Talking Points

Christopher Nolan might save movie theaters after all

I might owe director Christopher Nolan an apology.

It was May 2020, the month that the 100,000th American would die of COVID-19. Movie theaters had been closed for weeks in the nation's major markets, and Nolan — an outspoken advocate of in-person theatergoing and a respected auteur said to have "an unusual level of influence over when his movies are released" — was being celebrated as the potential "hero of exhibition" for holding stubbornly to the July release date for his new movie, Tenet. "A successful launch for the movie would herald a triumphant return for beleaguered cinemas after months of closures that have threatened to bankrupt exhibitors," emphasized the Los Angeles Times.

To make a long story short, it didn't work out that way. Nolan, as far as I was concerned and as I repeatedly wrote, actually set moviegoing back with his insistent and premature in-person release of Tenet instead.

To my surprise, however, Nolan might genuinely end up saving movie theaters yet. 

More than a year later, the threat to movie-going is no longer pandemic-related closures, but the new release model that resulted from them: that is, debuting major releases on streaming platforms like HBO Max or Disney+ the same day they arrive in the theater. And Nolan, who's been spitting mad over it, has finally had enough. After nearly two decades, he's ended his partnership with Warner Bros. to make his next film, a $100 million World War II drama about the creation of the atomic bomb, with rival studio Universal.

Nolan's move is a warning shot to Warner Bros., which also stands to lose other marquee directors like David Chase and Denis Villeneuve who've likewise been vocally unhappy about their experiment. It's also a warning to other studios that might be considering a similar pivot. After all, if a studio like Universal makes itself known as exhibition- and creator-friendly — it's supposedly exempted Nolan's forthcoming film from "the 17-day [theatrical exclusivity] window  … that Universal forged through a deal with major theater chains," Variety writes — then it'll attract other disgruntled directors. A united front of legendary filmmakers might be just what it takes to nip studios' flirtations with direct-to-streaming releases in the bud.

Then again, nothing is sacred. At this point, even Nolan's last best shot at turning things around might simply be staving off the inevitable. In fact, Entertainment Weekly reports that David Gordon Green's Halloween Kills, which is being distributed by Universal, will debut on the studio's streamer Peacock next month — the same day as its theatrical release.