As Tenet is delayed yet again, is it time to end cinema’s ‘America first’ policy?

Growing up in the 1980s, there was always one classmate who would go to the US for the summer holidays and come back raving about new movies such as ET: The Extra-Terrestrial or Ghostbusters. Us Brits would then have to wait until Christmas to see them, by which time our expectations had become so over-inflated the movies rarely lived up to them (sacrilege I know, but Ghostbusters was way better in my head). In movie terms, going to the US was like visiting the future. Now, though, the situation has practically reversed.

In recent decades, the time delay has narrowed to the extent that most big movies now come out on the same day, or at least within weeks, everywhere from LA to Lima. However, Covid-19 has created a further complication: most of Europe, Oceania and east Asia has been getting on top of the pandemic. The US has not. So while cinemas are tentatively reopening around the world, they remain almost entirely shuttered in key markets such as California, Texas, Florida and New York.

Consequently, all those tentpole movies that Hollywood has been dangling before us all year are being snatched away again. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, now the standard-bearer for the global cinema restart, has already moved back twice from its original early July release. Now Warner Brothers tells us Tenet has been delayed indefinitely. Other big releases, such as Disney’s Mulan, are likely to follow suit.

Non-Hollywood alternatives are available, of course, but cinemas around the world are currently drumming their fingers, waiting for the US to get its pandemic under control so they can get some new movies to put on. Given the competence of those in command, that could take some time. According to experts, US cinemas will not reopen in earnest until September at the earliest. But never mind “How long can we wait?”, the question now is: “Why should we wait?” Why can’t the rest of us see Tenet and Mulan now? The US can just wait till Christmas, like we had to with ET and Ghostbusters.

Is there an element of national pride here? One possible response from Hollywood would be: “Because they’re our movies (even the ones we make in the UK for the tax breaks).” The rest of the world seeing its movies first could be taken as another symptom of the US’s decline as the global superpower. But Warners’ chairman recently stated that Tenet is no longer being treated like a “traditional global day-and-date release”, which suggests they are prepared to release it in other territories before the US.

Reasons for synchronising release dates globally, such as minimising piracy and coordinating marketing, hardly seem like priorities given present circumstances. The US is still the largest single cinema market, but in 2018 it made up just 27% of the global box office. The longer the “America-first” principle remains, the worse things get for everyone: cinemas and related businesses, Hollywood itself and moviegoers – whose expectations for Tenet are now so sky-high, the movie will have to singlehandedly cure the coronavirus to live up to the hype. It feels like something’s got to give.

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