We are one month away from the fall festivals throwing us headlong into awards season 2022, but one movie is already planting its flag for 2023: Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s historical drama about the inventor of the atom bomb.
The teaser was released online (after playing exclusively in theaters in front of Nope), and it shows off Cillian Murphy in black and white as Robert Oppenheimer, and Robert Downey, Jr.’s voice in narration (at least, I’m pretty sure it’s RDJ, he’s playing Oppenheimer’s political rival, Lewis Strauss), calling Oppenheimer “the man who moved the earth”. It establishes the film will be released on July 21, 2023, and little else.
That’s okay. “A film by Christopher Nolan” is pretty much all you need to get butts in seats. He’s one of the rare directors who commands audiences on his own, regardless of what film he’s making (except for that time he released a movie in the middle of a goddamn global pandemic). Oppenheimer, though, is a new chapter in Nolan’s career. He was a long-time collaborator with Warner Brothers, but after Jason Kilar’s decision to send everything to streaming in 2021, Nolan spoke openly about the decision being a mistake, saying, “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.”
Never mind that Jason Kilar is no longer in charge at Warners, and indeed, the entire WarnerMedia entity is dead, Nolan departed for more theater-friendly pastures. Rumor has it he made an incredible list of demands, including a $100 million production budget and equal advertising budget for his historical drama, and a 20% stake of “first receipt” box office, which means he gets his bonuses before the movie even breaks even. Oh, also Nolan wanted a six-week exclusivity window from the studio, three weeks on either side of his film in which the studio will release nothing else, not even films aimed at different audiences, like a kids’ animated movie. Even with the Tenet disaster, Nolan is literally one of the only people who can make such demands and have them met.
And Universal met these (alleged) demands. Oppenheimer has an estimated $100 million budget. As of right now, Universal has no movies coming out at least three weeks before or after July 21, 2023. And they’re obviously spending on marketing, as evinced by this year-early teaser. So Nolan got his wishes, and now we’re going to see what his draw is with theater attendance mostly back to normal. A good gauge is Elvis, also a historical drama aimed at adult audiences, with a nine-figure budget (estimated $150 million, all-in). It’s trucking right along, with $122 million domestic as of this writing. That’s not bad, especially as adult-oriented dramas are one of the genres most often shunted to streaming in this brave new world. But will it satisfy Christopher Nolan? Dunkirk made $189 million domestically in 2017. Expectations for Oppenheimer will be in that neighborhood. But after Tenet and Nolan’s weird insistence people go to the movies when COVID was still new-ish and people very uncertain, will his appeal be the same?