Why Chris Nolan Chose Universal to Support His Ambitious Atomic Bomb Movie


How far will Universal bend to give Nolan the theatrical run he wants? That is the question.

Imagine an atomic bomb exploding high in the clouds, in IMAX. Well, now moviegoers will be able to see that image in A-list auteur Christopher Nolan’s new $100 million film. At the end of finalizing a deal late Monday night, Universal shed light on Nolan’s storyline of how physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project invented the atomic bombs that ended World War II in August 1945. Filming is set to begin, with or without the rumor of Cillian, a Nolan regular. Murphy (who looks a bit like Oppenheimer), early 2022.

Universal beat out several major studios to back the project after Nolan opted to end his 19-year exclusive relationship with Warner Bros. (He held the international rights to Paramount’s “Interstellar”). When WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar made the surprise Dec. 3, 2020 announcement that the studio’s 2021 slate, including IMAX-bound “Dune,” would open day and date in theaters and on HBO Max, Nolan was done.

For the Oppenheimer project, top studio executives (which didn’t include Warners) traveled to the Hollywood Hills home office of Nolan and producer Emma Thomas. There, they read the script at Nolan’s offices, followed by their best pitches on how to handle it for the filmmaker. Nolan’s demands were the same for all studios, including Apple: his deal with Warners, which includes final editing and 20% of the gross.

Universal’s choice makes perfect sense. What other studio would be able and willing to provide the high-end production and theatrical release it demands? Warners is in flux as Discovery takes over the studio; MGM/UA is on sale at Amazon; Paramount Just Lost Respected Frontman Jim Gianopulos to Streaming Buddy Brian Robbins; Sony lacks current box office mojo; and Disney is clearly committed to leather in its streaming strategy. By default, Universal is the top-ranked studio with a sensible theatrical modus operandi.

Also, Donna Langley had been courting Nolan, a fellow Brit, for years. Langley first joined Universal Pictures in 2001 as a senior production executive, rising from president and co-president of production to president. His track record and taste are impeccable, whether it’s betting on the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ franchises and winning Oscars for ‘Green Book’ and ‘BlacKkKlansman’, keeping the ‘Fast and Furious” on track even during the pandemic: “F9” beat all Hollywood releases in 2021 with $714 million worldwide. Langley also knows how to nurture original filmmakers, from Jordan Peele to M. Night Shyamalan, and always keeps creatives up to date on marketing and distribution decisions.

Donna Langley, president of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, speaks to the audience at the Universal Pictures presentation at CinemaCon 2019

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

The question is how Universal will handle the release of Nolan’s dark period drama in theaters. The studio’s theatrical window agreement with the biggest chains dictates that all movies that gross more than $50 million in their opening weekend receive an exclusive 31-day theatrical window — at least five weekends. complete in the rooms. All films that open under this benchmark are guaranteed a 17-day window, or three weekends in theaters. (The studio’s current standard is 45 days.) Universal has remained flexible while adapting to the new normal. In Nolan’s case, expect the studio to go all out with IMAX and 70mm tracks, as it did with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread.”

Conclusion: Universal will bend over backwards to give Nolan the long theatrical run he’s asking for — 100 days reported — even if the Dark Ages drama opens at $45 million or less. (It risks opening that door to other filmmakers.)

This deal is a reminder to Hollywood that top talent will continue to demand exclusive theatrical releases — and walk away to get them.

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