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Will Christopher Nolan Leave Warner Bros.? Assessing the Director’s Next Move

If Nolan leaves Warner Bros., his choice will have as much to do with theatrical windows as it does budget.

Director Christopher Nolan poses during a photo call at the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Saturday, May 12, 2018. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

Christopher Nolan

Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

This week, the Wall Street Journal put into words what we all suspected: After Warner Bros. made its controversial decision to move its 2021 slate to a hybrid release model, “Tenet” filmmaker Christopher Nolan is “unlikely to return to the studio with his next project.” (Neither Warners nor Nolan’s reps responded to requests for comment.)

Warner Bros. announced its HBO Max strategy December 3, and Nolan came forward December 7 to express “disbelief” over the decision. Nolan, who has spent much of the pandemic fighting for the survival of movie theaters (an op-ed in March; a UK petition this week), criticized his longtime studio for sending films to its “fledgling streaming service.” Nolan also slammed the studio for not providing its directors, actors, and other artists with so much as a heads up.

In the promotional push for the December VOD launch of “Tenet,” Nolan told the Associated Press he was “relieved” his espionage epic was not caught up in the HBO Max “mess.” Warners made no apologies; WarnerMedia chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff told CNBC that the U.S. box-office failure of “Tenet” was a driving force behind the HBO Max decision. Falling short of $60 million in the U.S., she said, proved that “the U.S. is not quite ready yet to fully reopen and have full engagement of fans back into theaters, hence this new strategy.”

Nolan is angry that his home studio of nearly 20 years, where his films have earned over $4 billion worldwide, isn’t giving films the respect he believes they deserve. However, if he leaves on that basis he may be cutting off his nose to spite his face: In 2021, there is no assurance that any studio can give him the guarantees he wants.

The industry is in a weird moment when many theaters are closed in the face of COVID restrictions, but even when those finally lift there are very few who believe that movies will return to “normal” (aka 2019). Studios don’t want to repair shattered theatrical windows; they want the flexibility to design releases that will give them the greatest return.

For a Nolan film, that still could mean an old-fashioned theatrical release — at any studio, Warners included. However, no studio takes those releases for granted, which means it could be a complex negotiation to ensure that Nolan gets the screens and marketing that he expects.

Then there’s the matters of enormous budgets, creative control, and final cut. Nolan enjoys all of these at Warners, reflecting its long tradition of supporting filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Clint Eastwood. Other studios could do the same, but hammering that out would be a major undertaking in its own right.

Paramount Pictures has spent the pandemic selling off titles and seems too cash-strapped to take on a Nolan epic like the $200 million “Tenet.” Sony isn’t in much better shape, although Sony’s decision to forgo the release of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” in China to preserve Quentin Tarantino’s vision is the kind of studio respect that Nolan might find attractive in the wake of Warner Bros.’ “disrespect” of filmmakers. Disney has the money to fund a Nolan epic, but Nolan doesn’t make the all-demographic films the studio can drop on Disney+ after a theatrical run.

The one studio that might be in the best shape to house a Nolan epic is Universal Pictures — the market leader in shorter theatrical release windows. Universal announced in November a multi-year agreement with Cinemark and AMC Theaters in which windows will be based on opening-weekend gross. Universal films can keep films exclusive to theaters as long as it likes, but those that open to less than $50 million can shift to PVOD after 17 days; titles that gross over $50 million can shift after 31 days.

Maybe Nolan would be interested in directing a less-expensive film along the lines of “Insomnia” or “The Prestige,” with scaled-back theatrical expectations. However, those generally are not the films on which long-term partnerships are made; would Nolan want to be in the business of finding a new partner with each project?

It’s very likely that Netflix, Apple, and Amazon would give Nolan all the creative and financial leeway he’d ever want. All have $200 million original film projects in development (Apple with Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Netflix with “The Gray Man,” and Amazon with Chris Pratt’s “The Tomorrow Man”), However, a theatrical release will never drive the streamers’ business. Just as it’s very likely that each will spend at least some time in theaters, it’s highly unlikely that any of these companies would overhaul their release strategies to meet Nolan’s demands for extended theatrical exclusivity.

DUNKIRK, l-r: director Christopher Nolan, Kenneth Branagh on set, 2017. ph: Melinda Sue Gordon/©Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Christopher Nolan and Kenneth Branagh on set, “Dunkirk.”

©Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection

Would 31 days be enough for Nolan? Netflix seems comfortable with that, given its 2019 release of “The Irishman.” If that were the case, and if AMC would agree to carry Netflix titles, then maybe Netflix is a good home — but not one that would be very different than the one Nolan has at Warners.

And then there’s the devil you know. Not only is “Tenet” a strong VOD performer at the moment, but Warners executives have stressed its hybrid model is for 2021 releases only. Nolan doesn’t have a 2021 release, meaning the next Nolan-Warner Bros. movie would presumably not hit HBO Max the same day it opens in theaters. Wherever Nolan does end up, expect it to be the studio that can provide him the sturdiest theatrical window.

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