After three “Batman” films and “Inception,” any Christopher Nolan release ranks at the high end of expectations. Even his critical disappointment “Interstellar” got to $200 million domestic and reached $700 million worldwide. On the cusp of its release, expectations are that it should open to $40 million or a little more. That would make it his lowest start since “Insomnia” (2002), which in adjusted grosses opened to $31 million.
That figure, with Nolan’s history and the acclaim, might seem disconcerting. Nolan is known for a combination of box-office performance and critical acclaim, and operates at budget levels that demand returns of at least $500 million — something that demands strong international success as well as a domestic gross of around $15o million or more as part of the equation.
So: Time to worry? Nope. Here’s why.
Far more reliable for franchise films than for historical dramas, tracking primarily captures theater audiences. The results likely reflect people who came to see superheroes, animation, and other traditional tentpole movies. Not necessarily the audience for “Dunkirk” — a pre-Pearl Harbor World War II drama about a strategic British retreat in 1940. With a nearly all-British cast, Tom Hardy is the closest thing to a proven draw.
That blind spot for broad-based interest from older audiences leads to shocks like “American Sniper,” which grossed $350 million — more than any other 2014 release. The older male audience, a prime target for military stories, is particularly off the radar much of the time.
Though Warners has touted the film in targeted ways, including a highly regarded early trailer, marketing has peaked with another trailer as well as significant 70mm projection plans. The pre-opening operation has clearly been a success. Now we’ll see how audiences respond.
Finally, this is as good a point as any to mention “Saving Private Ryan.” It’s an imperfect comparison — “Ryan” had Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks at their prime, and was 20 years closer to the World War II D-Day events it recreated. However, like “Dunkirk,” Spielberg’s film aimed for early buzz as an Oscar favorite, opening on the same week in July 1998. It made $57 million domestic in its first weekend (again, adjusted) and then — despite an R rating and a nearly three-hour length — went on to a staggering seven-times multiple and $404 million domestic gross.
We don’t know how audiences will react to the PG-13 “Dunkirk,” but we do know that Nolan’s films usually wind up overachieving in comparison to their opening weekends. Looking at all of his studio films, his opening weekends total $515 million, but yielded $1.7 billion in domestic totals. That’s a 3.5 times multiple, far above average. “Interstellar,” “Inception,” and “Insomnia” quadrupled their openings. Expect the same or more for “Dunkirk.”
The U.K. and strongly Anglophile markets should be standout, but the overall European flavor of the film also could propel it on the continent. Asian territories and Latin American areas might not be quite as elevated, and China remains a big question mark.
Curiously, Nolan’s “Interstellar” and “Inception” got a bigger share of their gross overseas than his “Batman” entries. He is an international brand with an even greater acceptance of his broader work. That should help.
So with all systems in place, even in a weekend with two other wide releases (Luc Besson’s “Valerian and a City of a Thousand Planets”/STX and “Girls Trip”/Universal). If it grosses $40 million, it should be fine and on course based on strong long term performance to reach $150 million at least and with strong international returns added, then a gamble that will have paid off.