Christopher Nolan Calls Warner Bros.' Shift To Streaming New Movies 'A Great Danger' | KUNR

Christopher Nolan Calls Warner Bros.' Shift To Streaming New Movies 'A Great Danger'

Dec 11, 2020
Originally published on December 15, 2020 2:33 pm

The pandemic has made 2020 a crazy year for the movie industry. And Warner Bros. made a recent announcement that guarantees next year will be just as upside-down.

The company said that with many movie theaters operating at reduced capacity, all 17 of its films slated for release in 2021 will be available on the streaming platform HBO Max on the same day they're released. That includes the superhero flick Wonder Woman 1984, Lin Manuel Miranda's musical In The Heights and the sci-fi epic Dune.

"No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do," said Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff. "We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021."

Many people in the movie industry were furious.

In an essay in Variety, Dune director Denis Villeneuve wrote: "With this decision, AT&T [Warner Bros.' parent] has hijacked one of the most respectable and important studios in film history. There is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here."

Another vocal critic was director Christopher Nolan, whose blockbuster movies for Warner Bros. have made billions. In a blistering statement to The Hollywood Reporter, he called HBO Max "the worst streaming service."

In an interview with NPR, Nolan — whose films include The Dark Knight, Dunkirk and Tenet — called this shift in Hollywood "a sign of great danger" for the people who work in the movie industry.

Nolan was asked whether the move to streaming is really about the pandemic or something bigger — Netflix had more 2020 Oscar nominations than any other studio.

"There is this idea that that's been sort of put forward a lot, that the pandemic is sort of accelerating a trend that was already happening," he said. "But 2019 was the biggest year ever for movies financially. That doesn't suit the narrative that the tech companies or the big corporations kind of want to put out there right now.

"But the reality is there was enormous success in 2019 and 2018 wasn't bad either. If you're asking where moviegoing is going, I think the long-term health of the movie business depends on people's desire to get together and experience a story together. And I don't see any signs that that's going anywhere anytime soon."


Interview Highlights

These have been edited for length and clarity.

Were you satisfied with how you learned about the Warner Bros. decision and what went into it?

The way in which the studio went about it was very unfortunate because they didn't include any of those filmmakers. And my film [Tenet] isn't caught up in this. I'm not a part of this. I have no skin in the game. But I look at those filmmakers for that slate and the production partners weren't even spoken to in advance.

But more than that, the economics of it are unsound unless you're purely looking at movements in share price, number of eyeballs on the new streaming service. Theatrical is really only one part of what we're talking about here. You're talking about your home video window, your secondary, tertiary windows. These are things very important to the economics of the business and to the people who work in the business.

And I'm not talking about me. I'm not talking about Ben Affleck or whoever. I'm talking about the grips, the electricians who depend on IA [the International Alliance union] and IA residuals for pension and health care. I'm talking about SAG [the Screen Actors Guild]. I'm talking about actors. I'm talking about when I come on the set and I've got to shoot a scene with a waiter or a lawyer who has two or three lines. They need to be earning a living in that profession, working maybe sometimes a couple of days a year. And that's why the residuals structure is in place.

That's why the unions have secured participations for people down the line. So when a movie is sold to a television station 20 years after it was made, a payment is made to the people who collaborated on that on that film. And these are important principles that when a company starts devaluing the individual assets by using them as leverage for a different business strategy without first figuring out how those new structures are going to have to work, it's a sign of great danger for the ordinary people who work in this industry.

It sounds like you are accusing Warner Bros. and its parent company, AT&T, of basically throwing these movies and everybody who worked on them overboard in order to boost HBO Max, the streaming service that wasn't doing very well. Is that what you're saying?

No, I'm not. And I'm not accusing anybody of anything. I'm looking at the statements they've made themselves and saying that what they see here is an opportunity to promote HBO Max using the slate of movies for next year. And there is a danger with that that needs to be addressed through appropriate negotiation with unions, with talent and all the rest.

There are enormous number of questions that come out of that about the economic structures that allow working people in Hollywood to maintain their lives and raise their families and have health care and all the rest. And I'm saying these are all things that haven't yet been thought through and they need to be.

The point I'm trying to make is not about, you know, anybody's intention or why this should be happening or what people are trying to achieve. My point is when you think of the film business, you need to think of working people as well as highly paid, high-profile people. On the theatrical side as well, it's very important that everybody remember that the exhibition business provides hundreds of thousands of jobs for ordinary people.

And my work has only ever got out there in the world because of the hard work of people working in those businesses. And so, you know, they need to be taken into account as we're looking at how our work is shown and where it's shown and how the business moves forward.

The audio story was produced and edited by Fatma Tanis and Courtney Dorning. Avie Schneider adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The pandemic has made 2020 a crazy year for the movie industry. And Warner Brothers made an announcement this month that guarantees next year will be just as upside-down. They said all 17 of the films slated for release in 2021 will be available on the streaming platform HBO Max on the same day they are in theaters. That includes superhero flicks like "Wonder Woman 1984"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WONDER WOMAN 1984")

CONNIE NIELSEN: (As Hippolyta) This world is not yet ready for all that you will do.

SHAPIRO: ...Musicals like Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In The Heights"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

ANTHONY RAMOS: (As Usnavi, singing) I am Usnavi, and you probably never heard my name. Reports of my...

SHAPIRO: ...And sci-fi epics like "Dune."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

CHARLOTTE RAMPLING: (As Gaius Helen Mohiam) Do you often dream things that happen just as you dream them?

TIMOTHEE CHALAMET: (As Paul Atreides) Yes.

SHAPIRO: Also in the slate of films, "Godzilla Vs. Kong," which is kind of what this fight between filmmakers and the movie studio is starting to look like. Dune's director, Denis Villeneuve, called this a hijacking, telling Variety, there is absolutely no love for cinema nor for the audience here. Another vocal critic, director Christopher Nolan, whose blockbuster movies for Warner Brothers have made billions of dollars. In a blistering statement to The Hollywood Reporter, he called HBO Max the worst streaming service.

Well, this week I spoke to Nolan about his new spy thriller, "Tenet." And we're going to bring you that conversation about the movie early next week. But today, we want to talk about this fight in Hollywood. I asked Nolan whether the move to streaming is really about the pandemic or something bigger. I mean, Netflix had more 2020 Oscar nominations than any other studio. And he pushed back.

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: 2019 was the biggest year ever for movies financially. If you're asking where moviegoing is going, I think the long-term health of the movie business depends on people's desire to get together and experience a story together. And I don't see any signs that that's going anywhere anytime soon.

SHAPIRO: And when I asked about the specific plan that Warner Brothers announced this month, he gave me a measured response.

NOLAN: The way in which the studio went about it was very unfortunate because they didn't include any of those filmmakers. And my film isn't caught up in this. I'm not a part of this. I have no skin in the game, as they say. But I look at those filmmakers for that slate, and, you know, they weren't even - I mean, the production partners weren't even spoken to in advance.

But more than that, the economics of it are unsound, unless you're purely looking at movements in share price, number of eyeballs on the new streaming service. The theatrical is really only one part of what we're talking about here. These are things very important to the economics of the business and to the people who work in the business.

And I'm not talking about me. I'm not talking about Ben Affleck or whoever. I'm talking about the grips, the electricians who depend on residuals for pension and health care. I'm talking about actors. I'm talking about when I come onto set and I've got to shoot a scene with, you know, a waiter or a lawyer who has two or three lines, they need to be earning a living in that profession, working maybe sometimes a couple of days a year. And that's why the residual structure is in place. That's why the unions have secured participations for people down the line. These are important principles, that when a company starts devaluing the individual assets by using them as leverage for a different business strategy without first figuring out how those new structures are going to have to work, it's a sign of great danger for the ordinary people who work in this industry.

SHAPIRO: I just want to make sure I understand what you're saying. It sounds like you are accusing Warner Brothers and its parent company AT&T of basically throwing these movies and everybody who worked on them overboard in order to boost HBO Max, the streaming service that wasn't doing very well. Is that what you're saying?

NOLAN: No, I'm not. And I'm not accusing anybody of anything. I'm looking at the statements they've made themselves and saying that what they see here is an opportunity to promote HBO Max using the slate of movies for next year. And there is a danger with that that needs to be addressed through appropriate negotiation with unions, with talent and all the rest. There are an enormous number of questions that come out of that about the economic structures that allow working people in Hollywood to maintain, you know, their lives and raise their families and have health care and all the rest. And I'm saying these are all things that haven't yet been thought through. And they need to be.

SHAPIRO: That's director Christopher Nolan. And we are joined now by Kim Masters, who is covering the story for The Hollywood Reporter. Hi, Kim.

KIM MASTERS, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Do you think he characterizes the situation fairly accurately?

MASTERS: Yes. He's more measured, perhaps, than he was in the initial hours after this deal was announced.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Right.

MASTERS: The truth is, I think that he and others in the Hollywood community do feel that Warner's creative partners were thrown overboard, as you put it, I think, by this announcement that completely blindsided them with no advance negotiation. I mean, these people have contracts to make these films that are going to go on the HBO Max service, contracts that, you know, were written couple of years ago at least. And...

SHAPIRO: They could have sold the film to Amazon or something like that and gotten a better deal for streaming potentially, right?

MASTERS: Or they could have sold the film to a studio that honors a commitment to release a film theatrically when they say they are. Now, I realize this is a pandemic, but, you know, there's a certain dishonesty, I think, in saying - and I've heard Jason Kilar, who runs WarnerMedia and was part of making this change - you know, we did this because of the pandemic. Now, you and I know, Ari, a vaccine is very much on the horizon. They did this for the entire year, and they are certainly not committing to not doing it in the future. So nobody really believes that that genie is going back in the bottle. And this is perceived in Hollywood by many people as an attempt to goose HBO Max, which opened dismally, disastrously, which when this started had only 8-point-something million subscribers.

SHAPIRO: Compared to Disney Plus, which had many, many more.

MASTERS: Yes. And, of course, Netflix dwarfs them all. So this was seen as a stunt for Wall Street in many quarters. But I do think Jason Kilar, the head of Warner Media, believes that this is the future. The other studios, I think, will be very nervous. You're getting to a handful of buyers. It's a very fraught time. You don't have that many people, however, who can do what Christopher Nolan does, you know?

SHAPIRO: You mean speak as forcefully as he's speaking or make a movie as successful as his movies?

MASTERS: Make these movies. You know, you go make "Inception" and then, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Right.

MASTERS: That doesn't grow on trees. So there is a - you know, you have outraged talent representatives in this community. And they are saying now, we are going to steer away from doing business at Warner Brothers. We can't trust these people.

SHAPIRO: How is Warner Brothers responding to this?

MASTERS: You know, I hear Jason Kilar, again, all over the place doing interviews and saying, I'm putting the customer first, and this is the future. You know, I hear people telling me that they would rather just go to Netflix, which they feel is more transparent about what the deal is than take their chances at a studio that just, you know, did a blitz attack on all the people involved with making 17 movies.

SHAPIRO: I want to end on this idea that nobody expects the genie to go back into the bottle. Tell me more about what you mean by that and what people expect the future to look like.

MASTERS: If you're Disney, if you're Universal, which has theme parks to consider, which has a model that is dependent on these billion-dollar grossers, you're going to be more careful. But when I say they're not going to put the genie back in the bottle, certainly at Warner's, they appear to have no intention to do that, even though they said this was for a year. You know, you can listen to Jason Kilar talk about it, and he hedges a lot when asked about the future.

SHAPIRO: Kim Masters is editor-at-large of The Hollywood Reporter, and she hosts "The Business" on member station KCRW. Thanks for talking with us.

MASTERS: Thank you so much for having me, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.