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Christopher Nolan Slams WB's 2021 film slate rollout to HBO Max as a 'bait and switch'

By Josh Grossberg
Christopher Nolan

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan sounds none too pleased about his longtime studio's recent industry-disrupting move.

The Tenet auteur is sounding off on Warner Bros.' decision last week to release its entire 2021 film slate in both theaters and on its sister streaming platform HBO Max at the same time, essentially smashing the theatrical release window that's been Hollywood's go-to business model for decades in favor of a day-and-date release strategy.

“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,” said Nolan in a searing statement released 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.”

Nolan separately told Entertainment Tonight that he was in "disbelief" when he first heard the news, particularly incensed at the way Warner brass dropped the bombshell without giving talent a heads up.

"There's such controversy around it, because they didn't tell anyone," he added. "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."

By big we mean some of the most highly anticipated blockbusters of the year — everything from Denis Villeneuve's reimagined Dune and Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman 1984 to Lana Wachowski's fourth Matrix installment and James Gunn's The Suicide Squad, along with The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Godzilla vs. Kong, and a new Tom & Jerry flick, among others.

The move came only days after Warner announced that it was releasing WW 1984 on Christmas Day in both theaters and streaming on HBO Max simultaneously, at no additional cost to subscribers. WarnerMedia Studios Chairman and CEO Ann Sarnoff said in a statement at the time the company "had to be innovative," implying the decision was more of a one-off experiment to "navigate the pandemic" rather than a new way of releasing its pictures.

Wonder Woman 1984

For Nolan, the company's new plan seems to portend a future that prioritizes streaming from home as opposed to the communal moviegoing experience he loves.

"[Movies are] 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," Nolan noted. "So, there's a lot of controversy. It's very, very, very, very messy. A real bait and switch."

Nolan reitereated his displeasure about the disrespect seemingly shown by the once talent-friendly studio to the artists, himself included, who have long called Warner home.

"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," he said.

For the past decade or so, Nolan has been one of the exhibition industry's most vigorous protectors, not only advocating the preservation of shooting and projecting celluloid as opposed to digital, but promoting the benefits of the big screen experience. Hence, his love of the IMAX format, which he utilized in parts of his last several blockbusters starting with 2008's The Dark Knight and on which he shot Tenet in its entirety.

Tenet poster

However, day-and-date aided by the pandemic, now threatens to make movie watching from the confines of one's own couch the norm, while going out to the local cineplex may become more of a boutique experience. The result could be a world in which studios only target the biggest blockbusters for theatrical release and movie chains are forced to raise prices, try out controversial business models like dynamic pricing, or rely on more and more advertising and innovative concession offerings to survive.

But there is a silver (screen) lining of sorts.

While he thinks Warner Bros. and other rivals are using the pandemic as an "excuse for sort of grappling with short term advantage," Nolan remains optimistic that studios will re-up their commitment to the big screen once a vaccine arrives.

"I'm very bullish on the long-term prospects of the industry," he said. "People love going to the movies and they're going to get to go again."

SYFY WIRE has reached out to Warner Bros. for comment.