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Christopher Nolan, key Warner Bros. director, blasts studio over release strategy

Warner Bros. is releasing its 2021 slate simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. Christopher Nolan is not pleased.
31st American Cinematheque Award - Show - Beverly Hills
The director Christopher Nolan, at the American Cinematic Award show, in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2018.Danny Moloshok / Reuters file

"Tenet" director Christopher Nolan, who has been making movies for Warner Bros. for almost 20 years, railed against the studio in a pair of interviews Monday over its decision to release its entire 2021 slate simultaneously in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max.

Nolan, whose professional relationship with Warner Bros. dates to the 2002 thriller "Insomnia" and includes the blockbuster "Dark Knight" trilogy, said he was in "disbelief" over the move, which jolted Hollywood and heightened anxiety over the future of movie theaters.

"They've got some of the biggest stars in the world who worked for years in some cases on these projects very close to their hearts that are meant to be big-screen experiences," Nolan told "Entertainment Tonight" in a joint interview with "Tenet" star John David Washington.

"They're meant to be out there for the widest possible audiences, and now they're being used as a loss-leader for the streaming service ... without any consultation," Nolan added. (Warner Bros. and HBO Max are both units of AT&T-owned WarnerMedia.)

He ramped up the criticism in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter on Monday, 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.

Warner Bros. declined to comment.

Nolan is one of the marquee filmmakers in the Warner Bros. orbit, a brand-name director who delivers both box-office riches ("Inception") and critical acclaim ("Dunkirk"). He is also a staunch defender of theatrical moviegoing in the age of at-home streaming.

In a 2014 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, for instance, the Oscar-nominated director wrote that big-screen exhibition is "to the movie business what live concerts are to the music business — and no one goes to a concert to be played an MP3 on a bare stage."

Warner Bros. released "Tenet" in U.S. theaters in September after three delays, making the espionage thriller the first and only big-budget Hollywood production to debut in multiplexes after they had been closed for roughly six months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The movie grossed nearly $360 million worldwide but took in just under $60 million domestically — a disappointing haul for a film that cost at least $200 million to produce.

Warner Bros. is taking a different approach to the 2021 release calendar, announcing last week that 17 movies would arrive in traditional theaters at the same time they land on HBO Max for one month.

HBO Max subscribers will receive instant access to highly anticipated films such as Denis Villeneuve's remake of "Dune"; the fourth installment in the "Matrix" saga; sequels to "Suicide Squad" and "Space Jam"; and a "Sopranos" prequel titled "The Many Saints of Newark."

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The new hybrid model is a dramatic departure from Hollywood's standard operating procedure, where movies are released in "windows" — theatrical exhibition for an exclusive 90-day engagement, followed by rollouts on other platforms.

In key markets such as Los Angeles and New York City, most theaters are still closed. WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar said in an interview Thursday with CNBC that the company's decision was tied to the grim reality of the pandemic.

“That’s why we’re doing it. We haven’t spent one brain cell on what the world looks like in 2022," Kilar said.

He added: "I have conviction that for the next several decades there will be a very large volume of consumers worldwide that will choose on any given night, especially a Friday or Saturday night, to go out to a theater to be entertained by a great Warner Brothers movie."