Christopher Nolan’s next film “Oppenheimer,” a $ 100 million historical drama about the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb, could be considered one of an endangered species.
Nowadays, it is rare for traditional studios to pump nine figures into a film that is not inspired by popular toys, novels or comics. Even before COVID-19 overturned the cinema landscape, audiences gravitated to superheroes and science fiction shows – and not much else. That reality has made it difficult for Hollywood to justify the green light economy of expensive films that are not based on existing intellectual property. They are a greater risk, not only in recovery of investment for studios, but also in profit generation, generation of sequels and exploitation of consumer wealth. No matter how well people get Nolan’s film, it’s unlikely J. Robert Oppenheimer’s face will adorn t-shirts or lunch boxes.
Supporting “Oppenheimer,” Universal Pictures makes a bold bet that the right director can still excite audiences to visit cinemas for original content. The film, which will not come into theaters until 2023, will have to defy the odds to become commercially successful. In addition to its $ 100 million production budget, the studio will have to spend an additional $ 100 million to properly promote the film to global audiences. Because Nolan’s contract guarantees he gets a first-dollar gross – an increasingly rare bonus that gives the filmmaker a percentage of ticket sales – it will take $ 50 million to $ 60 million more to make a profit than it would take another film of a similar size. Therefore, interns at rival studios estimate “Oppenheimer” will have to generate at least $ 400 million at the global box office to make a profit.
That box office benchmark is one that Nolan’s films have had no trouble removing in the past decade, with the exception of “Tenet,” which opened in theaters at a time when COVID-19 vaccines were still months away. And despite the circumstances, Warner Bros. ’brain thriller. – starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson – managed to raise $ 363 million worldwide. “Tenet” cost more than $ 200 million, making it nearly impossible to make a profit in those conditions. As for Nolan’s other original properties, 2010’s “Inception” grossed $ 836 million worldwide, 2014’s “Interstellar” earned $ 701 million worldwide and 2017’s “Dunkirk” grossed $ 526 million worldwide. In other words, Nolan is a director with an enviable box office track.
Those who follow the industry closely point out that “Oppenheimer” won’t be the kind of whimsical minds that audiences expected of Nolan, like “Inception” or “Memento”. Instead, it is a historical drama that is firmly rooted in fact and physics. Unlike “Dunkirk”, which captures the heroism of British troops during the early days of World War II, “Oppenheimer” tells a darker tale, one that exists in the moral turmoil of the past and is not only discordant, but firmly American. . That could limit interest overseas, where Nolan’s films tend to make the most of their income.
None of this means that people in the film business are betting against Nolan. The reason Universal president Donna Langley made it her mission to court Nolan after his relationship with Warner Bros. grown tense, is that he is one of the few filmmakers who can make a bold swing and race in hundreds of millions at the box office. It’s especially valuable at a time when Hollywood seems to be scraping the bottom of the barrel for IP that can be turned into cinematic gold. Case in point: There are (real) movies in the works based on the card game Uno, the crunchy snack Flamin ‘Hot Cheetos, and the invention of Viagra. Because not every project 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 film based on their name alone. Privately, other Hollywood players have expressed their desire to see “Oppenheimer” succeed because it would encourage studio executives and financiers to take more chances on new ideas.
“[Nolan] is a unique talent with a very loyal fan base. If you were to say that someone else is doing a periodical work on J. Robert Oppenheimer, I would say it would be hard to do, ”says producer Peter Newman, the head of the MBA / MFA program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Look, you know you’re going to get something different and original.”
There aren’t many filmmakers who get the chance to create films around new and unfamiliar ideas at that budget level, at least, not at traditional studios. (A sign of changing times, Steven Spielberg, once a skeptic of streaming service, forged a partnership for his company Amblin to produce new feature films each year for Netflix.) When they work, in the case of Quentin Tarantino’s ode to 1960s show business “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” the studio and filmmakers alike can reap the benefits. Sony spent about $ 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 piece “The Last Duel,” starring Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Adam Driver, or Roland Emmerich’s $ 100 million war drama “Midway,” the losses can be devastating.
Filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Judd Apatow have a similar ability to produce hits, but their films don’t cost nearly as much to make. Recent being hits or adult targeted films with considerable budgets, such as Michael Bay’s “6 Underground”, Aaron Sorkin’s “Trial of the Chicago 7”, David Fincher’s “Mank” and “Red Notice” with Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, were set up by or sold to Netflix. The streamer, like its competitors, does not report box office grosses and relies on attracting subscribers with fresh content, so it is impossible to know what financial impact those films had.
Nolan could have easily sold “Oppenheimer” to a streaming service that would have guaranteed him a massive payday without being subjected to the scrutiny of box office reporting. But he is a big supporter of the big screen experience and the struggling film exhibition industry.
Since “Oppenheimer” isn’t expected to debut in theaters until summer 2023, much could change in the movie business until then – for better or worse. There’s a chance it could launch in an environment that’s even more hostile to tentmasters who aren’t of the comic kind. Or, moviegoers might be ready to look beyond the constant dripping adventures of Batman, Superman and Spider-Man and watch something that doesn’t involve adults in panties.
With original property, market executives must familiarize audiences with the property and also attract them to watch the story in theaters. In the case of “Oppenheimer,” Universal needs to make people aware that Nolan has a new movie and convince them that they just have to watch the story behind the Manhattan Project on the big screen. Nolan assembles an A-list 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 achieve its demographic goal of adult crowds. They may be more eager to go to the cinema after two years, but while COVID-19 is still going on, the age group has been most reluctant to visit their local cinemas.
“There was at least one level of uncertainty about how movies turn out: dependent on execution,” Newman says. “Now, it’s not just dependent on execution, it’s dependent on a pandemic. It takes more than a year to make a film like this, and no one knows what the health situation will be like. [at the time it comes out]. ”