Christopher Nolan’s Complicated Relationship with Warner Brothers

Christopher Nolans Relationship With Warner Brothers

Christopher Nolan has a complicated relationship with Warner Brothers. And this history received renewed attention after the recent release and timing of Nolan’s latest film, Oppenheimer, and Warner Brother’s massive success, Barbie.

Aside from the two critically acclaimed and polar opposite films hitting theaters the same day, there was also the issue of press screening timing. With film critics receiving a “Save the Date” announcement for the film’s media screening in early July, Barbie’s came just a week before release. And it was scheduled at the same time as Oppenheimer – with no additional options to review Barbie. This essentially meant that the media was being given a choice. They could review Oppenheimer or review Barbie. But there were no opportunities to do both.

Barbie vs Oppenheimer
Photo Credit: Warner Brothers / Universal Pictures

Oppenheimer or Barbie: A Film Critic’s Choice

Initially, critics, including myself, were confused about the timing. Why wouldn’t the studios ensure their screening didn’t conflict with other screenings? Since Oppenheimer announced first, and Warner Brothers was confident in the quality of the Barbie, wouldn’t they want as many critics as possible to see it?

The early rumor mill among film critics was that it was essentially a jab at Nolan for leaving his relationship with Warner Brothers and heading to Universal Pictures, who is distributing Oppenheimer. But would a studio really be that petty?

The complicated relationship between Nolan and Warner Brothers goes even further back. Nolan previously released 2020’s Tenet, Dunkirk, Inception, and the Dark Knight trilogy, to name a few, under the Warner Brothers umbrella. And that body of work included Nolan’s most profitable film to date, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. The film made over $1 billion worldwide against its $250 million budget. So what went wrong?

Let’s rewind to the beginning of Nolan and Warner Brothers’ relationship, which started with 2002’s Insomnia.

Robin Williams and Al Pacino in Insomnia
Robin Williams and Al Pacino in Insomnia / Photo Credit: Warner Home Video

The Beginning of Christoper Nolan’s Relationship with Warner Brothers

Christopher Nolan has a long partnership with Warner Brothers. He’s worked with the studio for nearly 20 years. However, that relationship almost didn’t get off the ground. Initially, Warner Brothers almost refused to hire Nolan because of his 2000 film, Memento.

Steven Soderbergh, who was an executive producer on Insomnia, revealed that Nolan’s agent, Dan Aloni, had told him that studio executives were not a fan of Memento because of its time loop plot.

“Cut to months later, Dan calls me. And he goes, ‘Look, there’s this script over at Warner, Insomnia. Chris is really interested in it. But Warner won’t take the meeting’. And I go, ‘What do you mean they won’t take the meeting?’ And he goes, ‘Well, the executive there didn’t like Memento,'” Soderbergh says in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine.

“And I said, ‘Well, so what? Why won’t they take the meeting?’ So, I called that executive. And I said, ‘Take the meeting. You’ve got to take the meeting.’ And he goes, ‘But I didn’t like the movie.’ And I go, ‘Well, did you like the movie-making?’ And he goes, ‘Well, yeah, it’s brilliantly made.’ And I go, ‘Take the meeting.'” Soderbergh adds.

Christopher Nolan
Photo Credit: Andrea Raffin

What Went Wrong Between Nolan and Warner Brothers?

The partnership between Christopher Nolan and Warner Brothers lasted for 19 years in total. It came to an end after Nolan criticized Warner’s move to exclusively stream their 2021 films on HBO Max during the pandemic.

According to reports at the time, the studio did not inform filmmakers or stars about its plans to release films on streaming services. And Nolan said that many people were surprised by this decision.

Nolan’s Comments on HBO Max

Near the end of 2020, Nolan said to The Hollywood Reporter, “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”

“Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home. And they are dismantling it as we speak,” Nolan continued. “They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”

Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in Tenet
Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in ‘Tenet’ / Photo Credit: Warner Brothers

Speaking to ET Online, Nolan said, “There’s such controversy around it. Because [Warner Bros.] didn’t tell anyone.”

“In 2021, they’ve got some of the top filmmakers in the world, they’ve got some of the biggest stars in the world who worked for years in some cases on these projects very close to their hearts that are meant to be big-screen experiences. They’re meant to be out there for the widest possible audiences.” Nolan added.

Tenet had originally planned for a July 2020 release. However, due to the pandemic, it ended up debuting in Canada, France, Japan, and the UK in August 2020. And it was released in U.S. theaters in September 2020. With a budget of $205 million, the film only grossed $58 million domestically and just over $365 million worldwide.

Christopher Nolans Relationship With Warner Brothers in 2023

All of this bundles up into why the showdown between Oppenheimer and Barbie feels a little personal to both Christoper Nolan and Warner Brothers. However, Warner Brothers, specifically Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy, co-CEOs of the division now known as Warner Bros. Film Group, have admitted they’d love to have Nolan back. The two have highlighted that Nolan’s filmmaking would be a good fit for the studio’s new plan to focus on theatrical screenings and more risky projects.

“We’re hoping to get Nolan back,” De Luca said to Variety. “I think there’s a world.”

According to two sources familiar with the matter, Warner Brothers paid Nolan a seven-figure royalty check within the past ten months for Tenent. The payment was made in good faith, with no strings attached. The goal being to repair the studio’s fractured relationship with the director. At least at the surface level, the gesture appears to have worked, as Nolan did some post-production work on Oppenheimer on the studio’s lot. 

As for what the future holds, only time will tell. But for Barbie and Oppenheimer, both films are doing just fine. Oppenheimer has crossed the $500 million mark, setting a record for the highest-grossing movie set during World War II. And Barbie has now made over $1 billion worldwide.


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