In a year with no competition for big-budget spectacles, Christopher Nolan’s $200-million infinity loop thriller “Tenet” should have been able to nab more than two Oscar nominations. Instead, the black-and-white drama “Mank” — a story of Hollywood’s decidedly analog Golden Age — scooped up 10 nods; similarly, Paul Greengrass’ epic western, “News of the World,” earned four. What happened?
For one thing, rather than spend Warner Bros. Oscar dollars on a $2.5 billion filmmaker who spent his entire studio career as its in-house auteur, Warners funded a major awards campaign for its late-breaking “Judas and the Black Messiah,” directed by Shaka King in his studio filmmaking debut at an eighth of the cost of “Tenet.”
It’s an unlikely outcome driven by many strange circumstances, only one of which was the pandemic. The biggest factor: an A-list director’s unflappable hubris in the face of a killer virus. “Chris never had a misstep before in his career,” said one studio production executive. “Directors are like brain surgeons. They have to be right all the time.”
“Judas” has been a triumph for the film and its studio. It premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews; two weeks later, it debuted on HBO Max and in 1,888 U.S. theaters. Star Daniel Kaluuya won the Supporting Actor Golden Globe, and then won again at the Critics Choice Awards. The movie landed WGA and PGA nominations, and now is up for SAG and BAFTA awards as well as six Oscars, including Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Song, and both of its leads in the Supporting Actor race.
“Tenet,” meanwhile, has two Oscar nominations for VFX and Production Design. It received one Golden Globe nomination (composer Ludwig Goransson); five Critics Choice craft nominations; sound editing, VFX and production design guild nominations; and one BAFTA nod, for Special Visual Effects. It has not won any to date.
Last summer, as all studios delayed their big-budget releases, Warners was ready to wait on “Tenet.” Nolan was not. Driven by a fervor to release his baby and/or single-handedly save movie theaters, he campaigned the studio to release the film and made his own statements that positioned his glossy puzzle box as the make-or-break movie of the pandemic.
Exhibitors loved the theaters-or-death Nolan as a white knight, as well as the filmmaker who inspired sold-out theaters with the “Dark Knight” trilogy, “Inception,” “Interstellar,” and “Dunkirk.” At no small cost, having been shuttered for five months, the big chains followed his lead and reopened in about 68 percent of the country in time for the September 3 debut of “Tenet.” The movie opened to $9.4 million in North America and grossed $29.5 million in its first two weeks.
This wasn’t Warners’ game plan. According to sources, the studio tried to calculate ideal theatrical release timing that would yield the most return on its investment. Distribution executives measured pandemic case rates against possible theater openings. This turned out to be a zero-sum game, but studio executives are also known to christen those gifted filmmakers who have global-brand bonafides as the smartest people in the room.
“Tenet” scored strong overseas numbers, but middling reviews (Metascore: 69). Limited access to theater seats over the next six months led to disappointing box office ($363.3 million worldwide so far). As theaters reopened around the country last weekend, the movie sold out on some New York and Los Angeles screens (playing to 25 percent capacity), just in time to play for vaccinated Academy voters.
It’s too late for that. Back in November, a bruised Nolan told Warners to put money on extending its release, not an Oscar campaign. Warners put its “Tenet” money into theaters where possible and published a Blu-ray as well as HD DVDs. Warners did not mail screeners to Academy members, did not plunk down $12,500 to upload the film on the Academy portal, placed no FYC ads, and mounted no digital screenings or Q&As.
Some craftspeople, like composer Ludwig Göransson, cooperated with editorial features on their own, and VFX house Double Negative supplied a sizzle reel to the VFX Oscar bake-off.
All of this was in play before Warner Media CEO Jason Kilar’s December 3 bombshell that all 17 Warners movies slated for 2021 release would open day-and-date on HBO Max and in theaters. Gale-force blowback followed from shocked agents, studio partners, financiers, and talent, not the least of whom was Nolan himself.
In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, he called his home studio dysfunctional, adding, “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.” During the promo push for the December VOD launch of “Tenet,” Nolan told the Associated Press he was “relieved” that his global thriller wasn’t mired in the HBO Max “mess.” None of this played well inside the studio.
After “Tenet” received its two nominations March 15, Academy voters who clicked on the screening portal for links to the film saw that “Tenet” was “unavailable.” That meant any Oscar voter would have to find a DVD or a theater playing the film, which reaches HBO Max May 1 — six days after the Oscars ceremony April 25. It also means that Nolan’s Oscar campaign ban was depriving his own top-tier craftspeople of career-buttressing support. A 69 Metascore is more than respectable; Oscar-winner “Bohemian Rhapsody” scored 49. “Tenet” should have easily scored five or six nods.
Nolan finally relented; “Tenet” will be uploaded to the Academy portal March 29. “While we actively chose not to campaign the film,” said one Warners source, “at the filmmaker’s request, we will be supporting the nominations by putting the film on the AMPAS platform and passing members through the theaters.”
Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
As a very late release, “Judas” didn’t qualify for voting by many critics groups — but that timing also created the benefit of recency bias. It’s not a star vehicle, but it fits neatly into the Academy’s penchant for police procedurals and thrillers (see “Chinatown,” “The Departed,” “The French Connection”). “It’s the plight of the individual against systemic forces,” said “Judas” screenwriter Keith Lucas.
Warners recognized that this biopic about the injustice of the U.S. government gunning down a 21-year-old Black Panther would play well in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and that Black History Month was the right time to open the movie. As awareness grew, it hit theaters just as they reopened in New York and LA, where most Academy voters live. “The theme of racial injustice resonated in the culture,” said one studio marketer. “The movie itself demanded that people pay attention to it.”
As for Nolan, industry speculation holds that he and his team will head for the exits as soon as they find a new home — but there’s a real question of which companies would be able and willing to deliver the high-end production and theatrical release he demands. Raising financing in order to own his copyrights, as Sony allowed Tarantino to do with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” is a lot of work. Ask DreamWorks co-founder Steven Spielberg: Studios are the best invention for a filmmaker to make multiple films.