For a filmmaker rather famously known for not showing the effects of violence onscreen, Christopher Nolan had no trouble drawing blood against his longtime home Warner Bros. on Monday. Nolan called the studio’s plan to launch its entire 2021 slate simultaneously in theaters and via HBO Max a “real bait and switch,” and lambasted the fledgling streaming service as “the worst” among all other platforms.
Last week, WarnerMedia announced that 17 Warner Bros. titles, including The Matrix 4, Dune, and The Suicide Squad, will premiere on HBO Max next year, at the same time they debut in theaters. The decision was made in part to account for the dire state of the theatrical business in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and also to goose interest in HBO Max itself, which has scuffled since its launch in May.
“After considering all available options and the projected state of moviegoing throughout 2021, we came to the conclusion that this was the best way for WarnerMedia’s motion picture business to navigate the next 12 months,” WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar said in a statement. “More importantly, we are planning to bring consumers 17 remarkable movies throughout the year, giving them the choice and the power to decide how they want to enjoy these films.”
But while the WarnerMedia brass attempted to paint the decision in a positive light, Nolan said the reality was far worse.
“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 said Monday in a statement to 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.”
In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Nolan was also asked about the Warner Bros. decision. The filmmaker—who has released numerous films with the studio since 2002’s Insomnia, including the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception—said it left him in “disbelief.”
“There’s such controversy around it, because they didn’t tell anyone,” he said. “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… And now they’re being used as a loss-leader for the streaming service—for the fledgling streaming service—without any consultation.”
Calling the move a “bait and switch,” he added, “It’s sort of not how you treat filmmakers and stars and people who, these guys have given a lot for these projects. They deserved to be consulted and spoken to about what was going to happen to their work.”
The WarnerMedia decision has rankled a great many entertainment insiders. Theater owners have been particularly livid. “Clearly, WarnerMedia intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of the profitability of its movie studio division, and that of its production partners and filmmakers, to subsidize its HBO Max startup,” AMC Theatres boss Adam Aron said last week.
Warner Bros.’s financing partners were reportedly angry as well. Deadline claimed on Monday that Legendary, which largely financed both Godzilla vs. Kong and Dune, could seek legal remedy against WarnerMedia for the release strategy shift.
Of course, it was only a few months ago that Nolan and Warner Bros. were at least outwardly chummy, as the director and his studio attempted to launch Tenet during the global health crisis. After numerous delays, the film was finally released in North American theaters at the end of August.
“We love this movie. We really thought it deserved to be on the big screen,” Ann Sarnoff, WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group chair, said in September. “We’re very grateful for the fact that we have movie theaters back now. We’re getting so much press that it’s another layer of publicity that we are grateful for.”
Overall, Tenet grossed nearly $360 million worldwide—although just over $57 million of those sales came from theaters in the U.S. and Canada. Following the muted response, a number of major 2020 movies decamped from the theatrical calendar, including Black Widow and No Time to Die.