The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Christopher Nolan went nuclear on Warner Bros. He’s undiplomatic — and correct.

Christopher Nolan poses at the 71st International Film Festival in Cannes. (Arthur Mola/Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Warner Bros. recently announced that every movie it released in 2021 would simultaneously debut in theaters and on the company’s streaming platform, HBO Max. The decision seemed like a declaration of war on the theatrical release calendar in favor of the stockholder-favored streaming business. Director Christopher Nolan seems to feel WB has declared war on him, too. His broadside against the company’s choice was, shall we say, undiplomatic. It also makes clear just how much damage WB may have done to its industry.

“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,” Nolan told the Hollywood Reporter. “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. 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," he added.

The response is rather uncharitable, especially from a filmmaker who received extravagant sums of money from the studio he’s now attacking. No one else on the planet has been given more than half-a-billion dollars to make original features such as “Inception,” “Interstellar,” “Dunkirk” and “Tenet.” And no one else on the planet would have taken the financial risk WB did in getting “Tenet” in theaters during a pandemic, where it undeniably deserved to be seen. Loyalty should count for something, and Nolan is being viciously disloyal to the studio that has invested so much in him.

Also, HBO Max is not the worst streaming service! If you love cinema, as Nolan does, it’s arguably the best.

And yet, Nolan undoubtedly speaks for everyone in the industry who was blindsided by this announcement, from the people who star in and direct WB’s movies; to the production companies that co-finance the films with them; to theater owners who have to scramble to figure out if this is a boon or a deathblow to the industry; to the agencies that broker the agreements that make movies possible. Seemingly no one knew this was coming until almost the moment it was announced. No one has figured out what this means for revenue or profit-sharing. No one knows what this means for prestige — for the people who staked their reputation on being big-screen actors rather than small-screen players.

So I understand Nolan’s horror here. And Nolan understands what the telecommunications company running HBO Max and WB does not seem to understand. It’s not just that they’re degrading the movie-going experience or the world of film watching by trading theaters for televisions, but also that AT&T is trading theatrical dollars for digital pennies.

It is exceptionally difficult to make as much money on streaming as you can by showing it in theaters and then getting an additional revenue stream by licensing it for home viewing. Pivoting to home video may provide a short-term boost for HBO Max, and thus Warner Bros. and AT&T, but it’s a fiscally disastrous long-term move.

Maybe AT&T doesn’t care about trading dollars for pennies because, at the end of the day, WB’s output is a rounding error in AT&T’s massive profit and loss sheets. It’s also likely that AT&T doesn’t care about theatrical quality, either — given the shift in focus AT&T has wanted from WB and HBO all along. After all, this is the company that, after acquiring HBO — a service that, since the debut of “The Sopranos,” has been best-known for making a handful of quality shows every year that roll out one episode at a time — demanded more, not better.

“It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month. We need hours a day,”AT&T’s John Stankey said in 2018. When discussing the amount of content he wanted the company to generate, he said, “You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes."

Dominating eyeballs for as many hours as possible a day is not what HBO is about and it’s not what the theatrical experience is about. If that’s what Stankey and his crew want from HBO Max and Warner Bros., well, that’s their right.

And this is why I can’t blame a guy like Christopher Nolan — who believes in the sanctity of the theatrical experience — for going a little bit nuts when he sees his longtime home being gutted by bandits looking for copper pipes they can sell at the scrapyard. If it’s going to be rendered uninhabitable anyway, he might as well torch it on the way out.

Read more:

Christopher Nolan: Movie theaters are a vital part of American social life. They will need our help.

Alyssa Rosenberg, Sonny Bunch and Peter Suderman: In 2021, you can watch ‘Dune’ and ‘The Matrix 4’ at home without a wait. Here’s the catch.

Sonny Bunch: How film festivals can help combat Chinese censorship

José Andrés: What the pandemic can teach us about treating hunger

Sergio Peçanha: The fable of Trumpocchio: How Trump won the election that he lost

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Biden needs to find his version of the fireside chat