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

ap photo This combination shows Yifei Liu in the title role of “Mulan,” left, and John David Washington in a scene from “Tenet.”

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.

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.

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