Warner Bros. vs. Christopher Nolan: Streaming vs. Theaters


Filmmaker Christopher Nolan during arrivals for the screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, May 13, 2018. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

Christopher Nolan is absolutely right about Warner Brothers’ idiotic plan to release its movies on TV.

Imagine Commissioner Gordon’s face getting ripped off by Batman and you’ll have some sense of what has just happened at the most accomplished movie studio in the world.

Warner Brothers, in historical terms the leading Hollywood studio, has over the course of many corporate restructurings maintained its reputation as a haven for artists such as Stanley Kubrick and Clint Eastwood who repaid WB with their loyalty and spent many years working there happily. Today, Warner’s most important creative talent is Christopher Nolan, who since he became a major filmmaking force with Memento has made all of his pictures at Warner, except Interstellar, which he made for Paramount only because that studio held the rights to the story.

Nolan is not only a prestige filmmaker whose films get Oscar attention but, unlike most other artists at his level, he thinks on a spectacular canvas, devising blockbuster pictures that bring in hundreds of millions in profits. If Christopher Nolan became so unhappy that he walked away from Warner after nearly two decades, the executive responsible for driving him out might as well exile himself to another planet. Whatever else this person might accomplish, his showbiz obituary would contain one line: “Lost Christopher Nolan.”

WarnerMedia’s chief executive, Jason Kilar, is now on the hottest of hot seats. Kilar is a young gun who just took over what was known as TimeWarner before AT&T bought that company. Kilar’s signature move so far has been the bungled launch of HBO Max, which was supposed to be a rival to Netflix but has instead been humiliated by underperforming the less ambitious Disney+. Before it hit its one-year anniversary on November 12, Disney+ already had 73 million subscribers and a cultural sensation in its original series The Mandalorian. Through more than half a year, HBO Max, despite being free to anyone who already had HBO, still has only a tepid 12.6 million subscribers. Disney+ hit ten million on its first day.

Some combination of panic over the economic fallout from the coronavirus and panic over the performance of HBO Max inspired Kilar to announce that he would launch Wonder Woman 1984 simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters, on Christmas Day. That decision, while startling, may be justifiable given that the film has already been gathering dust for six months and theatergoing appears unlikely to rebound before next May. Nolan’s film Tenet underperformed in September, indicating that Americans were unwilling to return to theaters (it’s now out on home video).

But on December 3, Warner made the breathtakingly stupid announcement that it would take all of its 2021 theatrical releases and give them simultaneous television releases, on HBO Max. It’s far too soon to write off all of 2021 at the movies. This decision will (if it stands) not only cost Warner Media billions of dollars of box office should moviegoing bounce back, but is also infuriating the many stars and directors who had points in those movies — a percentage of the till. Moreover, all of these people were led to believe that they were making movies, not TV shows. Many of them would have taken their talents elsewhere if they had known about this development, and it turns out that, according to Nolan, nobody was even told about the decision to dump their movies to television until after it was made.

Nolan, the most prominent and outspoken proponent of theatrical motion-picture entertainment, and the one who pushed for Tenet to be released in September in what turned out to be a costly experiment, is beside himself. Without mentioning any execs by name, he took the extraordinary step of attacking his bosses and business partners in a blistering interview with Entertainment Tonight. Meanwhile, he pulled the pin on a grenade of a statement to the Hollywood Reporter in which he noted that WB’s leading talents had gone to bed on December 2 thinking they worked for “the greatest movie studio and woke up to find they were working for the worst streaming service.” Holy shade, Batman. He added that “the decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”

Casual observers of Hollywood can have no idea how gobsmackingly out of character this statement is. The major players in Tinseltown are happy to broadcast their political views and suggest the ticket-buying public are idiots, but they open fire on one another in public about as often as cardinals do TV interviews denouncing the pope. Nolan said he reacted with “disbelief” at “being used as a loss-leader for the streaming service — for the fledgling streaming service — without any consultation.” He called the situation “very, very, very, very messy” — a quadruple “very”! — and “a real bait and switch.” He said, “Yeah, it’s sort of not how you treat filmmakers and stars. . . . They deserved to be consulted and spoken to about what was going to happen to their work.”

At the moment, Warner appears to be laying the groundwork for the classic political move of blaming an underling before announcing that the issue is being revisited. Via anonymous leaks to the press, we are learning that the blunder was not Kilar’s at all, but is blameable on someone several places down the chain of command, Warner Bros. COO Carolyn Blackwood. Thanks to the pressure from Nolan, not to mention all of the irate phone calls from talent agents that are coming in to Warner’s offices, I expect we’ll shortly be hearing that Warner Brothers understands it is still in the movie business, not just the TV business, and start hinting that its 2021 films will have an exclusive theatrical window after all. Someday the pandemic will be over, and Americans are going to crave group experience again. Moviegoing, as Nolan keeps saying, will be back, and Hollywood’s greatest studio should not only understand this but lead the way.





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