Among the general movie-going public — those “regular folk” who don’t obsessively dissect and analyze trailers or follow the latest Film Twitter controversy that is usually overblown nonsense and forgotten in 48 hours — very few directors are household names.
Christopher Nolan is one of those very few.
One look at the strong box office receipts and the cultural impact of Nolan’s work since Memento would cement that sentiment about the British filmmaker, who hasn’t looked back since that heady mystery. A non-stop string of critical and commercial successes — some zeitgeist-defining smashes, others solid performers — followed, all of them certified winners.
Memento (worldwide gross of $40 million against a reported $9 million budget), Insomnia ($114 million), The Dark Knight Trilogy (combined gross of $2.5 billion), The Prestige ($110 million), Inception ($837 million), Interstellar ($774 million), Dunkirk ($527 million). Even Tenet — while having a special asterisk next to it for opening in the midst of the COVID pandemic — still grossed $365 million. A solid performance, all things considered.
For the last 20 years, Nolan has called the Burbank offices of Warner Bros. home, delivering one hit after another. Many came to find him as synonymous with the studio lot as Clint Eastwood — who has been making movies longer than Nolan has been alive — and the iconic Water Tower that watches over the ever-changing regimes of temporary studio heads, executives, and their minions.
Until, as we all know by now, Nolan’s fallout with WB’s then-CEO Jason Kilar over his Project Popcorn — as ill-conceived and communicated as it was a necessary evil given the circumstances of the pandemic. No matter the real culprit — his reported dissatisfaction with the theatrical rollout of Tenet or the ire he felt for his directorial brethren who lacked the political muscle to fight back when their work went straight to HBO Max — Nolan took his toys and moved over to a new playground: Universal, now home to his forthcoming WWII thriller Oppenheimer.
But to take from the great S.E. Hinton, that was then… this is now, and Warner Bros. movies bosses Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy — who report directly to Big Kahuna David Zaslav — are ready to right those wrongs of the past, hoping that Nolan is willing to let bygones be bygones.
In this week’s cover story for Variety, De Luca and Abdy pull no punches and are as subtle as a trainwreck in their foremost goal — they want Nolan back and have extended multiple olive branches to maybe, just maybe make that happen.
Yes, there’s the monetary logic – a “seven-figure royalty check” that one of the trade’s studio spies says was “owed in good faith.” But something tells me this cuts deeper than an admittedly juicy paycheck, especially for someone like Nolan at this point in his career.
To quote Heath Ledger‘s Joker — the most iconic figure in all of Nolan’s filmography from his signature film The Dark Knight — “It’s not about money, it’s about sending a message.” If Warner Bros. Discovery is serious about getting Nolan back, they need to send one such message to show they mean it:
Warner Bros. needs to move Barbie off its July 21 release date where it’s currently facing off against — you guessed it — Nolan’s Oppenheimer… and they only need to push it one week, to July 28. A little bit of breathing room for a prized filmmaker who has earned it.
Both films have so far delivered stellar marketing campaigns led by excellent trailers and posters. And at face value, it would appear Barbie and Oppenheimer are aiming for different audiences, so in theory, they aren’t competing for the same dollars. However, respectfully, anyone who thinks that is incorrect. The bold statement in the last Barbie trailer said it all: “If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you.”
My lovely wife Anastasiya and I have been quoting Ryan Gosling‘s brilliantly empty-headed delivery of “I’m actually not sure” since the second Barbie teaser dropped two months ago. We’re both dying to see whether Greta Gerwig connects with her first swing in the blockbuster batting cage after years of success as an acclaimed indie director — not unlike how Nolan got his own feet wet with Batman Begins.
Meanwhile, Oppenheimer has presented itself as a nail-bailing thriller about a part of history most of us didn’t live through and only read about in school. So from our perspective, we know the good guys won. But those involved in the Manhattan Project and living through WWII didn’t know that with the fear of our extinction as Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) asks Cillian Murphy‘s title character, “Are we saying there’s a chance that when we push that button… we destroy the world?”
In the latest tracking numbers — from Puck News’ Matthew Belloni — Barbie is currently looking at $45-$55 million opening weekend, while Oppenheimer is targeting $30-$35 million. Solid numbers and absolutely nothing to sneeze at. However, that is a lot closer than I honestly anticipated, as I’ve long believed that Barbie would dominate this box office battle.
Clearly, both films are cutting into the other, and in the coming weeks, it’s anyone’s guess how that gap closes in.
Do we at Above the Line think Warner Bros. will actually do this? Let’s just say, we’re not holding our breath. In fact, were I in their shoes, I wouldn’t blink in this staring match. But if the new regime is serious about getting Nolan back, well, actions speak louder than words, and in Hollywood, nothing screams “love” like money.
A bold play like this — an act of good faith if there ever was one — couldn’t be any louder, and it would prove just how badly they want their favorite son back.
Will Saint Christopher listen to their prayers? Stay tuned…