Why Chris Nolan chose Universal to support his ambitious film Atom Bomb

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

Imagine an atomic bomb exploding high in the clouds, in IMAX. Well, moviegoers will now be able to see this image in the new $ 100 million movie from leading author Christopher Nolan. As the deal broke late Monday night, Universal shed some 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 Nolan, Cillian. Murphy (who looks a bit like Oppenheimer), early 2022.

Universal beat several major studios to support the project after Nolan chose to end his exclusive 19-year relationship with Warner Bros. (he held the international rights to Paramount’s “Interstellar”). When WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar surprised December 3, 2020, the announcement that the studio’s 2021 roster, including IMAX-linked “Dune,” would open the day and date in theaters and on HBO Max , Nolan was finished.

For Project Oppenheimer, top studio executives (which didn’t include Warner) visited Nolan and producer Emma Thomas’ home office in Hollywood Hills. There, they read the script in Nolan’s offices, followed by their best arguments on how to be successful for the filmmaker. Nolan’s requirements were the same for all studios, including Apple: its Warners contract, which includes final cut and 20% gross.

The choice of Universal makes perfect sense. What other studio would be able and willing to provide the high-end production and theatrical release that it demands? Warners is changing as Discovery takes over the studio; MGM / UA is selling to Amazon; Paramount just lost respected leader Jim Gianopulos to streaming friend Brian Robbins; Sony lacks mojo at the current box office; and Disney is clearly turned towards leather in its streaming strategy. By default, Universal is the top-ranked studio with a sane theatrical modus operandi.

In addition, Donna Langley had been courting Nolan, a British compatriot, for years. Langley first joined Universal Pictures in 2001 as a senior production executive, moving from production chairman and co-chairman to chairman. He has an impeccable track record and taste, from betting on the “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “Downton Abbey” franchises and the Oscars for “Green Book” and “BlacKkKlansman”, to keeping the franchise “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 train original filmmakers, from Jordan Peele to M. Night Shyamalan, and always keeps creatives up to date with marketing and distribution decisions.

Donna Langley, President of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, addresses the audience during 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 deal on movie windows with top channels dictates that all movies that gross over $ 50 million on their opening weekend receive an exclusive 31-day movie window – at least five weeks. -ends complete in cinemas. All films that open under this reference are guaranteed a 17-day window, or three weekends in theaters. (The studio’s current standard is 45 days.) Universal has remained flexible while accommodating the new standard. 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”.

Bottom line: Universal will bend over backwards to give Nolan the long theatrical tour he demands – 100 days reported – even if the Dark Period drama opens at $ 45 million or less. (This may open that door to other filmmakers.)

The deal reminds Hollywood that top talent will continue to demand exclusive theatrical releases – and go to get them.

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