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Why A Release In China Is So Important For Chris Nolan’s ‘Tenet’

″Dunkirk″ Beijing Premiere

BEIJING, CHINA – AUGUST 22: British-American director/producer/screenwriter Christopher Nolan and … [+] wife film producer Emma Thomas attend the premiere of film “Dunkirk” on August 22, 2017 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images)

Visual China Group via Getty Images

Tenet is heading to China, which is good since his original sci-fi flicks (Interstellar and Inception) are more popular in China than his his Dark Knight trilogy.

Chris Nolan turns the big five-zero today, and we damn well should have been marking the occasion by dissecting the 13th day of domestic box office for Tenet. Alas, circumstances arose and the film will now play in 70 overseas markets on the week of August 26 and in limited American release starting September 3. Make that 71 overseas markets, as the film has been submitted and accepted for theatrical play in mainland China. So I guess, as noted last weekend, the whole “under-two hours” rule was less of a code and more of guideline or suggestion. In terms of new movies and older blockbusters, the 2.5-hour (or more) likes of Interstellar, Ford v. Ferrari, Inception and Avatar are preparing to open in the newly-reopened Chinese marketplace.

The John David Washington/Robert Pattinson/Elizabeth Debicki “time inversion” flick could count China as among its opening territories, which surely will gives its overseas debut a boost. Nolan’s films have generally done well in China, relative to what was considered a success at the time of their respective release. Dunkirk earned $51 million in China, the third-biggest territory for the $529 million-grossing World War II actioner behind North America ($188 million) and the U.K. ($81 million). Interstellar earned $188 million domestic, $122 million in China and $677 million worldwide in 2014. Inception earned $292 million domestic, $68 million in China and $824 million worldwide in 2010. Memento ($39 million worldwide in 2001), Insomnia ($113 million in 2002) and The Prestige ($110 million in 2006) didn’t play in China.

Batman Begins earned $205 million domestic (from a $72 million Wed-Sun debut) and just $1 million in China for a $371 million cume in 2005. The Dark Knight didn’t play in China, allegedly due to the first-act subplot involving a Chinese gangster working with Gotham City’s mob. It grossed $533 million domestic and $1.004 billion worldwide in the summer of 2008, making it the second-biggest domestic earner behind Titanic at the time and only the fourth movie to top $1 billion global after Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. It and Dead Man’s Chest ($1.066 billion in 2006) were the biggest-grossing movies never to play in China until Joker ($1.074 billion) just last year.

The Dark Knight Rises featured zero (0.00) Chinese mobsters and earned $53 million in China in 2012 along with $448 million domestic $1.084 billion worldwide. This is why China is a pretty damn important territory for the Nolan flick. Yes, big-n-blustery Hollywood tentpoles depend on China to boost their overall global earnings, even if I still argue that they don’t salvage global glops so much as artificially inflate already successful worldwide blockbusters. That said, Tenet is/was expected to be a worldwide blockbuster. And to the extent that Chris Nolan is a marquee filmmaker, a “movie star” whose popularity and reputation balances out the lack of marquee characters or existing IP, the three Batman movies make up just $54 million of Nolan’s total box office revenue in China.

Nolan’s features have earned around $295 million in China, with 18.3% coming from the Dark Knight trilogy. Heck, the biggest-grossing Dark Knight movie (albeit eight years ago) earned less in China than the wholly original Interstellar and Inception. The Dark Knight Rises grosses slightly more than Dunkirk, but you don’t need me to tell you that Tenet is being pushed as a spiritual cousin to the sci-fi actioners and not the grounded war melodrama. To the extent that at least some of Nolan’s dedicated fanbase exists due to the overwhelming popularity of his three Batman movies, they are mere not remotely the driving force for his success in the world’s biggest overseas marketplace. In China, Nolan is popular despite the Batman movies, not because of them.

The Dark Knight movies would have likely earned far more in China had they opened after 2017, but Nolan’s popularity in China is more driven by his original sci-fi spectaculars than by his acclaimed Batman trilogy. That does make sense in an industry that has flocked to original (or new-to-you adaptation) blockbusters like Monster Hunter, The Mermaid, Detective Chinatown and The Wandering Earth. With all the talk of franchise-friendly Hollywood movies needing to score in China, Chinese moviegoers seem a lot more willing to embrace the unknown compared to North American audiences. It would be like Rian Johnson’s Knives Out ($28 million) earning more than The Last Jedi ($42 million), although (not to be a jerk) it did outgross The Rise of Skywalker ($21 million) in China.

We can only speculate how Tenet will play, presuming all goes well, if it opens in China on the week of August 26 along with the other 70 overseas territories. We’re still talking about limited seating, more sporadic showtimes and a ban on concessions, although circumstances could improve enough in the next four weeks to negate some of that. But if history is any indication, Tenet will make more money in China than any territory than North America. Hell, with America potentially only getting the movie a limited theatrical capacity, China could be Tenet’s biggest-grossing territory. 25%/75% studio/theater split notwithstanding, China is a key territory for Tenet because Chinese moviegoers became Nolan fans due to his original sci-fi spectaculars and despite his acclaimed blockbuster superhero movies.

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