After a long slumber, U.S. cinemas awaken on pivotal weekend

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This combination shows Yifei Liu in the title role of "Mulan," left, and John David Washington in a scene from "Tenet." On Thursday, Christopher Nolans Tenet will arrive in U.S. theaters, the first big movie to head to cinemas since the pandemic began. The next day, Disneys Mulan will try an innovative streaming release. Two divergent paths for the film industry collide in one weekend. (Jasin Boland/Disney via AP, left, and Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

STAMFORD, Conn. – With the previews about to start, a trickle of masked moviegoers made their way into one of the first U.S. screenings of “Tenet” at the Bow Tie Majestic 6 in downtown Stamford, Connecticut. They took their seats Tuesday night, eyeing the empty seats between each other and a little giddy at being back at the movies for the first time in many months.

Philip Scarante and Andy Flores, both 25, went every Tuesday religiously before theaters closed in March. “It’s just our thing,” Scarante said. Seeing Nolan’s latest mind-bending spectacle later on a smaller screen held no appeal. They sat down in center seats, up close.

“Everyone seems to have a mask on,” Scarante noted, looking around in the sparsely populated theater. “I didn’t expect that many people to show up.”

More Americans will make their way back to the movies this weekend than any since the pandemic shuttered theaters in March. After a few weeks of catalog films and minor releases, the $200 million “Tenet” is the first must-see main event of the pandemic, a mega-movie litmus test for how ready U.S. moviegoers are to return to cinemas.

At the same time, another $200 million movie, the Walt Disney Co.’s live-action “Mulan” remake is debuting not in theaters, as it originally intended to back in March, but on the streaming service Disney+. In an innovative, untested release, “Mulan” will be available for $30 only to Disney+ subscribers Friday.

Each movie could chart a new way forward for Hollywood in the COVID-19 era, and potentially beyond. “Tenet,” w hich grossed a hefty $53.6 million in 41 international territories last weekend, could prove that blockbuster moviegoing can be resuscitated with half-capacity theaters and safety protocols -- or that people aren’t ready to sit in the dark with strangers. “Mulan” could open up a new premium on-demand window to the largest film franchises -- or prove that big-time box office (“Mulan” had been projected to make around $750 million in theaters) can’t be replicated in the home.

Labor Day weekend, usually among the sleepiest days of the year in theaters, has turned into a dramatic showdown with maybe the fate of the industry at stake, as two high-priced experiments test the possibilities of a new reality.

“The world we’re in right now, the concept of releasing the film absolutely everywhere for everyone to go and see on the same weekend, clearly that’s absolutely not an option for the foreseeable future,” said Nolan in an interview. “So if that pushes the industry into different ways of thinking and some of them being older distribution models, that hopefully can work.”