Inside Christopher Nolan’s Move to Universal, the Only Studio That Made Sense for His Atom Bomb Movie

How far will Universal bend to give Nolan the theatrical run that he wants? That is the question.
DUNKIRK, director Christopher Nolan, on set, 2017. ph: Melinda Sue Gordon/ © Warner Bros. Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection
Christopher Nolan on the set of "Dunkirk"
©Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection

Imagine an atom bomb exploding high in the clouds, in IMAX. Well, now moviegoers will get to see that image in the new $100-million movie from A-list auteur Christopher Nolan. At the close of finalizing a deal late Monday night, Universal greenlit Nolan’s script about how physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project invented the atom bombs that ended World War II in August 1945. Filming should begin, with or without rumored Nolan regular Cillian Murphy (who bears a certain resemblance to Oppenheimer), in early 2022.

Universal beat out several major studios to back the project after Nolan chose to exit his 19-year, career-long, exclusive relationship with Warner Bros. (It held international rights on Paramount’s “Interstellar.”) When WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar made the surprise December 3, 2020 announcement that the studio’s 2021 slate, including IMAX-bound “Dune,” would open day-and-date in theaters and on HBO Max, Nolan was done.

For the Oppenheimer project, top studio executives (who did not include Warners) drove to Nolan and producer Emma Thomas’ Hollywood Hills home office. There, they read the script at the offices of Nolan, followed by their best pitches on how to come through for the filmmaker. Nolan’s demands were the same for every studio, including Apple: his Warners deal, which includes final cut and 20 percent of the gross.

The choice of Universal makes perfect sense. What other studio would be able and willing to deliver the high-end production and theatrical release he demands? Warners is in flux as Discovery takes over the studio; MGM/UA is in the midst of a sale to Amazon; Paramount just lost respected leader Jim Gianopulos in favor of the streaming-friendly Brian Robbins; Sony lacks current box-office mojo; and Disney’s clearly hell-bent-for-leather in its streaming strategy. By default, Universal is the top-ranked studio with a sensible theatrical modus operandi.

Besides, Donna Langley had been wooing Nolan, a fellow Brit, for years. Langley first joined Universal Pictures in 2001 as a senior production executive, rising in the ranks from production president and co-chairman to chairman. Her track record and taste are impeccable, from banking on the “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Downton Abbey” franchises and Oscar wins for “Green Book” and “BlacKkKlansman,” to keeping the “Fast and Furious” franchise on track, even during the pandemic: “F9” beat out all Hollywood releases in 2021 with $714 million worldwide. Langley also knows how to nurture original filmmakers, from Jordan Peele to M. Night Shyamalan, and always keeps creatives in the loop on decisions about marketing and distribution.

Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, addresses the audience during the Universal Pictures presentation at CinemaCon 2019, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) at Caesars Palace, Wednesday, April 3, 2019, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, addresses the audience during the Universal Pictures presentation at CinemaCon 2019Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

The question is how Universal will handle releasing Nolan’s somber period drama in theaters. The studio’s theatrical windows agreement with the top chains dictates all movies that gross over $50 million on their opening weekend receive an exclusive theatrical window of 31 days — at least five full weekends in theaters. All films that open under that benchmark are guaranteed a 17-day window, or three weekends in theaters. (The current studio norm is 45 days.) Universal has stayed flexible while adapting to the new normal. In Nolan’s case, expect the studio to go all out with IMAX and 70mm runs, as it did with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread.”

Bottom line: Universal will bend over backward to give Nolan the long theatrical run he demands — a reported 100 days — even if the somber period drama opens at $45 million or lower. (This runs the risk of opening that door for other filmmakers.)

This deal reminds Hollywood that top talent will keep demanding exclusive theatrical releases — and will walk away to get them.

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