Ever since the trailers for Barbie and Oppenheimer started dropping, people have been trying to make a narrative of Barbie vs. the nuclear bomb since both movies have the same release date of July 21, but it turns out the REAL fight is between Tom Cruise and Christopher Nolan. 


According to Matthew Belloni’s Puck newsletter—recently namechecked in that absolutely devastating profile of CNN’s Chris Licht—the two superstars of cinema, both among the last generation of filmmakers/stars who can get butts in seats based on their names alone, are fighting for IMAX screens for their respective films. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is due on July 12; nine days later, Oppenheimer opens on July 21. The problem? Oppenheimer has all the IMAX theaters booked, which means Cruise and M:I only get nine days in those houses before getting the boot.

Christopher Nolan is a massive supporter of IMAX and has been for years. Oppenheimer is, in fact, the first film to use native black & white cinematography in IMAX, and the Oppenheimer IMAX master is 70mm filmstock that spans over eleven miles and weighs six hundred pounds. Knowing the importance of IMAX to Nolan, and eager to please their new golden goose, Universal, which won the bidding war for Nolan’s next movie after Jason Kilar f-cked up his relationship with Warner Brothers, locked down the IMAX theaters for Oppenheimer last year. Dead Reckoning suffered a series of COVID-related delays that made scheduling tough, and left them coming in after Universal already secured those houses for Nolan.


Further infuriating Cruise is that Universal blocked out three weeks of IMAX exclusivity for Oppenheimer, so the two films can’t even share the houses once they’re both out. Exclusivity was a stipulation of Nolan’s, Universal isn’t releasing any movies for three weeks before or after Oppenheimer.

IMAX makes up about a third of the “premium large format” screens in North America. PLF is sometimes a marketing gimmick (beware if your theater is up-charging you for something with “X” in the name without touting brand partnerships like Dolby Atmos), but in IMAX’s case, it can be worth the extra money spent. Oversized screens create a more immersive experience, and Nolan and his favored cinematographers have created a blocking style on set they call “center punching”, which anchors action in the center of the frame, accounting for the square aspect ratio of “true” IMAX. Nolan is crafting his films at every level for this specific exhibition format.


More, if you can find one of the twenty-five 70mm IMAX prints being exhibited of Oppenheimer, you’ll be treated to the sharpest possible version of the film. Most theaters project films at 2-4K resolution; 35mm film, IMAX or otherwise, is usually good for 6K resolution. But 70mm film offers an equivalency of 12K resolution. Digital cameras and projectors are years away from such saturation and crispness of image.

IMAX is considered the “premium of premium” cinematic experiences, so Cruise is fighting to have his film shown in its best possible state to audiences. And it significantly contributes to global box office haul—IMAX accounted for $110 million of Top Gun: Maverick’s $1.4 billion box office last year. Given that Cruise and Nolan both command profit sharing on their films, they both undoubtedly want to maximize their earning potential, never mind how premium exhibition can provide a better experience for the audience. 


But I don’t think there’s much Cruise can do. Exhibition is done with contracts; according to Belloni, Universal got on this early and locked in their three weeks of exclusivity. IMAX can’t renege. It probably helped that Nolan favors the third weekend in July: it has historically been good for him with films like Dunkirk, Inception, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises opening in that frame. Universal knew he wanted that date from the jump, unlike M:I and its many delays, which complicate things like booking PLF screens.

That leaves Cruise scrambling to secure other, non-IMAX PLF screens. He’s reportedly calling theater owners and other distributors to get them to give up PLF screens to Dead Reckoning. I can’t shake the image of Cruise as a frustrated traveling salesman, scurrying from door to door with his travel case stamped Dead Reckoning, trying to harangue exhibitors into showing his movie. I would also like to know when Cruise, or anyone at Paramount, learned of Oppenheimer’s exclusive IMAX window. Did they only just find this out? Knowing this earlier could have prevented the whole contretemps, they could have just planned Dead Reckoning’s release around it. Who’s in charge over there? Cousin Greg?