Christopher Nolan expands critique of Warner Bros. streaming strategy as more directors join him
As the backlash against Warner Bros.' new streaming strategy continues to grow, director Christopher Nolan is elaborating on his critique of the studio's decision and its potential impact on the movie business.
In a bombshell decision, Warner Bros. announced that each film on its 2021 slate, including Dune, In the Heights, and The Matrix 4, would be available to stream on HBO Max on the same day as its theatrical release. The move has drawn swift and widespread criticism from Hollywood, partially for its implications for the future of movies, but also because the studio apparently did not inform any filmmakers or talent ahead of the decision.
In an interview with NPR released Friday, Nolan — who notably insisted Warner Bros. release his film Tenet theatrically despite the COVID-19 pandemic — called the studio's new strategy "a sign of great danger" for the film industry's employees.
"The economics of it are unsound unless you're purely looking at movements in share price, number of eyeballs on the new streaming service," Nolan said. "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."
The filmmaker added that he was concerned for below-the-line crew members and struggling actors who rely on residual payments to earn a living. "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," Nolan explained. "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," he continued. "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."
Nolan had previously slammed Warner Bros. and HBO Max in interviews, calling it "the worst streaming service," criticizing what he characterized as a shortsighted decision, and reiterating his faith that the theatrical experience would endure. He was not the only filmmaker to do so. Judd Apatow, who has no films on Warner Bros.' upcoming slate, said the studio's decision not to inform talent ahead of time showed "stunning" disrespect.
"It’s somewhat shocking that a studio for their entire slate could call what appears to be nobody," Apatow said in a conversation for Variety's Virtual FYC Fest. "It’s the type of disrespect that you hear about in the history of show business. But to do that to just every single person that you work with is really somewhat stunning."
Like Nolan, the King of Staten Island director also raised the issue of residuals. “It creates a financial nightmare, because most people are paid residuals — they’re paid back-end points,” Apatow said. “What they get out of it for years and years of hard work is usually based on the success of their films. And so now what does it mean to have a movie go straight to streaming? How do they decide what to pay you? Do you even have a contract that allows you to negotiate, or is it really just up to them at this point? It raises thousands of questions, which I’m sure are very complicated.”
Meanwhile, Dune director Denis Villeneuve penned an essay for Variety blasting the new strategy, writing that Warner Bros. owner AT&T "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," Villeneuve wrote. "With HBO Max’s launch a failure thus far, AT&T decided to sacrifice Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 slate in a desperate attempt to grab the audience’s attention....Filmmaking is a collaboration, reliant on the mutual trust of team work and Warner Bros. has declared they are no longer on the same team."
"I strongly believe the future of cinema will be on the big screen, no matter what any Wall Street dilettante says," he added. "Since the dawn of time, humans have deeply needed communal storytelling experiences....Once the pandemic is over, theaters will be filled again with film lovers. That is my strong belief. Not because the movie industry needs it, but because we humans need cinema, as a collective experience."