After Christopher Nolan’s Explosive Remarks, Could Warner Bros. Lose Its Superstar Director?

By Rebecca Rubin

When Christopher Nolan signed on to direct 2014’s “Interstellar” for Paramount Pictures, he did so under one condition: Warner Bros. would have to be involved in some capacity.

Since “Insomnia” in 2002, Nolan has collaborated with Warner Bros. on every feature film he’s directed — a list of critical and commercial smashes that include the Dark Knight trilogy, 2010’s sci-fi crime “Inception” and 2017’s World War II epic “Dunkirk.” The nearly two-decade long bond between the blockbuster director and the Hollywood studio has laid the foundation for one of the most successful working relationships in modern show business history.

That union was rocked last week when Warner Bros. announced its bombshell decision to drop its entire 2021 slate simultaneously on HBO Max and in any open theaters. Days later, Nolan didn’t mince words: In his opinion, Warner Bros. was making a catastrophic mistake. His blistering comments now leave unanswered questions about the strength of the director’s ties to the studio he considers home.

“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,” he said Monday in a statement to one news outlet.

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Nolan continued on a mini-press tour Monday, in which he ostensibly promoted the home entertainment release of “Tenet” while simultaneously bashing the HBO Max decision. Though Warner Bros. called the hybrid model a “unique one-year plan” made in response to the pandemic, many expect the bid to boost HBO Max subscribers to be a permanent disruption.

“It’s very, very, very, very messy. A real bait and switch,” he told another publication. “It’s not how you treat filmmakers and stars. These guys have given a lot for these projects. They deserved to be consulted and spoken to about what was going to happen to their work.”

Nolan’s public remarks were perhaps the most biting, but he is far from the only filmmaker frustrated with the lack of transparency ahead of Warner Bros.’ announcement. The unexpected move was promptly criticized by directors, actors and producers, with “The Suicide Squad’s” James Gunn and “Dune’s” Denis Villeneuve among the A-list talent who were bent out of shape over the lack of information about their movies until the decision became public. Legendary, the company that co-financed next year’s releases “Dune” and “Godzilla vs. Kong,” is weighing legal action.

“There are very few things in our business you can count on,” one industry veteran said on the condition of anonymity. “Chris Nolan’s relationship with Warner Bros. would be toward the top of the list, which is what makes this so surprising and disappointing.”

Even before the HBO Max shocker, tensions had been simmering. Some Warner Bros. executives were growing frustrated with the drama around the release of Nolan’s latest film “Tenet,” which had been postponed multiple times during the pandemic. Privately, chairman Toby Emmerich and other top leaders at Warner Bros. expressed doubts to colleagues about keeping the early September opening weekend since cinemas were still closed in Los Angeles and New York. Ultimately, studio executives came around to the idea. Emmerich publicly endorsed the move in July saying, “We’re especially thrilled, in this complex and rapidly changing environment, to be bringing Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet,’ a global tentpole of jaw-dropping size, scope and scale, to theaters around the world.” Sources close to Nolan insist that Warner Bros. never approached him about delaying the film any longer.

Nolan, a fierce advocate for movie theaters, was seen as controlling. He also grew upset over negative media coverage surrounding the release of the film. Before “Tenet” was finished, Nolan brushed off suggestions from Warner Bros. executives that the sound was muffled in key scenes, chalking it up to an artistic decision. The mixing received backlash on social media when the film was released. Since August, “Tenet” has made $57.6 million in the U.S. and $359 million globally. That’s not a bad result given the fact that many theaters are shuttered, but it’s a steep drop from his previous blockbusters and likely means that Warner Bros. will lose money on the film.

Warner Bros. declined to comment, as did Christopher Nolan.

Collaborators also stress that despite his healthy ego, Nolan is a brilliant filmmaker with an almost preternatural understanding of what audiences want to see on screen and appreciates a healthy debate over business or artistic decisions.

He also worships cinema. To that end, Nolan was concerned that the decision to prioritize HBO Max over movie theaters would be seen as a direct result of the underwhelming ticket sales for “Tenet,” which might explain why he had such explosive remarks to the terms of a deal that, for now, don’t apply to any of his movies. But like much of Hollywood, Nolan first learned about the HBO Max deal in the press. Insiders say Nolan felt betrayed by the news, emphasizing that he was dismayed for the 17 filmmakers who were blindsided. They added that he was supportive of the studio’s decision to release “Wonder Woman 1984” day-and-day this Christmas because he perceived it to have been handled properly, with conversations taking place and deals getting hammered out beforehand.

“It’s not what was done, but how it went down. Warner Bros. has positioned itself in the past as talent-friendly and partnership-focused,” the industry veteran said. “That’s where the disconnect is occurring. It doesn’t feel like the Warners we’ve known.”

Nolan’s relationship with Warners is one that’s important on both sides. Few studios would give a filmmaker room to make movies that cost $200 million, especially if the film doesn’t hail from preexisting IP or contain a roman numeral in the title. But at Warner Bros., the Nolan name has become a property that nearly rivals the importance of Harry Potter or DC Comics. The production budgets alone on his last five movies approach the billion-dollar mark. The Oscar-nominated director certainly has some enviable stats to his name; even Nolan’s lowest-grossing films in the past 20 years have each made more than $100 million at the box office. His “Dark Knight” trilogy, widely regarded as the gold standard of superhero adaptations, grossed more than $2 billion globally. Many of his most popular films are original properties, a cinematic rarity in the current age of Hollywood where franchise fare reigns supreme. And they have the ticket sales to match: “Inception” earned $836 million, “Interstellar” generated nearly $700 million, and “Dunkirk” collected $526 million.

“He’s one of the few directors who can make a big movie that’s not based on IP,” says Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibition Relations. “That’s a huge bargaining chip. He still wields power.”

Nolan doesn’t have any announced projects in the works, nor does he have any contractual obligations or first-look deals with Warner Bros. His vocal disdain for streaming services makes Netflix an unlikely home, despite the company’s tendency to give prestigious filmmakers such as Nolan carte blanche to make the kinds of movies that traditional Hollywood studios have all but given up on. But ironically, Netflix has a longer theatrical window than Warner Bros. at the moment.

Only some studios can afford the scale of a Nolan production, which regularly carry price tags above $100 million and include unusually specific provisions about many things, including release plans. Disney, Paramount, Sony, and even Universal, which recently shortened the theatrical window for its movies to 17 days, may seem more appealing to a movie theater purist like Nolan. The ball appears to be in Nolan’s court.

According to sources familiar with the situation, Disney has tried to poach Nolan in the past. Alan Horn, Walt Disney Studio’s current chairman, was a top executive at Warner Bros. who helped establish the studio’s relationship with the director.

“Nolan opened the door for other studios to come knocking,” Bock says. “I’m sure Sony, Paramount and Universal would love to work with him and would pay a lot to do so.”

Yet nobody knows how to kiss and make up quite like Hollywood. Remember when Paramount ended its 14-year ties with Tom Cruise in 2006, only to reunite again years later for the next “Mission: Impossible” sequel?

More recently, Universal Pictures and AMC Theatres engaged in a war of the words that ended amicably. The public spat began with NBCUniversal chief Jeff Shell touting the success of “Trolls World Tour,” which released day-and-date in theaters (which were all closed due to the pandemic) and on video-on-demand. Shell said the studio planned to debut movies in a similar fashion moving forward, prompting AMC’s CEO Adam Aron to pledge to boycott all of Universal’s films. A few weeks later, the two made nice and ironed out a historic deal that allows the studio to put new movies on home entertainment weeks after their big-screen premieres.

Illustrating the disconnect behind-the-scenes of the unexpected HBO Max move, WarnerMedia chief Ann Sarnoff appeared on CNBC the morning after Nolan’s scathing comments in the press. When reporter Julia Boorstin directly asked Sarnoff to respond to Nolan’s remarks, Sarnoff replied, “We are big, big fans of exhibitors. We are really trying to work with theaters to give them ready supply.”

Boorstin pressed her again, questioning how the move might affect the studio’s relationship with content creators. “We’re working through the system with our talent, with their agents,” said Sarnoff, stopping short of offering any specifics. “I think the more they see the visibility of how they will be paid, we’re finding that people are understanding the economics. And this is unprecedented, so anything new is always a little bit difficult to work through for the first time.”

Perhaps if WarnerMedia shared more of those details beforehand, Nolan wouldn’t have declared war on his closest ally in Hollywood.