Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Movie Industry Is Doing Overseas During The Pandemic


The thriller "Tenet" was supposed to bring audiences back to movie theaters this fall, and it did, just not in the U.S. Bob Mondello looks overseas and finds that theaters are, if not booming, definitely showing signs of life.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We'll get to "Tenet" in a moment, but first, come back with me to the beginning of 2020.


ROBERT PATTINSON: (As Neil) Time travel?

JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: (As the Protagonist) No, inversion.

MONDELLO: Whatever you want to call it - pre-coronavirus, when Disney was riding an intellectual property blitz to seven of 2019's Top 10 - a live-action "Lion King," the end of a "Star Wars" trilogy, "Avengers: Endgame" - seven billion-dollar films; in the case of "Endgame," nearly a $3 billion film, a glut of success that helped power worldwide box office to an unprecedented $42 billion year. No one expected 2020 to top it, but no one expected 2020 to fall off a cliff, either.


WASHINGTON: (As the Protagonist) This reversing the flow of time - doesn't us being here now mean it never happened?

MONDELLO: Wouldn't that be nice? When 2020 started, it looked strong, Oscar nominees leading the way. By mid-January, the cleverly contrived one-shot war movie "1917" and Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" had joined the Korean satire "Parasite" in the $100 million club along with more commercial films.


MARTIN LAWRENCE: (As Marcus Burnett) Mike, what the hell are you doing?

WILL SMITH: (As Mike Lowrey) It's called driving, Marcus.

MONDELLO: "Bad Boys For Life" quickly leapt to the head of the pack on its way to a $400 million payday. But just a week later, there was worrisome news in a country where "Bad Boys" had not opened. In China, authorities confirmed 571 cases of pneumonia caused by a new coronavirus. And just before the Lunar New Year holiday, they banned travel in affected areas. Chinese film companies then canceled the openings of all new films, including the Chinese animated fantasy "Jiang Ziya: Legend Of Deification" about a warrior who must kill a demon to become a god.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: Shelving "Legend Of Deification" was just the start. By early February, Korea, the world's fifth-biggest film market, was also reporting COVID cases. And dominos started falling - Japan, Italy, France. By early March, so many countries were compromised that the international opening of Pixar's "Onward" fell apart, grossing about half what had been expected.


CHRIS PRATT: (As Barley Lightfoot) How did you...

TOM HOLLAND: (As Ian Lightfoot) I don't know. It just started.

MONDELLO: All this before March 17, when American theaters closed and the film industry ground to a halt. By this time, though, China, having been on lockdown since January, decided it had the virus under control. It opened 500 theaters in late March, saw a spike in cases and immediately shut them down again. But over the course of a few months, China - along with Korea, Japan and much of Europe - did get new cases to manageable levels and started reopening cinemas, enough that by summer's end, Warner Brothers could premiere its wannabe blockbuster "Tenet" in 39 foreign markets before opening in the U.S.


MARTIN DONOVAN: (As Victor) It transcends national interests. This is about survival.

MONDELLO: It did more than survive. Though still struggling in the U.S., "Tenet" has made an impressive $275 million overseas. What's more, its weekly IMAX numbers in other countries are astonishing - reportedly $55,000 per screen in Saudi Arabia, 73,000 per screen in Denmark - all of which establishes that audiences, once they feel safe, will show up and not just for "Tenet." Last week China, claiming to have tamped down the virus, celebrated its golden holiday week, allowing theaters to fill up to 75% of capacity. And "Jiang Ziya: Legend Of Deification," that animated fantasy that was postponed back in January...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: ...Finally premiered to an "Avengers"-worthy first week and a half of $217 million. Not only that; it came in second.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG GORANSSON'S "POSTERITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.