By R.T. Watson 

As theaters in the U.S. groan back to life after being shut for more than five months, Warner Bros.' "Tenet" is giving Hollywood something to cheer about after a promising international debut.

Director Christopher Nolan's time-bending spy flick won't open in the U.S. until Labor Day weekend, but it grossed $53 million from 41 international markets, according to preliminary estimates from Warner Bros. That total includes Canada, which normally is counted with U.S. theater grosses as part of a single North American market.

The studio, owned by AT&T Inc., expressed satisfaction with the opening. "We are off to a fantastic start internationally," said Toby Emmerich, who heads Warner Bros.' movie operation. "Given the unprecedented circumstances of this global release we know we're running a marathon, not a sprint."

As many nations fared better than the U.S. in containing the coronavirus, they began reopening their economies sooner, including movie theaters. Taking that into account, and after having to alter its release plans four times, Warner Bros. said it decided to release "Tenet" outside the U.S. this weekend.

While major theater chains such as AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., Cineworld Group PLC's Regal Entertainment Group and Cinemark Holdings Inc. began gradually reopening in recent weeks, many cinemas in major domestic markets, including Los Angeles and New York City, are still closed amid government efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Business has been slow to rev up at U.S. theaters that have reopened.

Walt Disney Co.'s long-delayed X-Men spinoff "The New Mutants," grossed a paltry $7 million from about 2,400 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, according to preliminary studio estimates. Disney estimated about 62% of the theatrical market in the U.S. and Canada is open.

Expectations were low for "The New Mutants," which was originally supposed to arrive in theaters in 2018. But the movie's opening weekend tally was notably weak, even by the standards of box-office duds released under more normal circumstances. Last year, even after being widely panned by critics, Disney's "X-Men: Dark Phoenix" earned $32.8 million its first weekend in about 3,700 domestic theaters.

Nonetheless the domestic market has shown growth for two consecutive weekends, according to how much the top film in the U.S. and Canada earned at the box office.

Last weekend, independent Solstice Studios' "Unhinged," one of the only new films in theaters, nabbed the top spot at the box office, with $4.2 million in the U.S. and Canada. "Unhinged" ranks as Hollywood's first true test case of a wide release since the pandemic shut theaters in the U.S. in March. So far the action movie, which stars Russell Crowe, has grossed $8.8 million domestically.

Hoping to entice the public back to theaters, major cinema chains in the U.S. recently adopted industrywide safety protocols such as enhanced sanitation and encouraging contactless sales of tickets and refreshments. By government mandate, theaters also are operating under strict capacity restrictions that limit the number of people that are allowed in each auditorium.

The U.S. debut of "Tenet," which stars John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, could represent a lifeline for theaters, which for months have been unable to offer high-profile films. Most theaters plan to show the film on as many screens as possible to compensate for reduced capacity. But it remains to be seen how far behind the U.S. market is compared with the rest of the world.

China, where the Covid-19 pandemic first broke out, appears to be leagues ahead of the U.S. in terms of moviegoing. Powered by Chinese moviegoers, the local war epic "The Eight Hundred" grossed about $70 million this weekend, according to media-measurement company Comscore Inc. The Chinese blockbuster has made more than $270 million since premiering Aug. 17.

IMAX Chief Executive Richard Gelfond said the performance of "Tenet" in Canada -- a market he says is a good predictor of consumer behavior in the U.S. -- suggests the movie will do well in America. With most auditoriums limited to 50 seats, Mr. Gelfond said many showings in Canada sold out, generating what he described as encouraging grosses.

Executives at rival studios are keeping a close eye on "Tenet," which will be showing for up to 12 weeks in some U.S. multiplexes, hoping a strong performance will signal the beginning of a new phase for their business -- one that could sustain them past the end of the pandemic.

Studios have moved many big-budget films from this year to 2021, but plenty of potential blockbusters remain on the calendar for the rest of the year. Warner Bros. plans to roll out DC Comics sequel "Wonder Woman 1984" in October, followed the next month by the Marvel spinoff "Black Widow," from Disney, and the latest James Bond film, "No Time to Die," from MGM Holdings Inc.

--Yin Yijun contributed to this article.


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 30, 2020 16:03 ET (20:03 GMT)

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