Christopher Nolan’s next movie “Oppenheimer,” a $100 million historical drama about physicist Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb, can be considered an endangered species.
These days, it’s rare for traditional studios to inject nine characters into a movie that isn’t inspired by popular games, novels, or comic books. Even before COVID-19 upended the movie landscape, audiences were gravitating toward superheroes and sci-fi scenes — and nothing more. This reality has made it increasingly difficult for Hollywood to justify the green light economics of expensive films that are not based on current intellectual property. It represents an even greater risk, not only in offsetting studio investments, but in generating profits, multiplying the consequences, and capitalizing on the fortunes of consumer products. No matter how well people receive Nolan’s movie, it’s unlikely that J. Robert Oppenheimer’s face will adorn T-shirts or lunch boxes.
By backing Oppenheimer, Universal Pictures is betting that the right director can still get audiences excited about visiting movie theaters for original content. The film, which won’t be shown in theaters until 2023, will need to defy the odds to become commercially successful. In addition to the $100 million production budget, the studio will need to spend an additional $100 million to properly promote the film to global audiences. Since Nolan’s contract guarantees him a first dollar gross — an increasingly uncommon feature that gives the director a percentage of ticket sales — it will take $50 million to $60 million more to achieve profitability than it would for another film of the same scale. Thus, insiders at rival studios estimate that “Oppenheimer” would need to make at least $400 million at the global box office in order to turn a profit.
This box office benchmark is one that Nolan’s films have had trouble breaking in the past decade, with the exception of “Tenet,” which opened in cinemas at a time when COVID-19 vaccines were still months away. Despite the circumstances, the thriller Warner Bros. – starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson – managed to raise $363 million worldwide. Tenet cost more than $200 million, which makes it almost impossible to make a profit in these conditions. When it comes to Nolan’s other original properties, 2010’s “Inception” grossed $836 million worldwide, 2014’s “Interstellar” brought in $701 million worldwide, and 2017’s “Dunkirk” grossed $526 million worldwide. In other words, Nolan is a filmmaker with a track record at the box office.
Those who follow the industry closely point out that “Oppenheimer” won’t be the kind of naughty brawler audiences have come to expect from Nolan, like “Inception” or “Memento.” Rather, it is a historical drama firmly rooted in truth and physics. Unlike “Dunkirk,” which depicts the heroism of British forces during the early days of World War II, “Oppenheimer” tells a much darker story, one set in the moral darkness of the past and not only divisive, but deeply American. That could limit interest abroad, as Nolan’s films tend to make the bulk of their revenue.
None of this means that people in the movie and theater industry are betting on Nolan. The reason Universal president Donna Langley made it her mission to prosecute Nolan after his relationship with Warner Brothers soured is because he’s one of the few directors who can make a daring swing and hundreds of millions at the box office. It is of particular value at a time when Hollywood appears to be stripping the bottom of the barrel for an IP that can be woven 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. Since not every project can be derived from Marvel, Star Wars, James Bond, Jurassic World, and Fast & Furious, studios are turning to filmmakers with unique perspectives who can release a movie based on their name alone. Notably, other Hollywood players have expressed a desire to see Oppenheimer succeed because it will encourage studio executives and financiers to take more chances for new ideas.
“[Nolan] She is a unique talent with a very loyal fan base. If you were to say someone else was doing an article on J. Robert Oppenheimer, I’d say it would be hard to make, says Producer Peter Neumann, Head of the MBA/MFA Program at NYU’s Tisch College of Art. “Here, you know you’re going to get something different and original.”
There aren’t many filmmakers who have been given the opportunity to create films around new and unfamiliar ideas at this budget level, at least, not in traditional studios. (In a sign of changing times, once skeptical of the streaming service, Steven Spielberg has formed a partnership with his company Amblin to produce new feature films annually for Netflix.) When they work, in the case of Quentin Tarantino’s 1960s poem Once Upon a Time At a time in Hollywood, “studio and filmmakers alike can reap the benefits. Sony spent nearly $90 million producing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie and grossed $375 million in When they fail, like Ridley Scott’s big-budget 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 hit songs, but their films don’t cost nearly as much. Recent blockbusters or adult-oriented movies with big budgets, such as Michael Bay’s “6 Underground”, Aaron Sorkin’s “Trial of the Chicago 7”, David Fincher’s “Mank” and “Red Notice” starring Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds Gal Gadot, have been created by Netflix or sell it. The broadcasting company, along with its competitors, does not report box office profits and relies on attracting subscribers with new content, so it is impossible to know what kind of financial impact those films have had.
Nolan could have easily sold Oppenheimer for the streaming service, which would have guaranteed him a massive salary without being scrutinized by box office reports. But he is a big proponent of the big screen experience and the struggling movie show industry.
With Oppenheimer not expected to appear in theaters until the summer of 2023, a lot could change in the film industry by then — for better or worse. There is a possibility that it will be launched in an environment more hostile towards support poles that are not of the same type. Or, moviegoers can be willing to look beyond the constant drip of the adventures of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man and watch something that doesn’t involve big men in tights.
With original properties, marketing executives have to familiarize audiences with the property while also motivating them to see the story in theaters. In the case of Oppenheimer, Universal has to make people aware that Nolan has a new movie And Convince them that they simply should see the story behind the Manhattan Project on the big screen. Nolan assembles an A-list squad — Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, and Robert Downey Jr. — around Cillian Murphy (who plays J. Robert Oppenheimer) to raise the bar for the film.
Another challenge will be reaching the target demographic of the adult crowd. They might be more excited to go to the movies two years from now, but while COVID-19 lingers, the age group has been more reluctant to visit their local movie theaters.
“There was at least one level of uncertainty in how the films would perform: it depended on the execution,” Newman says. “Now, it doesn’t just depend on the execution, it depends on the epidemic. It takes more than a year to make a movie like this, and no one knows what the health will be like [at the time it comes out]. “