Movies 2020: With 'Tenet' and 'Mulan,' theaters never had a fighting chance

Hollywood studios and movie theaters spent much of the spring and summer engaged in a strange chess match, trying to find the right time to launch two aspiring blockbusters, “Tenet” and “Mulan,” which might jumpstart movie-going amid a pandemic.

Yet while both movies contain plenty of fights, with the benefit of hindsight neither of them gave the theater chains a fighting chance.
Despite marquee elements seemingly designed for blockbuster glory, each of these big-budgeted films came with handicaps in terms of its box-office drawing power. In that sense, the question of whether people could be lured to theaters despite public-health concerns was never fully tested, in the way it would have been if a project without those built-in speed bumps had been thrown into the breach.
Released by Warner Bros. (a unit of WarnerMedia, as is CNN), “Tenet” did premiere theatrically, performing reasonably well internationally — $ 300 million is nothing to sneeze at, unless you’re hoping to make a lot more than that — but generating less than $ 60 million in the US.

    Disney, for its part, ultimately opted for a domestic streaming debut of “Mulan” at a premium surcharge via Disney+, coupled with an international release. Yet the movie flopped in China, where the local population exhibited a demonstrable preference for home-grown movies, including one that also dealt with a period story about the Chinese battling a foreign invader, the 1930s epic “The Eight Hundred.”
    Although the shift to streaming emerged as the story of 2020 in the entertainment industry, it became fairly clear early on that studios — eager as they were to boost their new streaming services — were reluctant to forgo box-revenue revenue on movies they deemed to have major potential.
    Indeed, beginning with Universal’s test making the animated sequel “Trolls World Tour” available on demand, the movies being showcased in that fashion appeared to have one thing in common: They weren’t particularly good.
    Yifei Liu in 'Mulan,' which premiered on Disney+ in the US.

    Studios might spend millions promoting their product, but they generally have a reasonable idea when it turns out poorly. The on-demand strategy betrayed a sense of that, as executives sought to maintain some flow of money coming in, without sacrificing a major payoff down the road.
    “Mulan” and “Tenet” weren’t bad, but as it turns out neither is especially memorable, and both presented marketing hurdles.
    For starters, the main draw for “Tenet” was writer-director Christopher Nolan, who has earned a loyal following. Yet the movie ranks near the bottom tier of his filmography and offered little advance explanation about its plot, which — as a sort-of time-bending James Bond movie — is difficult to describe in any event, other than the unappealing description of “A poor man’s ‘Inception.'”
    “Mulan” possessed the name recognition associated with the animated version, but unlike recent hits such as “The Lion King” and “Aladdin,” significantly departed from it, in the same way the financially disappointing “Dumbo” did. Losing the songs turned it into an action film, a spectacle that surely blunted its appeal among the younger kids that parents would have taken to see it.
    Simply put, neither film possessed the can’t-miss allure that a major sequel would have brought to the table, with the pressure to know what happens right away. Even if you were eager to see them, waiting didn’t impose much of a burden.
    A movie more likely to have fit that description, “Wonder Woman 1984,” was delayed three times, understandably, before WarnerMedia finally settled on a hybrid movie/theatrical release. Others were pushed into 2021, seeking light at the end of the tunnel.
      For theater chains, this lost year has left them concerned about their future and the extent to which they can recover. Looking back, the major movies whose scheduling plans dominated the discussion through the summer — another being “The New Mutants” — didn’t provide them the necessary heft to whet the public’s appetites.
      The calculus of deciding the when and how of releasing movies encompasses many factors, and in 2020 there were no easy answers. But when it came to giving people a real incentive to go out, “Mulan” and “Tenet” turned out to be the wrong ambassadors.

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