Christopher Nolan's Tenet willed itself past the US$300 million (S$408.7 million) mark globally this weekend even as the overall domestic box office appeared to be on the verge of collapse.
Disney's Hocus Pocus, a Bette Midler comedy that flopped when it was initially released in 1993, but became a cult hit on cable and streaming, almost matched Tenet's grosses in North America and beat those of The New Mutants.
Re-released just in time for Halloween, Hocus Pocus picked up US$1.9 million from 2,570 theaters. Tenet earned US$2.7 million from 2,722 venues, pushing its domestic haul to a paltry US$45.1 million. The New Mutants eked out US$1 million from 2,154 locations, bringing its domestic total to US$20.9 million.
Tenet has struggled to attract stateside audiences with the kind of fervour that typically greets Nolan films such as Inception and Dunkirk.
Audiences seem hesitant to return to cinemas when coronavirus infection rates remain stubbornly high in the US, but the weak results are also attributable to the fact that major markets such as Los Angeles and New York haven't allowed theaters to reopen due to the pandemic.
Tenet has fared much better overseas, grossing US$14.2 million globally this weekend from 59 markets. That pushed the international total to US$262 million and the worldwide haul to US$307 million.
Normally, that figure would signal disaster for a US$200 million film with an elaborate marketing campaign. In pandemic times, the results have to be weighed more charitably, even if they suggest Tenet will lose millions during its theatrical run.
Warner Bros, the studio behind Tenet, believes the film will make more money by launching in theaters than it would have if it had debuted on video-on-demand or on HBO Max.
That strategy would have been a tough, likely impossible sell for Nolan, who is a vociferous champion of the theatrical experience, but it also would have impacted the studio's ability to maximise ancillary revenues such as digital rentals, sales and television licensing deals.
The situation for theatres, however, remains dire. On Friday, news broke that MGM, Eon Productions and Universal were delaying the November release of No Time To Die until 2021, depriving cinemas of a James Bond film at a time when they have no blockbusters left to release for months.
Then over the weekend, Cineworld announced it was considering closing its UK cinemas back down, as well as shuttering Regal Cinemas, the US exhibitor it bought in 2018. Other theater chains could follow suit if they believe it will be too costly to keep their marquees lit without major films to play. If that happens, it will mean the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and could cause both exhibition giants and independently-owned, smaller theaters to go bankrupt.