Oh This Is Rich, Christopher Nolan

Oh This Is Rich, Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan delivers a video message during the opening ceremony of the 33rd Tokyo International Film Festival on October 31, 2020. (Photo: Christopher Jue/Stringer, Getty Images)

As the movie industry continues to process Warner Bros.’ unprecedented decision to release all of its 2021 movies on HBO Max day-and-date with theatres, reports have painted the picture of a concerned industry and studio partners blindsided by the news. There’s a lot to talk about, but one person who shouldn’t be talking? Christopher Nolan.

Multiple reports from the likes of the Hollywood Reporter and Deadline this week have discussed the behind-the-scenes fallout of last Thursday’s announcement. They’re mostly focused on the fact that Warner Bros. allegedly made the decision to not inform studio partners and top talent about the decision until the day it became public. It was a surprising decision, all things considered, that led to shock and ire from a theatre industry that will now have to contend with hampered theatrical releases putting severe dents in its pockets for all of 2021. (And perhaps beyond that, given lingering doubts over just how quickly the industry can recover from the ongoing ramifications of the covid-19 pandemic, widespread vaccine distribution or otherwise.)

Legendary, the production company behind both Godzilla vs. Kong and Dune’s releases next year, is noted as potentially considering legal action given its considerable investment in both films’ budgets compared to Warner. Legendary was purportedly in the works to pull Godzilla vs. Kong from Warner’s schedule entirely, pitching a $US250 ($337) million streaming deal to Netflix that was blocked by Warner. Gizmodo has reached out to both Warner Bros. and Legendary about the alleged legal action. Legendary declined to comment; we’ll update if we receive a response from WB.

“We’re all participants in a market that serves customers and the longer-term impacts are going to be dictated by what consumers wish to do. And I think all of us, if we step back and think about the market and what’s happening today, customers have a tremendous amount of choice as to how they choose to engage with content,” AT&T CEO John Stankey said, defending the decision in a keynote at the UBS Global TMT Virtual Conference (via The Wrap). “And if we just simply sit here and say this is about whether or not people go to movie theatres, I think we’re missing the broader point, which is, today, even before WarnerMedia made this decision, customers could go watch great two-hour content on a variety of competitive services to HBO Max or any other streaming service that was out there — some of them, very significant releases. So customers are going to drive what occurs in the market, ultimately.”

“If we step back and think about what occurs here, to my point, I think when we just are being really honest about this, there’s a win-win-win here,” Stankey continued. “Ultimately, people want to make money, people want to build great content and have the opportunity for customers to experience what their great creative work is and I think, as everybody sits down and kind of sorts through that, there’s a middle ground where everybody can walk away from this feeling like it was ultimately a good thing.”

But what has taken the spotlight from larger industry discontent with Warner’s decision in these reports is a statement from Tenet director Nolan, who spent much of this summer reportedly pushing for his time-turning action movie to receive a theatrical release, at the height of a viral pandemic, to preserve the moviegoing experience. That move essentially forced theatre chains to open just to show the movie, despite so many other summer releases opting to delay or head to digital releases. Nolan is none too pleased with Warner’s decision, lack of pre-informed knowledge or otherwise.

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“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,” Nolan told THR. “Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theatres and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”

In an alternate world where Nolan hadn’t spent much of 2020 putting his foot in his own mouth repeatedly, the director would maybe have a point. Warner Bros.’ decision is drastic, its impacts sudden and far-reaching beyond even its own releases. Additionally, the studio is unwilling to say right now if an improvement in pandemic circumstances could change its mind — or if it would potentially extend the idea if moviegoing audiences suddenly get used to date-and-date streaming premiers. Instead of raising confidence with its partners, Warner’s flashy choice has created a great deal of doubt and confusion.

But after everything Nolan did around the release of Tenet, his response is stunningly hypocritical. Nolan spent much of the summer advocating for the fastest possible path to reopening movie theatres. As lockdowns first began in March, he wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post romanticizing the moviegoing experience as “a vital part of social life.” Months later, he was reportedly pushing back against Warner Bros.’ plans to delay the movie from its then-release-date of July 17 out of a desire to have Tenet be “one of the first big studio films back in theatres” according to a July report from THR. Further reports alleged that Nolan stood to take 20% of Tenet’s first-dollar gross whenever it arrived.

“Chris really would like to be coming out with the film that opens theatres,” IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond said at an earnings call back in May this year (via Variety). “I don’t know anyone in America who is pushing harder to get the theatres re-opened and to get his movie released than Chris Nolan.”

Nolan continued his campaign to ensure that Tenet would be the blockbuster to herald the reopening of theatres as U.S. lockdowns began easing in summer even as it put the lives and livelihoods of theatergoers, critics, and theatre workers at risk. The pandemic was taking stronger and stronger roots in the U.S., UK, and other countries at the time, and health officials were strongly advising against going to movie theatres.

After all of that, what was the outcome? Domestic box office results so unequivocally shaky that Warner Bros. originally refused to share them. Nolan, for his part, quickly reminded everyone that, come on, there’s a pandemic going on, what did you really expect? Nolan’s bullishness on Tenet got him what he wanted — a theatrical release — but it didn’t get him what he needed: proof that theatrical releases could survive the pandemic or save theatres during this time. It’s absurd for him not to recognise that Tenet’s lacklustre opening has to be a factor in Warner Bros.’ decisionmaking here.

“I mean, with the benefit of hindsight, it was great to see how audiences in places where the virus had been managed carefully and efficiently, where they could safely go back to movie theatres, people came back in great numbers. And [that] was a wonderful thing to see for the future of our business,” Nolan recently told Entertainment Tonight about his frustrations with Tenet’s hampered release. “Obviously, to not be able to travel the world with everyone involved with the film and have the premieres and experience it with audiences in, you know, Japan or Australia or wherever was a source of frustration. And then to not really be able to release the film in the United States was a source of frustration.”

What Nolan calls “frustration” was a signal to companies like Warner Bros. that boldly pressing on and releasing movies in theatres was not likely to go the way they hoped. He brought this on himself, and he shouldn’t be surprised at the outcome. Knowing that, Christopher Nolan, we have one question for you: Was Tenet really worth it?