Christopher Nolan's alternative marketing for Tenet may have hit a roadblock. Over the past decade of high-concept blockbusters, the director has become a master of marketing. Along with pioneering new storytelling devices, playing with audiences' perceptions of time, championing shooting on real film and highlighting as many practical effects as possible in his movies, a Nolan picture is normally marked out by its spoiler-light marketing campaign, with drip-feed trailers that provide big ideas and bigger visuals while teasing the true subject.
Tenet, it seemed, would be no different. A teaser trailer focusing on John David Washington examining a bullet hole (twice) released in US cinemas with Hobbs & Shaw on August 1 (and has now started to appear internationally), a move reminiscent of every Nolan film since The Dark Knight: a teaser dropped in cinemas, before releasing online after the opening weekend. However, despite detailed footage descriptions, that second part didn't happen with Tenet. Two weeks after the Fast & Furious spinoff opened, and there's still no sign of Tenet's teaser trailer.
While the theater-only Tenet trailer did, at first, lead to a fervent interest in the film - the "tenet movie" search term saw a 600% week-on-week increase after the trailer played - it quickly dropped off. After the second week, "tenet movie" searches were back down to comparable levels as before. The same can be seen with the associated hashtags on Twitter, which were well-populated previously due to natural Nolan hype before and now are primarily used by the same faithful.
A drop-off post-trailer is always to be expected, especially for a non-franchise release. After all, a similar trajectory was true for Dunkirk in 2017: the announcement teaser for Nolan's World War II thriller dropped with Suicide Squad on July 31 and released online the Monday after, August 4. Similar is true for Interstellar in December 2013. However, based on Google Trends, the search demand for those movies was three times as large as what Tenet has experienced in the past couple of weeks. While there are other factors such as the size of the DCEU villain movie's success compared to Hobbs & Shaw's box office, the deciding factor appears to be the official, online trailer release.
Nolan's constant desire to preserve and elevate the cinema experience is, for the most part, a resoundingly positive one. His movies are invariably some of the biggest event films of their release year thanks in no small part to his prioritization of film and IMAX, while his efforts such as the unrestored rerelease of 2001: A Space Odyssey are essential to preserving film history without modern distortion. And there's something excitingly old-school about a trailer only being viewable in a theater ahead of a specific movie, conjuring up memories of stories where Star Wars fans flocked to see Meet Joe Black just to glimpse the Episode I trailer on the big screen.
But there's a point where pragmatism must take over. Trailer drops are increasingly major events, with the record for most views in 24 hours regularly topped: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Beauty and the Beast, IT, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame have all held the title in recent years, while the eyeballs on the likes of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker effortlessly top their predecessors. Anticipation for Avengers 4's trailer drop (it didn't get its subtitle until the teaser) was subject to almost as much ink as the film itself. While there's always a threat of audience burnout, especially when marketing is beginning almost a year ahead of the actual release, there's no avoiding how essential a trailer being viewable on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram et al is to a marketing push.
Tenet has essentially avoided all of that excitement with its teaser, creating a niche drop for one of Warner Bros. biggest 2020 blockbusters. It's bold, yet there's a major question mark over whether it's worked. And really, that depends entirely on what the purpose was. If it was to create a social media splash, then it resoundingly hasn't: playing mere moments before the audience puts their phones away for two hours will do that. But if it's just to raise general awareness with a blockbuster audience - all while downplaying the online sie to film media - then it's nailed it. This is, essentially, a throwback to the pre-internet era of marketing.
In truth, this likely won't matter all that much - Tenet is still eleven months out and a full, revealing trailer is dependable to cultivate considerably more interest looking at Nolan's past efforts. The director is a brand unto himself, and such experiments - even if not without explosive results - are unlikely to ruin the bigger picture. And if it avoids Nolan's expansive cinematography being cropped into an ugly Instagram vertical, maybe we really are the winners.