Change doesn’t come easily for the industry, but if you’re Christopher Nolan, change isn’t even up for discussion. As a fierce advocate of the big-screen experience, the filmmaker has remained adamant about the release strategy for his movies, shrugging off the opportunity to take his wares to the streamers no matter how much money they’re willing to throw at him.
Over the past year, Nolan’s ongoing ability to stare down his nose at changing distribution paradigms has started to look like a pointless exercise in flame-throwing. Most recently, he lacerated his longtime home base, Warner Bros., for its decision to release all of its 2021 titles day and date in the midst of the pandemic. Now, it seems he’s on the market, and Netflix studio chief Scott Stuber alluded to an open-door policy in several interviews. “I’m going to do everything I can,” he told Variety.
Nolan’s theatrical-first strategy is an admirable form of cultural advocacy at a dire moment for exhibition. But Netflix is not the theatrical antichrist, and desperately wants to find a happy medium between the fundamentals of its business model and the industry desire to preserve big-screen experiences.
Nolan is in a privileged position: Few filmmakers have the luxury of watching the world’s largest streaming entity beg to win them over. That’s leverage: He can use this as an opportunity to continue making movies on his own terms while pushing Netflix to explore a more expansive policy with its theatrical releases. Fighting for the preservation of the theatrical experience doesn’t mean anything if you pretend Netflix doesn’t exist. These power players need to recognize that fate has brought them together and talk it through. Yes, there is good reason for Nolan to fight for the superiority of the theatrical experience; and yes, a singular filmmaker who makes risky movies at blockbuster scale would benefit from Netflix’s support.
Nolan and Netflix have argued through their differences in the press for years. Back in 2017 when “Dunkirk” came out, the filmmaker fired the first shot. “Netflix has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films,” Nolan told me in an interview at the time, calling the streamer’s day-and-date strategy “obviously an untenable model for theatrical presentation. So they’re not even getting in the game, and I think they’re missing a huge opportunity.” Later, faced with blowback, he admitted in another interview that he emailed an apology to Netflix’s Ted Sarandos. “I should have been more polite,” he said. “I wasn’t giving any context to the frankly revolutionary nature of what Netflix has done. It’s extraordinary.”
Game respects game, and any company willing to produce a two-and-a-half hour Spanish-language black-and-white passion project from another A-list Hollywood director — that would be Alfonso Cuarón and “Roma” — could almost certainly find a way to support whatever more consumer-friendly concept Nolan cooks up next. That’s unparalleled in the business right now, even among streamers: Amazon, which Nolan praised as superior to Netflix in our interview for respecting 90-day theatrical windows, has shown increased interest in commercial projects. But Nolan doesn’t make surefire commercial bets; he zigs and zags through adventurous ideas on his own terms while working in the confines of a blockbuster vernacular, and grew accustomed to Warner Bros. following his whims. There’s a big difference between that and James Bond.
At the moment, Netflix is the only power player inclined to play along with any kind of idiosyncratic storytelling at scale. Most recently, it spent in the vicinity of $70 million-90 million on Nolan peer Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead,” an innovative blend of zombie survival and heist movie tropes that established a whole new franchise. All the streamers want to be make bigger movies that work for mass audiences, but Netflix is more amenable to producing weird ones while recognizing that a theatrical push has the potential to maximize its visibility.
The danger of any Netflix title is that, no matter its appeal, the sheer volume of content will cause it to slip into oblivion not long after its release. To combat that, Netflix released “Army of the Dead” in 600 movie theaters two weeks before its streaming release, a deal it didn’t even make for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” If Nolan and Netflix could make a similar deal with a higher screen count — say, four or five times as much — and expand its window by three or four more weeks, he would stand a chance at delivering a genuine theatrical event while taking advantage of Netflix’s huge market penetration on VOD.
A practical issue looms above all of this from the international side. As Stuber told The Wall Street Journal, the lack of “global distribution” for Netflix titles is a real turnoff for Nolan. France in particular has an intimidating 36-month theatrical window that’s anathema to Netflix. The streamer prefers blowing off theatrical in France and serving its 8.6 million subscribers rather than deprive them of content for three years. That won’t work for Nolan. Netflix also has yet to sort out a strategy for releasing films in China, where censorship and internet regulation laws currently make partnership untenable. Nolan’s “Tenet” actually made more money in China (around $66 million) than it did the in U.S. ($58 million).
That’s where Netflix and Nolan could actually instigate real change together. In order to lower the theatrical window in France, the country’s Parliament would have to approve new legislation. (Imagine U.S. Congress debating theatrical windows!) Nolan would have to be willing to lobby for the kind of theatrical window that can allow theaters to play a serious role in the new paradigm for distribution — and the country would listen to him. Parliament’s more likely to take into account the demands of a passionate artist than Netflix, which tends to garner negative press in the region.
As for China, this is one area where Netflix may have to consider rescinding its standard all-rights deal to allow a major filmmaker the global release he demands. Under present circumstances, it’s too complicated for Netflix to crack the China equation. Instead, it could carve out a deal that allows another studio with an existing China presence to release Nolan’s movies there. Hey, maybe Warner Bros. would be a good for that.
Of course, Netflix created a massive existential threat to the exhibition space, and theaters are not a critical part of its business model. However, it has demonstrated a willingness to throw serious money at the preservation of the theatrical experience. In August, the historic Paris Theater will officially reopen under Netflix ownership, and curator David Schwartz has been working with Netflix filmmakers to program repertory series in tandem with theatrical premieres of Netflix projects. The streamer could acquire similar historic theaters around the world, which would allow key markets to provide a theatrical platform for Nolan’s movies.
Beyond the question of theaters vs. streamers, the industry is overdue to reassess the metrics for box office success. Last week, I cited an argument from the festival community advocating for film-festival box office to be counted as part of overall box office reporting. This may sound like a concept only relevant to smaller films reliant on the festival circuit — but thanks to the day-and-date release model, the needs of independent films and larger-scale blockbusters aren’t so dissimilar. Netflix can’t play its movies at Cannes due to the festival’s current policy, but could certainly push for Nolan’s new movie to have a massive festival presence around the globe. They can argue that the presence not only serves as promotion for the upcoming release but as the first stage of the release itself.
When Nolan’s frustrations with Warner Bros. kicked off last year, IndieWire news editor Zack Sharf evaluated the filmmaker’s options and concluded that Universal might be his best bet. Today, Universal is a less reliable home for a traditional theatrical releases; streamer Peacock increasingly part of the studio’s release strategy, as demonstrated by its recent $400 million deal for a new set of “Exorcist” movies. Why not go to the streamer with a proven success record in this space and is willing to work out a bespoke strategy that supports his vision?
The exhibition world needs heroes like Nolan, Sean Baker, and other erudite filmmakers to speak up for the value of theatrical release. When “Parasite” won the Oscar for Best Picture after grossing about $50 million theatrically, Neon CEO Tom Quinn explained the value of that success in the movie’s VOD future. “It is a symbiotic relationship. One benefits the other,” he said. “The thing that validates this is that our movies wind up on streaming. … It just so happens that when they do, they’re more valuable when they get there.” He added: “Everybody needs to fucking settle down and figure out what’s best for each movie.”
Netflix should take that advice into account in its discussions with Nolan. To attract one of the most adventurous large-scale studio filmmakers working today, the streamer needs a strategy that maintains the impact of the theatrical event. Nolan needs to evolve his understanding of what a theatrical event looks like in today’s climate.
Ultimately, these conversations can only move forward if Nolan has a new movie worth making in the first place. “Tenet” was a slick, impressive pretzel of a concept that needed a better screenplay. For Nolan to address the hectic relationship between Netflix and the exhibition community, he’ll have to deliver a genuine achievement that makes the effort worthwhile. Vast changes to the industry won’t kill off this most resilient art form, but the people who make the art form must also work to change the industry.