intellectual James Bond films’. That’s not a slag: it’s got all the action and the country hopping and the glamour and the cool, gritty fighting, but also has a massive brain going on. There’s intrigue and mystery and all that kind of stuff. It’s still glossy entertainment on a massive budget, but also brain tease-y and that’s what his forte is. He has got a really broad fanbase.”

It crosses over into this prestige thing – he’s so smart with how he writes screenplays. He’s a bit of a marmite filmmaker but he offers something that is quite unique to him: big action spectacle with brains.

“Also he was determined to get this film out. There’s been huge hype about it and a huge buzz – he just seemed to refuse to give up and now it’s here. They’ve taken a massive risk on this film and that must be terrifying for Warner Bros and Christopher Nolan and all involved.”

When the Light House opened its doors, it did so with the knowledge that “people may or may not have any interest in coming back” to the cinema, says Lydon. After all, cinema-going means sitting in a dark room with strangers for a few hours. But people were happy to return.

The US film site Indiewire reported that Warner Bros is charging cinemas 63% of the gross takings in the US (Warner Bros didn’t want to comment for this article).

The Light House is on 30% seats capacity, which means that the amount of money the film can make at the box office is much smaller than usual. The usual metric of the opening weekend being the most important weekend for box office might have to be rewritten. 

“It’s hard for the cinema and hard for [Warner Bros],” says Lydon. “We need the films to keep coming to us. If Tenet works I really hope that people will continue to release films – I hope not to see more of the straight to VOD [video on demand] thing.”

Yet she understands that the world of the cinema has changed, which is why some distributors are choosing to go with VOD for releases. “It’s a big ask: asking people to come out of their homes and sit in the dark for 2.5 hours. We need to tempt people with something that is really important to them,” says Lydon.

The length of Tenet – it’s 2.5 hours long – means that cinemas with smaller screens have decisions to make about how many screens it takes up. “It’s taking up a lot of screen space but we also need to offer something else to our audience. Not every single person in our cinema will want to see Tenet,” says Lydon.

“I think we’re back to the drawing board… how Tenet does in the short-term and long-term will inform how people judge things.”

’500 shows per day nationwide’

rev-1-MGR-15139r-MSG_High_Res_JPEG Source: Kenneth Branagh on set

Over at the Omniplex cinema group, marketing and loyalty manager Shauna Crawley also says that Tenet is a huge one for them. They’re putting on 500 shows per day across all their cinemas for opening weekend, which is double what Nolan’s film Inception got on its release.

Part of that, though, is due to the reduced capacity in the screens. 

“We are absolutely really looking forward to it,” says Crawley. “We’re confident for it and obviously excited.” What appeals to Omniplex customers about the film, she says, is it’s “escapism – something that completely sucks you in”.

Like other cinemas, they have been using the last few weeks to get customers used to their Covid-19 measures. “All systems have been tested and all processes tested in advance which is great,” she says. “In our Republic of Ireland cinemas we have a maximum of 50 persons per screen. Our system automatically locks a 2m gap around you.”

Crawley concedes the cinema experience now “is different” but says that so far they have had sold out shows of films including Harry Potter and the Batman trilogy.

“We are also seeing ticket sales going up every day.” At the Omniplex they have been trying “to book movies that were made for the big screen”.

“We’ve avoided very heavy pieces,” adds Crawley, though the violent Unhinged (starring Russell Crowe) did very well. On 22 August, they had a day dedicated to Christmas films, with some funds going to Barnardos. They would never have been able to do that in the pre-Covid days, says Crawley. For all of the pain, it has allowed them to be creative. 

Until the coronavirus struck, cinemas would have been seeing a minimum of two big film releases a month. “Some years two a week – it depends. Tenet was still tipped to be one of the biggest films of the year,” says Crawley. “Every year we would have had 20 tentpole releases that we would think are bread and butter for multiplexes.”

She believes that lockdown has shown “that PVOD [Premium Video On Demand] and VOD is not enough” and that people want to go to the physical cinemas. 

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“Thankfully distributors are working with us,” says Crawley. “It’s great to see us work together like that.”

“The feedback from customers so far is that cinema feels very safe,” she adds. “Obviously some part of the experience has changed; some parts are the exact same. [But people still get that] excited feeling when the lights go down.”

The cineastes

David O’Mahony, film programmer for the Irish Film Institute – which just reopened in Dublin’s Temple Bar today – sees Tenet as very significant for the IFI. For starters, the IFI is the only cinema in Ireland that is able to project the film on 70mm.

“Traditionally we have had an extremely loyal audience for screenings we show on 70mm,” says O’Mahony, 70mm being a less popular (yet incredibly beautiful) film format these days and one preferred by Nolan.

“So it’s very gratifying that Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros have really committed to what are almost archaic traditional screening formats which for our audience of dedicated cineasts is a real bonus,” says O’Mahony. 

Tenet is also the big release that the IFI is opening up for. “It’s very exciting in that regard too – we closed the cinema on March 13 and are opening on the 26th for the first day of screenings for Tenet. We’ve been busy behind the scenes.”

The Covid-19-related closure has enabled the IFI team to do some work on the building and also on preparing the social distancing guidelines for what is already a cosy cinema. Its recently refurbished largest screen Screen 1 has the 70mm projector, meaning that audiences won’t be hampered too much. 

“I think the narrative the distributor would like is that Christopher Nolan saves cinema,” acknowledges O’Mahony. “His films cross over to so many different demographics and audiences. You have the superhero films and these brain teasers like Inception. Even a film like Dunkirk managed to shuffle up the timelines. We’re hoping it will be a great incentive for people to come back to the IFI.”

Like with the other cinemas we spoke to, many of the IFI’s Tenet showings have already sold out. “They are selling up very quickly,” says O’Mahony.

Aside from performance of Tenet, all the experts TheJournal.ie spoke to say that their primary focus now is making sure audiences feel safe. 

“We want to offer the best experience in terms of the film but also that people buying tickets feel in a safe environment,” says O’Mahony. 

I’m hoping audiences will have a positive experience and come back to the cinema and that will lead distributors to start populating the release calendar again with more confidence.

He points out that many bigger films have put off filming due to the pandemic, in order to save money. But we are starting to see some returning to sets – the Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) Viking film recently started filming again in Northern Ireland. 

The IFI embraced the rush to online in the early days of the pandemic, using the time to work on its IFI at Home streaming platform. “We always had a plan, we just fast-tracked it,” says O’Mahony.

“I think a lot of positive will come out of this,” he concludes. “People have to reinvent their business and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s up to the cinemas to make sure their environment is safe for the customer. We’re pretty confident in that.”

Despite all the constraints and the Covid-19 specifics, everyone we spoke to remained confident that the love the Irish have for the big screen will help in this new, strange frontier.

“Irish audiences are voracious when it comes to the cinema,” says O’Mahony.

Tenet is out now. 

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