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Why Universal’s Poaching of Christopher Nolan Isn't as Big as Netflix Signing Dan Levy

Christopher Nolan
Filmmaker on the set of 2020's confounding 'Tenet' alongside the film's star, John David Washington. (Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

This past week featured two big battles in the Hollywood talent wars, showing the very different paths two major media companies are taking amid the industry’s transformation. To put it simply, one studio just won a talent war right out of 1996. The other just won a battle in the talent wars of 2021 and beyond.

The retro winner was Universal, which signed an expensive and handcuff-laden deal to distribute the next film from writer-director Christopher Nolan. It will arrive two or three years from now, and follows J. Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw building the atomic bomb, then opposed building the even more powerful hydrogen bomb. 

Taking a different tack, as it has with virtually everything else, was Netflix. The streaming giant announced an “eight-figure” deal with Dan Levy, co-creator and star of last year’s big Emmy winner Schitt’s Creek. He’ll immediately start working on a feature with a high-profile production partner, and soon start pumping out other series and features for the streaming giant.  

A movie studio wanting to be in business with Nolan is understandable. Over the past 20 years, nine of his films (including the Dark Knight trilogy, Dunkirk, and Inception) have collectively grossed more than $4 billion for Warner Bros. Even Apple took a shot at getting his next project. 

But in winning the deal, Donna Langley and other Universal executives made some seriously expensive and constricting commitments:

> A $100 million budget, with another $100 million for marketing. Most observers judge that a hefty price for a period film most likely to attract an older audience far less inclined these days to go to theaters. But Nolan is Nolan.

> Theatrical exclusivity for more than 100 days, even as Universal and other studios cut exhibitor deals to get films out of exclusive runs as quickly as possible, usually 17 to 45 days. Scarlet Johansson must wish she had the same provision spelled out in her Black Widow contract.

> Twenty percent of first-dollar theatrical gross, no doubt one reason Nolan wants to keep the film in theaters as long as possible. 

> Universal won’t release other films within three weeks of the Oppenheimer release. Reports are unclear whether this in-house exclusivity extends even to non-competing genres such as family animated movies, but…Nolan is Nolan. 

“It wasn’t a negotiation. It was, rather, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to establish a relationship with one of the most successful and acclaimed filmmakers of the 21st century,” The Hollywood Reporter put it. 

So Universal locked up Nolan by promising the moon (he of course also got “final cut,” control over the film’s final look). It was the kind of deal with a gifted filmmaker that was common in a previous era. But it comes at a time when streaming services need more from their multi-hyphenates. 

By that standard, for all his gifts, Christopher Nolan is no Steven Spielberg, another Universal filmmaker who helped invent the blockbuster with Jaws back in 1975. 

In the decades since, Spielberg has directed 58 projects, but more importantly for the era now upon us, has built a vast media footprint far beyond those movies. Spielberg has generated 181 credits as a producer or executive producer of features, TV series, documentaries, limited-run series and more.  

Nolan isn’t even Dan Levy, who grabbed four Emmys last year, part of the record haul Schitt’s Creek pulled in for its final season, including Best Comedy. That became possible after Netflix licensed the previously little-seen comedy on a little-seen cable network and turbocharged its following among binge-fueled fans. 

Now Netflix has 80 episodes of a beloved, re-watchable comedy in its bank. Levy, meanwhile, has nothing but gratitude, and a new deal to make many more shows. 

“Netflix offered Schitt’s Creek a second home at just the right time and opened the doors to a whole new audience for us,” Levy said in a Netflix release. “Watching the show thrive there has only enhanced my excitement about continuing to tell specific, meaningful stories with them in both TV and feature film. A full circle moment.”

Levy’s full Netflix deal won’t start until next year, and he’s still delivering four projects to Hulu and ABC Signature. But he’ll start working immediately on an untitled feature-length romantic comedy with former Universal executive Stacy Snider and Kate Fenske, her colleague at ballyhooed new production shingle Sister.  

More importantly, Netflix is betting Levy will continue to be just as productive as he’s been, creating multiple projects that Netflix can feed directly to Schitt’s Creek fans for years to come. 

Given Nolan’s long record of unlikely projects that became hits, it’s way too early to say Universal mortgaged part of its future for a filmmaker ill-fitted to the industry’s future. The Oppenheimer movie doubtless will be brilliant and fascinating, as Oppy himself was.

But Nolan’s role in the debacle that was his most recent film, 2020’s Tenet, certainly gives pause. Frustrated with Warner Bros. decision to delay his film three times in the early months of the pandemic, Nolan pushed the studio to release the film in theaters only just as Covid cases were rising again last September.

The result: Tenet grossed only $58 million domestically, and $363 million worldwide, easily the worst showing for a Nolan project in years, and lost at least $50 million. 

Nolan then roasted WarnerMedia after CEO Jason Kilar announced that all 2021 films would be released in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously for a year. That slate included Reminiscence, the directorial debut of Nolan’s sister-in-law, Lisa Joy, co-creator of HBO hit Westworld. Reminiscence, a sci-fi/noir thriller starring Hugh Jackman, stiffed at the box office, grossing just $18.6 million worldwide since its August 19 release. There's no public word on how it did on HBO Max, where the adult-skewing film’s natural audience was likely hanging out (the likely core audience for the Oppenheimer epic might be similar). 

Now Nolan has bolted to Universal, bringing bottomless talent and endless entitlement that will handcuff the studio’s opportunities to maximize its investment in his latest unlikely project. Compare that to Levy’s response to his deal. Who seems better situated to thrive in a media era of change and uncertainty? 

Yes, Nolan’s film – about building the world’s biggest bomb – invites easy jokes about his project’s likely fate, and that of the larger deal behind it.

I can’t help thinking about the Hindu sacred tome that Oppenheimer quoted upon seeing the Trinity detonation of the first atomic weapon in Alamogordo, N.M.,: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Boom.

David Bloom

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.