Universal Boss: Christopher Nolan Is in a ‘Category of One’ When it Comes to Long Theatrical Windows

Don't expect many other movies to get the 90- to 120-day theatrical exclusive window that Universal is giving Nolan.
Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan
Chelsea Lauren/Variety

When Christopher Nolan broke up with Warner Bros. after a 19-year relationship with the studio, at the top of his list of demands for whatever studio would back his next film was that the movie would get a long, exclusive theatrical release. Universal obliged, signing a deal to finance and distribute Nolan’s film about the development of the atomic bomb. But the way Universal sees it, the deal is but an exception to the new rules of Hollywood.

Universal chief Donna Langley spoke publicly about the upcoming Nolan project for the first time on Thursday, at The Information’s Women in Tech, Media and Finance conference. She confirmed that the $100 million biographical drama about J. Robert Oppenheimer would be released exclusively in theaters for between 90 and 120 days.

Not only is that longer than Universal’s pandemic-era exclusive windows, which range from 17 to 31 days, that range is longer than the standard 90-day window that was shattered amid the global crisis. Langley says the vast majority of other films will not get the same treatment as Nolan’s.

“I’m going to put Chris Nolan in a category of one, or one of three,” Langley said, according to The Information.

Asked if a 30- to 45-day window would become the new Norm, she added: “Without getting specific, I think it’s going to be shorter … It just makes practical sense.”

Nolan’s public breakup with Warner Bros. began in December 2020, when the studio announced the entirety of its 2021 slate would debut simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. It was a move that caught many in the industry, including the filmmakers behind some of the films impacted, by surprise.

Nolan’s most recent movie, “Tenet,” wasn’t affected: The studio had delayed its release three times during the pandemic before it eventually saw a lackluster release in September 2020. But as one of Hollywood’s most prominent champions of the theatrical experience, he was incensed by the day-and-date news, slamming WarnerMedia in the press and sending a clear signal that the two-decade relationship with the company, which began in 2002 with “Insomnia,” was over.

Enter Universal, whose pandemic-era moves likely wouldn’t earn Nolan’s endorsement either. Universal was the first to shatter the 90-day window when it announced in April 2020 that it would begin releasing first-run movies in theaters and on demand. The move was met by a boycott of the studio’s movies by AMC Theatres, though the two sides eventually agreed on a minimum 17-day theatrical window, based on box office performance.

During Thursday’s conference, Langley also predicted that theatrical attendance levels will be down around 20 percent compared to before the pandemic. It will “take a long time to get back to those pre-pandemic numbers,” she said.

She weighed in on another hot-button issue, how streaming is changing the way talent and crew is compensated, an issue that has played out in the settled lawsuit between Scarlett Johansson and Disney and in the looming threat of a strike by IATSE. Langley said Universal is evaluating compensation on a film-by-film basis.

“We are surfing the wave of change right now,” she said. “Inevitably, a year from now, things will look different to how they do today.”

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