Warner Bros. Marketing Blitz in Nigeria Pays Off as ‘Tenet’ Spurs Hopes for Cinemas

With Nigerian cinemas set to open Aug. 28 for the first time in more than four months, local exhibitors are hoping that Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” will help a reeling box office return to its pre-pandemic heights.

Nolan’s mind-bending, time-twisting thriller, which Warner Bros. is also releasing in South Africa, Ghana and East Africa on Friday, will be the first test of whether Nigerian movie-goers are ready to return to cinemas that have been shuttered since late March, when coronavirus began spreading in Africa’s most populous nation.

Despite sluggish word of mouth around Nolan’s latest blockbuster earlier this year, a marketing blitz by Warner Bros. has made “Tenet” a movie “that folks can’t stop talking about,” according to Ladun Awobokun, head of distribution at FilmOne, whose sister company Filmhouse is West Africa’s largest exhibitor.

For audiences ready to return to a pre-lockdown way of life, “the high level of cabin fever” has added to the anticipation, said Awobokun. “There is clear excitement, and an action title of that magnitude is definitely the way to rejig the cinema experience — especially with the premium formats available.”

“Tenet” is likely to play a big role in any hopes the Nigerian cinema industry has for a post-COVID-19 recovery. “Whilst some Nollywood titles have gained larger acclaim than international titles, and [local market share] is growing steadily, the split between Hollywood and Nollywood content is still around 60:40,” Awobokun said, referring to the colloquial name for the local film industry.

“Now, with a lot of Hollywood studios moving titles to 2021 almost on a daily basis, the industry needs a heavy-hitter like ‘Tenet’ to remind folks of the awesomeness of the cinema experience.”

After recording more than 700 new infections per day at the pandemic’s peak in late June and early July, case numbers in Nigeria have been steadily trending downward, with 296 cases reported on Aug. 27. The country has recorded more than 53,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Businesses across Nigeria began reopening as early as May, after a strict, 30-day lockdown was imposed by the government. Cinemas will be allowed to operate starting Friday at 50% capacity.

The West African nation’s box office reached a record high in 2019, with total B.O. hitting 6.4 billion naira ($16.6 million). Despite a strong start to 2020, however, “it is highly unlikely, dare I say impossible, for that to be matched this year,” said Awobokun, who adds that the situation is especially “gut-wrenching” because this year “had the makings to top that figure generously.”

The FilmOne exec estimated that the industry lost roughly 3.5 billion naira ($9.1 million) in ticket sales during the four-month shutdown, and close to 6 billion naira ($15.5 million) when factoring in concessions, events and other revenue streams. Tentpoles like “Tenet” and Warner Bros.’ forthcoming “Wonder Woman 1984,” however, are bolstering hopes for at least a modest recovery. “Being able to reach a 4.4 billion naira ($11.4 million) box office earning by the end of 2020, matching 2017’s earnings, will be a big win,” she said.

As for “Tenet,” Awobokun said it’s the perfect film to help the Nigerian biz bounce back. “Nigerians love action movies,” she said, “and the importance of having a strong Black lead on a studio film in an era where the clamor for diversity and social justice is possibly the loudest, couldn’t be better timed.”

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