Christopher Nolan’s new deal for his next movie at Universal includes a lot of big demands, but it just might provide a roadmap for the future of the theatrical experience. The post-pandemic box office is slow to reach a full recovery and streaming revenue is quick to replace it, but that doesn’t mean the theatrical experience is dead just yet, and Nolan’s Universal deal shows one way to keep it alive.
After tensions between Nolan and Warner Bros. over the pandemic release of Tenet and Warner Bros. decision to release every 2021 theatrical film on HBO Max, Nolan’s relationship with WB hit rock bottom, saying “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.” As such, the move to Universal for Nolan’s next movie about atom bomb inventor, J. Robert Oppenheimer can be seen not just as a repudiation of his former studio home for 19 years, but also an attempt to prove the legacy of the theatrical experience can live on post-pandemic.
The filmmaker certainly benefits from the elaborate deal he arranged with Universal, but it also includes provisions to ensure the movie is given the best chance of success, which ultimately benefits the studio. If successful, Nolan’s next movie, and his deal with Universal, could show the rest of the industry the way forward.
The Theatrical Experience As We Know It Is Dead
Theater attendance has been decreasing for decades, even though total box office revenue was going up due to price increases and inflation. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, movies were delayed and most theaters closed, with the few that remained open operating on limited capacity, and without a steady supply of big new releases. During this time, audiences and studios turned to streaming, which was already a growing trend, exacerbating the issue for theaters, as audiences were now staying home and watching big studio movies from popular franchises in the comfort of their own home.
The box office has since begun to recover, although it’s still far short of pre-pandemic levels, with many movies seeing only a fraction of pre-pandemic box office. Despite a number of proportional wins, the year’s best box office performances would have been considered disappointing in 2019. The trend away from theaters and towards streaming isn’t going to stop just because theaters are open again, especially with shorter theatrical exclusive windows negotiated because of the pandemic.
The Post-Pandemic Box Office Proves Theaters Can Survive
The fact that movies like F9, Black Widow, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are doing as well as they are proves there’s still an appetite to experience big movies on the big screen, but the low results of other movies like The Suicide Squad and Space Jam: A New Legacy says there’s just not as much room in the marketplace right now and audiences are being more selective. For the theatrical experience to survive long-term, it’ll need to adapt to this new reality, and Christopher Nolan’s deal with Universal is one big step towards doing just that.
The theatrical market isn’t so much recovering as it is evolving. Based on current numbers, a healthy box office model mean a more niche market with lower-budget films released less frequently. This model isn’t unlike the way theaters were a few decades ago. With much less competition from week to week, movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial earned the top spot at the box office six weeks in a row after its release in June 1982, and even after that it fluctuated between the first and second highest-grossing movie each week for several additional months. That kind of performance is unheard of by today’s standards, where there’s simply too many major releases to give any single movie that kind of breathing room.
While Marvel and Star Wars and other big IPs are moving their focus towards streaming (and have been since before the pandemic), theaters may return to more traditional tentpole focused affairs where the prestige of the big screen comes from a more exclusive offering and longer theatrical runs, meaning for movies to succeed they will need to be true event movies that people know they need to see on a big screen with a crowd and not a simple flavor of the week blockbuster, which streaming has shown it can handle quite well.
Nolan’s Universal Deal is a Blueprint For the Future of Cinema
Much of the focus on Nolan’s deal with Universal has been on how high his demands are, but in actuality, he’s not just using his leverage as a top filmmaker to ensure the success of his own movie, but showing theaters and studios the way forward. Nolan’s deal reportedly includes total creative control, around $100 million budget, $100 million in marketing, 20% of first-dollar gross, Universal can’t release any other movies for three weeks before or after his movie, and his movie will play in theaters exclusively for 100 days (and possibly more) before it goes to streaming.
As we see with the 2021 box office, there is enough demand to support big releases, but for it to be sustainable, releases like the one Nolan has negotiated could see way more success. While the odds seem stacked against the box office producing many more billion-dollar earners for the near future, the kind of box office numbers enjoyed by F9, Black Widow, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are more than enough to turn a profit on a movie with a $100 million budget (about half the cost of Tenet), especially if it enjoys less competition and stays in theaters for a longer run.
Also, just because it’s going to be in theaters exclusively for a long time doesn’t mean it won’t also see profit away from the big screen. In fact, a successful theatrical run means strong demand on streaming and home media as well, which is all a bonus to whatever the movie earns in theaters. Whether or not the is the exact model studios should follow for every movie isn’t clear, but the principles of lower budgets and greater exclusivity will work for theatrically focused content. In the same way we’ve seen streaming adapt to do more long-form storytelling, convenient for customers and successful for streamers with a subscription model, and now Nolan’s deal at Universal serves as the blueprint for the future of the big screen, meaning big director-driven visions with smart budgeting, and prestige exclusivity.
Ending the Streaming vs Theaters Debate
This approach may seem more volatile, as releasing fewer movies means the hypothetical failure of Nolan’s next movie impacts the studio even more. Even so, for a director like Nolan, whose only box office question mark is Tenet, which was released during the pandemic and still did numbers similar to the big blockbusters releasing today, it could very well chart the way forward for the cinematic experience.
Part of the problem with the debate around theaters vs streaming is that the two mediums are being pitted against each other as if they’re directly competing products when they don’t have to be. Streaming has proven blockbusters can find success on the small screen as well, but the rise of series and binge-watching, especially for big franchise IP, which isn’t really adaptable to a theatrical model shows there’s room for both.
Similar to Martin Scorsese drawing heat for his comments about Marvel movies not being true cinema, the important distinction to be made by these filmmakers is not one of superior or inferior products, but simply classifying the products as different. In the same way that attending a sporting event in person is a vastly different experience than watching one on TV at home, watching cinematic films on the big screen can also be different than watching it on streaming, but it’s a matter of optimizing the content to the audience and the medium, both for optimal viewing experience, but also for proper monetization by the studio.
While Nolan and others such as Denis Villeneuve and Patty Jenkins have drawn ire for their (sometimes petty) criticism of streaming, this move by Nolan should be commended for using his influence to provide the first step forward in drawing a distinction of what it means to be a post-pandemic cinematic experience. Of course, the question all comes down to execution, meaning Nolan needs to deliver a J. Robert Oppenheimer movie audiences believe is truly worth the prestige and exclusivity of the big screen. Fortunately, while the director has his detractors, the nearly unparalleled success enjoyed by his filmography thus far suggests now isn’t the time to bet against Christopher Nolan.
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Nolan’s Massive Universal Deal Could Reinvent Blockbusters Post-Pandemic