Christopher Nolan: People are mad at Warner Bros. for dumping movies onto HBO Max

71st annual Cannes Film Festival

Before the pandemic – such an innocent time – there was a huge fight brewing in Hollywood over theatrical releases versus streaming releases. Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu were already producing award-winning content, and various directors were arguing that studios and auteurs need to hold the line and protect theaters, theater-going experiences and traditional theatrical releases, especially when it came to awards-eligibility. All of which I understand completely. But this was the year where studios began dumping all of their would-be theatrical releases on streaming services and it was no big deal, because we were all home and we wanted the content, and because theaters are not safe right now. The upcoming awards season is going to be tragique because the only films eligible by the old rules are… like, Tenet and that Harley Quinn movie. Speaking of Tenet, Christopher Nolan has a screed:

For many in the movie business — producers, directors, stars and their representatives — Dec. 3, 2020, is a day that will live in infamy.

“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,” filmmaker Christopher Nolan, whose relationship with Warners dates back to Insomnia in 2002, said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.

Added Nolan: “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.”

On that now-infamous morning, Ann Sarnoff — whose ungainly title is chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group — and Warner Bros. film studio chairman Toby Emmerich called the heads of the major agencies to drop a bombshell: Warners was about to smash the theatrical window, sweeping its entire 17-picture 2021 film slate onto its faltering HBO Max streaming service, debuting them on the same day they would open in whatever theaters could admit customers.

Surprisingly to some in the industry, sources say the idea was the brainchild of Warner Bros. COO Carolyn Blackwood who, looking at a relatively weak 2021 slate, saw an opportunity to avoid the humiliation of potentially bad grosses while currying favor with streamer-obsessed higher-ups.

The instant response in Hollywood was outrage and a massive girding for battle. “Warners has made a grave mistake,” says one top talent agent. “Never have this many people been this upset with one entity.” Like others, he had spent much of the day dealing with calls from stunned and angry clients. And that swooshing sound you hear? It’s the lawyers, stropping their blades as they prepare for battle: that Warners was self-dealing in shifting these movies to its own streamer, perhaps, or that the company acted in bad faith. Some talent reps say the decision affects not only profit participants but others who have worked on films as the move might affect residual payments. They expect and hope that the guilds will get involved. (The Writers Guild of America declined to comment.)

[From THR]

“…The brainchild of Warner Bros. COO Carolyn Blackwood who, looking at a relatively weak 2021 slate, saw an opportunity to avoid the humiliation of potentially bad grosses…” I mean, was she f–king wrong? If they released Dune, Wonder Woman, and the rest of their films in theaters in December/January/February, the box office would be depressing as f–k. When they announced that they would put Wonder Woman: 1984 on HBO Max on Christmas Day, someone said it was a brilliant decision because it was like Warner Bros was giving everyone a special Christmas present for staying home during the pandemic. And I agree.

THR quotes people who argue (as Nolan does) that it will be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle, meaning that whenever the pandemic is over, people will still choose to stream sh-t rather than go to the theater. Which… I’m not sure about that. I mean, yes, many theaters might close and they might not even be around this time next year. And that sucks. It’s awful. But… theater chains already had too much stupid power, and I’m not going to sit here and argue (as Nolan seems to be arguing) that we need to keep the old power structures in place. Imagine theater chains selling off some of their properties and a post-pandemic rise in independently-owned movie theaters. My point is that no one knows what comes next, and arguing – nay, insisting! – that the old theatrical models be upheld just for the sake of existing power structures, all in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, seems like a douche move.

Pete Davidson and Kaia Gerber makeout while vacationing together

Photos courtesy of WENN.

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47 Responses to “Christopher Nolan: People are mad at Warner Bros. for dumping movies onto HBO Max”

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  1. Snuffles says:

    Even before the pandemic I was finding less and less reason to drag my ass to a movie theater. I frequently was asking myself, am I willing to wait until it’s available to stream at home? And for 90% of the movies, it was a resounding YES!

    The only time I felt like it was fun to go to the theater was to see big event movies like Avengers or Wonder Woman. Because watching those kind of movies with an audience was fun.

    • Sarah says:

      Exactly the same here, I go rarely (time/opportunity and cost for me) and I make an effort for the things I want to see BIG. The first WW was an amazing experience.

  2. STRIPE says:

    I do see the point made by the agent about profit sharing. If you had a piece of the box office (like RDJ did for Marvel) this move blew a hole in your earning potential.

    Ultimately though, WB made a decision when they only had bad options in front of them.

    And also I suspect people will go back to theaters when we can. I know I will. It’s just been a terrible year for everyone and Chris Nolan/Hollywood isn’t exempt. I wish he would get off his high horse about it.

    • Darla says:

      Yes, I imagine that’s true. So some stars will have to take a pay cut for a year. Welcome to the world of people, stars. You’re still incredibly privileged and guess what? You’ll be okay.

    • Dutch says:

      Agree totally. Especially when it might be this time next year before enough people are vaccinated and/or comfortable enough to go back to a movie theater to make releasing movies to theaters only an economically viable endeavor. It doesn’t make sense for WB to sit on a pile of fresh content when they have a means to distribute it themselves.

  3. Thaisajs says:

    Tell this to people like me, who don’t have time to take three+ hours out of my day, drive to a theater and pay $50 (two tickets, plus popcorn) to sit and watch a movie that may or may not suck. The thing Nolan and others who hate this decision forget is that many consumers actually really like watching movies at home, on their big-screen TVs and eating microwave popcorn, which costs just a fraction of what it costs in a theater. They’re thinking of themselves, not the viewers.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like going to the movies. For a really great movie, it can be a lot of fun. Or at least it used to be fun, pre-COVID. But I probably got there once or twice a year because I’m a single mom with a younger kid who can’t see most movies I’d want to see.

    I think the WB decision was very consumer-focused which isn’t something most folks in Hollywood care about. They care about seeing their faces on big screens and getting awards.

  4. salmonpuff says:

    Yeah, I miss going to the movies a lot (though we really only went to our local indie theater), but I feel like this kind of ranting completely leaves out the customer of the product they’re making. I’m definitely not an expert, but most people I know were thrilled that they’d be able to stream big releases at home. I mean, what’s the goal here? To get people to see your art? Or to be the mostest exclusive and arty artiste that ever arted?

  5. Mia4s says:

    Calm down Chris, there’s a pandemic on. 🙄

    Oddly though he’s the one I believe is actually focused on the “format” and not the lost backend! Still though, calm down. Oh who am I kidding!? I love this behind the scenes drama!!

    I will say it sounds like this was poorly handled from a business relationships perspective. No notice?? And I am FASCINATED that it sounds like the Wonder Woman team got paid to compensate for backend (likely across the board, likely why they are continuing the PR tour cheerfully) but then they are lowballing everyone else? Yiiiiiiiikes.

  6. jbyrdku says:

    I’m thrilled that they’re dumping their upcoming slate of movies on to HBO Max. You couldn’t pay me to go to a movie theater these days, and I have all the ‘snacks’ I could want at my house.

    • SM says:

      Exactly. And what were people supposed to do eit the films that are ready, just sit on them for God knows how long before the entire world gets out of this pandemic or maybe just ignore the reality altogether? At least this release allows for joy of seeing a good movie, I am sure that when some of these titles drop, there will be virtual viewing parties and joy and excitement which should be the goal of movies really. Seriously, Chris will ruin his brilliant movies for me by repeatedly being a a*hole.

      • jbyrdku says:

        Agreed. To say nothing of the fact that I can’t remember the last time I paid for anything at concessions, and you have a recipe for happy homebody-ness.

  7. Becks1 says:

    I love going to the movies, but I didn’t go to that many because it was so $$, even for a Saturday matinee. My boys are 8 and 6 so a lot of the movies my husband and I want to see, they cant. The last movie I did see in a theater was Rise of Skywalker, and I admit i’m glad we took them and they could see one Star Wars movie in a theater.

    Anyway I digress. My point is that there are lots of people who like the actual theater experience and will still pay for that. for many people, the theater experience isn’t really worth the $$$ and they would rather wait for something to be available streaming. I actually think Disney had a good setup – you could pay for Onward last March a week or two before it came out streaming as part of Disney Plus, Mulan you could buy early – those were both movies we wanted to see so we bought them both early. That to me seemed like a reasonable compromise. I know the studios are still losing money, but at least its not a total loss.

    As for HBO Max not doing well – I think its a branding issue, honestly. People are confused about the difference between HBO and HBO Max and I know many people who don’t think they have HBO Max even if they actually do. But maybe these releases will get people to look into it and download the app or even subscribe at this point. I do wonder how they will make their money back on some of this big releases but I guess someone out there was crunching numbers.

  8. Astrid says:

    Before Pandemic, i rarely went to a theater because it was so expensive. Now that I’ve started several streaming services, I appreciate that big movies will be coming out on special days like Wonder Woman on Christmas Day. Should we ever get back to normal again, whatever that means, I’d probably see a movie or two a year at a theater but it’s not my first choice.

  9. Case says:

    Honestly though — what other options do movie studios have? I’m sure they’re not happy they’re dumping movies like WW: 1984, which would’ve made a ton of money at the box office, onto HBO. That’s not ideal. But they can’t sit on these movies for another year, either. There are no good options here and companies need to do the best they can given the circumstances. *shrugs* I miss movie theaters so much, but they’re simply not safe and won’t be for at least another year.

    • MF1 says:

      Yes, seems like Nolan & co. don’t seem to get that movie studios actually need to make money. If they only release films in theaters or hold their slate of releases till next year, they’re going to actually lose money.

  10. Josie says:

    Sadly, I doubt independent movie theatres will be able to survive. Some of the chains will likely close and the big studios like Paramount, WB and Disney will buy them up and hold even more control over the industry. Perhaps those studios see this time as an opportunity to squeeze out some of the theatre chains so they can snap them up?

  11. Other Renee says:

    Some of the movie theaters in my area spent a fortune over the past several years upgrading themselves so it would be a shame if they were forced to close down permanently. I enjoyed going a few times a year but I’m happy watching films at home with a bag of Skinny Popcorn as well.

    As much as I want to see Wonder Woman, I refuse to pay for another streaming service. I have Netflix, Amazon Prime and Britbox, and watch everything via our main service which is YouTube tv. On principle I’ve had it. No more monthly fees.

  12. S808 says:

    I mean it sucks but it is what it is. His own movie didn’t do well because people are not comfortable going to the movie and a lot of them aren’t even open. WB can’t keep pushing back movies and I doubt they’ll ever be back to their pre COVID numbers. They had to make a choice.

  13. Leah says:

    I love films but it’s folly to go to a movie theatre during a raging pandemic. Besides they are shuttered in my city and for good reason. Unless he figures out a way to convert them all to drive in, maybe he better just take a seat.

    $2 bucks says that Nolan has a private movie theatre so he doesn’t have to go to a public one for the peasants.

    I don’t miss the so called theatre experience to be honest. I don’t miss people turning on their cell phones in the middle of a show, kids running up and down the aisles, talking, sticky floors, and assigned seating. I hated the later because you never knew if you were going to end up next to some creepy guy or someone with a hygiene issue. Once in the assigned seat, you really can’t migrate somewhere else unless some seats stay open during the show.

    In my home I don’t have to deal with any of that and it’s wonderful.

  14. SimKin says:

    The argument is more so that WB is absolutely double dealing. They didn’t dump their movies on HBO Max just to avoid bad grosses this about boosting their poor subscriber numbers on HBO Max. If this was a situation where deals were re-negotiated to account for profit sharing or allowing the movies to be sold to third party streamers who would pay market rate this would be less of a problem, but they have a lot of co-financing agreements with places like Legendary and Legendary is not benefitting by not being able to fairly negotiate with Netflix or another third party streamer. Instead WB sent it to their in house streamer that really will only benefit WB.

    This is not similar to Disney/Disney+ since Disney+ has not engaged in co-financing agreements so they have financed their movies completely.

    • Marcie says:

      This exactly. Honestly, had HBOMax done better, I don’t believe that they would’ve pulled this move. At the end of the day, the launch of the streamer was done really poorly between it not being available at first on Amazon/Roku, then current HBO subscribers not knowing that they already had access to the service, it was just a bad launch overall. I used it when it first came out to watch the On the Record doc and then promptly left it because I could only access it on my computer/ipad.

  15. Ariel says:

    My family is no more, and my live in boyfriend is not a holiday fan.
    And i LOVE Christmas, i have wonderful, idyllic childhood memories. My mom loved Christmas.

    So a number of years ago a friend of mine started taking me to a dinner and Chinese food.
    Theatres are packed and you need to buy tickets ahead of time.
    Chinese place- also packed.
    And it has been an amazing gift to me. I needed a tradition, a happy memory.

    This year, he’s like -we’re going, right?

    I am thinking of splitting the difference.

    One of us should sign up for HBO Max, so we can watch Wonder Woman 1984 at one of our houses, and then head to the Chinese food restaurant.

    Too risky?
    Mulling it over.

    • Case says:

      Maybe order takeout from the Chinese restaurant, too? Of course you should do what you thin is best, but indoor dining is risky!

    • Lady D says:

      If it helps, a pandemic is a once in a lifetime event? The chances are really good that this will be the only pandemic Christmas any of us will ever see. This one time only event should have it’s own set of memories. Think of it like the power going out on Christmas Day. You can’t cook, but you will still have some pictures and stories.
      And yeah, get takeout:)

  16. Elizabeth says:

    Wow talk about privilege.

    It’s a pandemic, Chris. We will survive without your white male masturbatory pretense fests on the giant screen.

  17. YAS says:

    All the pandemic is doing is accelerating changes in consumer behavior that were taking place before the pandemic. Consumers were already starting to go to the movies less and less save for big blockbusters for which a larger screen and surround sound provided some benefit to the moviegoer.

    I think the point that Nolan is making here, albeit poorly, is that it’s problematic that movies are going to get streamed on HBO Max, which has a fraction of the subscriber base of other streaming services AND they can’t even work out a deal to get an app on the Roku TV, which means that more likely than not, viewers are going to be forced to watch it on mobile devices, which isn’t exactly the scenario artists envisioned when they made these films AND the films will have a fraction of the likely audience AND it will impact artists’ incomes because less streaming equals fewer royalties and just less money in general. That being said, the movies would have tanked anyway if they had gotten a theatrical roll out during the winter. So really Warner Bros’ option was either 1) sit on all of these movies and jeopardize their ST revenue streams 2) roll them out in theaters and have no one watch them and have embarrassing grosses because people are not willing to risk killing grandma to watch a movie in theaters. One could argue that the execs could have and should have treated their artists better and made any effort to make them feel like valuable partners. From a business perspective, this is a whole mess.

    • YAS says:

      Forgot to mention that within the streaming service option, there are obviously ones that could have been viable and lucrative options to consider (Netflix, etc.), but HBO Max was obviously going to be the easier option for execs because it’s one that’s already owned by the conglomerate.

      • H says:

        I know. Nolan’s rich white man’s tears of privilege are ridiculous. Now, if I could just find an app for HBO Max to watch WW: 1984. Roku is out, as is my SmartTV (its an LG and you need a Samsung to d/l HBO app). So, I guess I’ll be watching on my laptop.

  18. Diane says:

    On the contrary, I am NOT mad at Warner Bros. As much as I was hoping to see Wonder Woman on the big screen, I would not have gone. So this deal allows me to not miss the movie when released. How is that bad? It’s not perfect, but I get to see it.

    • Lady D says:

      That, and you can pick up a 60″ TV for under $800 these days. The big screen TV’s are getting cheaper all the time. The combination of TV size and the amount of streaming services available means more people are staying home. The cost of going to the theatre is also an impediment, and with streaming services stealing their audience they are going to have to raise prices again to cover losses.

  19. Lwt00 says:

    This analysis is not chiefy
    correct and fails to understand the relationship dynamics between exhibitors and distributors.

    Theater chains are not going peacemeal assets and there is not going to be a rise of independent theaters. What WILL happen, thanks to the Trump administration DOJ looking fondly on monopolies and rolling back the Paramount decrees, is the studios will buy the theater chains. Expect Disney to own AMC, Universal to own regal, etc. Expect tiered pricing based on film popularity ($50/ticket for a marvel opening night) and absolute content deserts in areas without the presence of a handful of chains.

    It’ll be a while before that happens and yes, in the meantime dumping everything on streaming is terrible for the people who actually make content. Nolan’s biggest issue is he wants to control how people see his films – nothing makes a filmmaker angrier than knowing the work he spent years on is being casually consumed by someone who never de-activated their tv’s default Liquid Smoothing setting.

    Theaters will never truly die… but you’re going to long for the days of knowing your local multiplex was showing every major release, not just what the studio has cherry-picked for your demographic.

  20. Nina Simone says:

    Brave new world. I for one find it so ironic that the very thing they flight against has been hastened by a pandemic. The actors and directors will be losing out on millions while we the consumers don’t have to pay increasingly exhorbitant fees to have the theater experience. I’m cool with that. I personally am a fan of paying for an all in one model – you mean I get to watch these movies on the streaming service I pay for and it’s safer? Great!

    Also I really like HBO Max – it’s a well curated service. For instance, it has a TCM hub with all my fave old Hollywood films for instance AND all my fave HBO shows? Surprised it’s “faltering”

    Read the room Chris. Consumers’ tastes are changing and the industry is evolving. Evolve with it or get left behind.

  21. Lawcatb says:

    If Christopher Nolan is that concerned with the cinematic experience, he should be have been arguing for studios to give movie theatres a bigger cut of the box office profits a long time ago. Movie theaters have been operating on razor thin margins and hanging on by a thread for years. But now the fact that his idea of how BIG movie-making is supposed to work is being threatened, now he’s in his feelings and outraged. Whatever.

  22. Izzy says:

    Sorry they didn’t all get a briefing in advance, but if they didn’t see this coming they are complete idiots. FWIW, I am thrilled that they are putting the movies on Max. My friends and I are already planning a watch Zoom party for WW 1984, and most of us will also watch it alone before our party. We have no problem spending the money on this. If the movie is good or highly anticipated, people will want to watch it.

  23. Ferdinand says:

    I love going to the movies. It’s like my drug of choice. I spend crazy amounts of money a year in the movie theater. I usually go 3 times a week and sometimes I’d see the same movie a couple of times. I’ve saved lots during this pandemic because I have nowhere to go, I miss the movie experience the most. We have theaters open where I live, but no way I’ll visit one during the pandemic.

    So I thank WB for doing this. For giving us access to new movies via streaming and not waiting the window of time distribution normally do.

    My point here was. I’ll gladly go back to theaters once it is safe. In the meantime, let people enjoy things from their couch. It’s is just a year, things will be back to “normal” or at least a new system can be made out of this.

  24. Snuffles says:

    I just wanted to add that there is a new generation coming up that have ZERO interest in the movie theater experience. Pre-pandemic, I would ask my 11 and 13 year old nephews if they wanted to come with me to the movies and they were like “Uh…NO!” Their reasoning being of they can’t control the content, stop, rewatch, change their mind and turn on something else if they are bored with it, etc… they just didn’t see the appeal. And now I’m starting to agree with them!

  25. Sarah says:

    Here in the UK it looks like HBO Max is coming in the second half of next year and there’s no way I’m paying for another streaming service anyway so when/how can I watch Wonder Woman??? No way I’m going near a cinema until I’m vaccinated so it may well be small screen only once I can buy it on DVD at this rate.

  26. emu says:

    Yeah going to a movie theater is such an experience, I will deffo go back. And I wouldn’t go to see the majority of the films coming out on HBOMax in the theaters anyways (aside from Dune)

  27. Smalltown Girl says:

    In January, my BFF and I were trying to motivate ourselves to go see Little Women and I said “I wish there was a way I could pay and steam new releases at home” 😂 well, careful what you wish for. But even before the pandemic I went to maybe 2 movies a year because I honestly hate it.

  28. Michelle widner says:

    This will be an unpopular opinion, but as someone who has worked at both big theater chains and independent theaters, I disagree they have loads of power. Studios have been screwing them for years.

  29. JustMe2 says:

    Too bad it’s not available in Canada

  30. Lady D says:

    In 20 years, Chris Hemsworth will be able to play Chris Nolan.

  31. Mina_Esq says:

    I absolutely do think that the Genie can be put back in the bottle. I think most people are sick of being home and will jump at the opportunity to start doing things outside of the home again. The kids enjoy the movie experience, and it’s a chill night out with the family. People say the same thing about office work – I can’t effing wait to go back to the office. Chat with people, have lunches, not have a kid wondering into the room during every other call. I’m doing fine, but I miss people. This is not sustainable long-term, so they need to calm down.

  32. Reece says:

    I didn’t go to the movies much pre-pandemic because they were getting way too bloody expensive. I’d save it for big releases. I think the last movie I saw in the theatre was Endgame.
    All that said, I agree I like having everything on streaming cuz I ain’t going no damn where until I feel safe. I’m also finding that I like being able to watch whatever whenever I want or to pause etc. When WB announced this I was like fine I’ll get HBO Max now!
    So Nolan can have a seat.

  33. Little Ms. Right says:

    He’s an overrated blockbuster director with delusions of grandeur AND an out of touch rich white man.