There was a lot riding on Christopher Nolan this weekend. He was carrying the weight of the fledgling multiplex industry on his back with the release of Tenet, the cerebral but trippy action thriller put out by AT&T's (T 1.60%) Warner Bros. studio that hit theaters over the holiday weekend. It wasn't enough.

Domestic box office receipts for the weekend were mixed. Tenet generated $20.2 million in ticket sales over the holiday weekend, the best haul of any film since AMC Entertainment Holdings (AMC -5.41%) and its smaller rivals began opening their screens three weekends ago. However, the film could have fared better as the lone summer blockbuster hitting movie houses this summer. It also failed to deliver a boost to other films, something that sometimes happen for major releases. The game is far from over, but right now AT&T, AMC Entertainment, and the rest of the country's exhibitors aren't winning. 

A pair of young moviegoers asleep in an otherwise empty movie theater.

Image source: Getty Images.

Popcorn kernels

Add up all of the movies playing at domestic movie theaters during the three-day weekend, and the $26.5 million in ticket sales is more than double the $12.6 million that exhibitors generated over the same three days a week earlier. Tack on Labor Day given the official Monday holiday, and we're at $28.1 million in stateside box office receipts. This may seem like a success, but keep in mind that movie theater operators hauled in $120.8 million from movie buffs during last year's Labor Day holiday weekend. 

There are a lot of things gnawing away at the industry right now, and they all ate into Tenet's chances to succeed. AMC has just 70% of its U.S. movie theaters open, and the other 30% includes New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, and other markets which not only attract a large audience but charge higher ticket prices than the national average. 

Theaters also have been abiding by social-distancing regulations, limiting guest counts to no more than 40% and in many cases 30% or less of available seats. Throw in the folks who aren't going to the local multiplex either because of the face-covering requirement or the COVID-19 risks, and it all adds up to a challenging operating climate.

If we compare Tenet to the Nolan flick that many have compared it to -- his 2010 smash Inception -- we see how small the weekend debut stands. Inception raked in $62.8 million in a non-holiday weekend 10 summers ago. It did open in more theaters, playing through 3,792 screens vs. 2,810 screens for Tenet. AMC and rival multiplex operators were also able to sell every seat for Inception. However, ticket prices are nearly 20% higher now than they were a decade ago. 

Tenet isn't a failure -- at least not yet. AT&T's big bet to be more than just a telecom stock has topped $146 million in ticket sales worldwide through the past two weekends. It had premiered in 40 overseas markets a week earlier. However, the stateside debut is disheartening for more than AT&T's own coffers. 

The arrival of a big film sometimes helps other screenings. Folks show up to see a movie, find it's sold out, and settle for something else. Given the limited number of tickets available, it was easy to imagine that this would be a big payday for Unhinged, The New Mutants, and other available movies. There were no coattails here. Ticket sales for all non-Tenet films were just a little more than half of what they produced a weekend earlier. There was no Tenet bump. 

This isn't over for Tenet. There is no other major film opening anytime soon. Tenet should continue to dominate at the box office through the next few weeks, and there may even be a bump as some of the major markets that currently don't have movie theaters open receive municipal clearance to fire up their projectors. Things got off to an unimpressive start, but when it comes to movies, it's often more about how they end than how they begin.