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 theaters, 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 getting the spotlight in the debate is 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 theater 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 $250 million streaming deal to Netflix that was blocked by Warner. io9 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, but a representative for Chris Nolan has since reached out after publication to provided clarification.
“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 theaters, 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’s movie ultimately released in September after multiple delays caused by the covid-19 pandemic, opening in severely limited theater chains being opened up in a wave of eased state lockdown restrictions across parts of the U.S.—even as 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.
“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 theaters 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.”
Removed from the context of Tenet’s release this year, the director has 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 over summer the decisions Warner Bros. were considering around Tenet’s release began stirring rumors and reports in trades and national news papers. 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” as he advocated for Government subsidies to protect theater businesses. Months later, it was alleged that Nolan pushed 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 theaters” according to a July report from THR. But a representative for Mr. Nolan told io9 that Warner Bros. presented multiple scenarios for release dates after the studio made the decision to delay Tenet from it’s original July 17 release date, all of which were no later than mid-August. Furthermore, the director did not push back on any of the proposed release dates WB decided on for Tenet. io9 was told that Nolan did not express, as THR reported, “the desire to be the one the first big studio films back in theaters.”
But despite these pushbacks, industry figured expressed their own beliefs. “Chris really would like to be coming out with the film that opens theaters,” 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 theaters re-opened and to get his movie released than Chris Nolan.”
If people like Gelfond are to be believed, Tenet’s rlease would be the blockbuster to herald the reopening of theaters as U.S. lockdowns began easing in summer even as thoughs re-openings the lives and livelihoods of theatergoers, critics, and theater 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 theaters.
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 lessons being learned from the results did not factor in the extremely limited U.S. distribution of the film. Tenet eventually got its theatrical release, but it didn’t prove domestically that theatrical releases could survive the pandemic or save theaters during this time. Nolan’s representative told io9 the decision to release Tenet in the U.S. theatrically in September—in an extremely limited capacity compared to international markets—was a decision made by Warner Bros. out of a desire to support exhibitors in a time of hardship, and that Tenet received much more typical international grosses. The movie performed well in wider markets, where 80% of theater locations were open worldwide.
The streaming move by Warner Bros. is a decision Nolan himself continues to dispute, as per his December 7 statement to The Hollywood Reporter, a statement the representative further clarified as being in support of the cast and crews of 2021 movies affected by Warner Bros.’ decision, rather than in response to his own projects with the studio. Nolan’s representative also told us that the director supported the move to release Wonder Woman 1984 in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously this December, as deals were made with its creative team and distributors ahead of the move’s public announcement, with the assurance this would not apply to other titles.
“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 theaters, 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 theaters as if nothing was not likely to go the way they hoped. Knowing that, we have one question: Was Tenet really worth it?
Update 12/9/2020, 6.30: ET: After publication, a representative for Christopher Nolan contacted io9 to dispute reporting sourced in this op-ed, and the above piece has been updated to reflect this commentary.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.