Christopher Nolan’s WWII film Oppenheimer faces a changed film industry


Christopher Nolan’s upcoming film, “Oppenheimer,” a budgeted $ 100 million historical drama about physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb, could be considered one of the endangered species.

These days, it’s rare for mainstream studios to inject nine characters into a movie that doesn’t draw inspiration from popular toys, novels, or comics. Even before COVID-19 disrupted the cinematic landscape, audiences had turned to superheroes and sci-fi shows – and not much else. This reality has made it increasingly difficult for Hollywood to justify the economy of giving the green light to expensive films that are not based on existing intellectual property. They represent a greater risk, not only to recoup the investments of the studios, but also to generate profits, create sequelae and take advantage of the wealth of consumer products. No matter how well people receive Nolan’s movie, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s face is unlikely to adorn t-shirts or lunch boxes.

By supporting “Oppenheimer”, Universal Pictures is making a bold bet that the good director can always get audiences to visit theaters for original content. The film, which will not hit theaters before 2023, will have to defy all chances of commercial success. In addition to its production budget of $ 100 million, the studio will have to spend an additional $ 100 million to properly promote the film to global audiences. Because Nolan’s contract guarantees that he will receive the first dollar gross – an increasingly rare perk that grants the filmmaker a percentage of ticket sales – it will take $ 50 to $ 60 million more to achieve profitability than it does. it wouldn’t take another film of the same size. Therefore, insiders at rival studios estimate that “Oppenheimer” will need to generate at least $ 400 million at the global box office in order to turn a profit.

This box office reference is one that Nolan’s films haven’t struggled to erase over the past decade, with the exception of “Tenet,” which opened in theaters at a time when the COVID-19 vaccines were still months away. And despite the circumstances, Warner Bros. – with John David Washington and Robert Pattinson – has managed to raise $ 363 million worldwide. “Tenet” cost over $ 200 million, making it almost impossible to make a profit under these conditions. As for Nolan’s other original properties, 2010’s “Inception” grossed $ 836 million worldwide, 2014’s “Interstellar” grossed $ 701 million worldwide and 2017’s “Dunkirk” raised $ 526 million. of dollars in the world. In other words, Nolan is a filmmaker with an enviable box office record.

Those who follow the industry closely point out that “Oppenheimer” will not be the kind of mind-blowing captivating audience people expect from Nolan, like “Inception” or “Memento”. Instead, it’s a historical drama that’s firmly rooted in facts and physics. Unlike “Dunkirk”, which captures the heroism of British forces at the start of World War II, “Oppenheimer” tells a darker story, a story that exists in the moral obscurity of the past and which is not only divisive. , but firmly American. This could limit interest abroad, where Nolan’s films tend to generate most of their income.

None of this means people in the movies are betting against Nolan. The reason Universal President Donna Langley made it her mission to woo Nolan after her relationship with Warner Bros. has tense, is that he’s one of the few directors who can take a bold shot and rack up hundreds of millions at the box office. It’s especially useful at a time when Hollywood seems to be scratching the bottom of the barrel for intellectual property that can be turned into cinematic gold. Example: There are (real) movies in the works based on the Uno card game, the Flamin ‘Hot Cheetos crunchy snack, and the invention of Viagra. Because not all projects can be derived from Marvel, Star Wars, James Bond, Jurassic World, and Fast & Furious, studios turn to filmmakers with unique perspectives who can launch a movie based solely on their name. Privately, other Hollywood actors have expressed their desire to see “Oppenheimer” succeed because it would encourage studio executives and financiers to take more risks on new ideas.

“[Nolan] is a unique talent with a very loyal fan base. If you were to say that someone else was doing a period article on J. Robert Oppenheimer, I would say that would be hard to get, ”says producer Peter Newman, director of the MBA / MFA program at the Tisch School of the Arts from NYU. “Here you know you are going to get something different and original. “

Few filmmakers have the opportunity to create films around new and unfamiliar ideas at this budget level, at least not in traditional studios. (A sign of changing times, Steven Spielberg, once a streaming service skeptic, has partnered up for his company Amblin to produce new feature films for Netflix every year.) When they work, in the case of Quentin Tarantino’s ode at the 1960s showbiz Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, ”the studio and filmmakers can reap the rewards. Sony shelled out around $ 90 million to produce “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie and grossed $ 375 million at the global box office. When they fail, like Ridley Scott’s big-budget period play “The Last Duel,” starring Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Adam Driver, or Roland Emmerich’s $ 100 million-budget war drama “Midway” dollars, the losses can be ruinous.

Filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Judd Apatow have a similar ability to produce hits, but their films don’t cost as much to make. Recent blockbusters or movies aimed at adults with big budgets, such as “6 Underground” by Michael Bay, “Trial of the Chicago 7” by Aaron Sorkin, “Mank” by David Fincher and “Red Notice” with Dwayne Johnson , Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, were created or sold to Netflix. The streamer, along with its competitors, is not making box office revenue and relies on attracting subscribers with new content, so it’s impossible to know what kind of financial impact these films have had.

Nolan could have easily sold “Oppenheimer” to a streaming service, which would have guaranteed him a huge salary without being subjected to the scrutiny of box office reporting. But he’s a big supporter of the big-screen experience and the struggling film exhibition industry.

With “Oppenheimer” not set to debut in theaters until the summer of 2023, a lot could change in the film world by then – for better or for worse. There’s a chance he could get into an environment that is even more hostile to non-comic book tents. Or, moviegoers might be ready to look past the constant drip of the adventures of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man and watch something that doesn’t involve adult men in pantyhose.

With original property, marketers need to familiarize audiences with the property while also getting them to watch the story in theaters. In the case of “Oppenheimer”, Universal must let people know that Nolan has a new movie and convince that they just have to watch the story behind the Manhattan Project on the big screen. Nolan brings together a leading ensemble – Emily Blunt, Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr. – around Cillian Murphy (who plays J. Robert Oppenheimer) to raise the profile of the film.

Another challenge will be to reach its target demographic of adult crowds. They may be more eager to go to the movies in two years, but while COVID-19 persists, the age group has been the most hesitant to visit their local theaters.

“Previously, there was at least one level of uncertainty in the performance of films: execution dependent,” Newman explains. “Now it’s not just dependent on execution, it’s dependent on the pandemic. It takes over a year to make a movie like this, and no one knows what the health situation will be. [at the time it comes out]. “


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