Did Christopher Nolan Accidentally Kill the Theater Industry?

In the latest domino to fall in the stalemate between studios and theaters during the pandemic, Wonder Woman 1984 is slated to release in theaters on Christmas Day……as well as streaming on HBO Max the same day. Guess where I’ll be watching it? Just so we’re clear, nothing has changed regarding going to the theater in the middle of a pandemic: it’s still a dumb bitch move. Just don’t do it. But anyways, since Tenet forced theaters to reopen in September and then – in a completely predictable outcome to anybody with a brain – absolutely bombed domestically totalling only $56 million and topping out worldwide at $353 million, studios moved their remaining big releases of the year to next year (Dune, No Time to Die). 

I’ve written about the failure of Tenet already, but it bears repeating – they essentially punted on a $250-300 million return just to force it into theaters this year, in theaters that couldn’t fill at capacity and owned by chains that hadn’t completely reopened all their theaters. Nolan wanted Tenet to restart the theater industry, and it backfired. Two of the largest theater chains, AMC and Cineworld, have essentially declared that they are broker than Tilman Fertita at different points of the pandemic amid multiple shutdowns. And it begs a tough question. And listen, I don’t mean this in a reactionary “get his ass” sort of way, I love Nolan and I’m never gonna even begin to pretend to demonize him, but did he accidentally bring about the end he was trying to stop? Did he accidentally kill the theater industry in his aggressive act to try and save it?

As I’ve said before, one of the things I love about Nolan is how committed to the theatrical experience he is and seeing his movies in the largest cinematic format possible is always a treat for me. Interstellar had plenty of issues but watching it in 70mm IMAX was a religious experience. Again, it’s great that one of the biggest filmmakers is so committed to the theatrical experience. But that commitment, and his unwillingness to adapt to the circumstances, may have been the final straw of an industry that was already heavily struggling before the pandemic.  

There has been this growing austerity gap for theaters in the fact that the majority of filmgoers will only go see three types of films – Superhero films, Star Wars and Disney films – so basically just Disney films, and those films budgets require a billion dollar worldwide box office for them to be considered wins by the studios. The middle class film is almost nonexistent in the main theater chains. So you have both ends of the studio-theater relationship almost entirely dependent on films that are considered failures if they don’t gross at least half a billion and now that’s just off the table for at least the rest of the year. It’s this incredibly hostile situation where studios understandably don’t want to release their films in limited theatrical options, and where the theaters that are still open understandably don’t want to stay open unless they can screen these new films that can put butts in seats. Nobody is winning, and the very viability of the theatrical industry is the mass casualty to come from all this. 

Listen, Wonder Woman 1984 having a joint release on HBO Max, is simply not good for theaters. It’s a kick in the knees for an industry already blown to pieces. One of the only big titles in the coming months knows it can’t make any money in the theaters and is more content to punt on that money and simultaneously release it on streaming rather than just pushing it back a year. Not having that big of film to help them get back on their feet when it’s legitimately safe to go back to theaters and theaters can fill at capacity is a blow to their industry that can’t be understated. Whatever money was coming from that film has been compromised. 

It’s worth wondering where we would be had Tenet just simply moved to next year rather than force itself upon a theatrical industry unable to support it. Having theaters reopen and ramp back up promising them a big release to restart that economy and then it simply not happening has done possibly irreparable damage to the theater industry. Did Nolan accidentally kill the theater industry in his aggressive act to try and save it? Has that Dark Knight quote “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” come back to haunt Nolan? Time will only tell, and hopefully theaters can recover once we have a vaccine. But it will always be stunningly strange that one of the biggest champions of the theatrical experience accidentally dealt a potential death blow to it.

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