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Christopher Nolan is outraged by WarnerMedia's decision to release its 2021 slate on HBO Max, but is it because 'Tenet' failed? Here's everything to know.

Is Christopher Nolan mad at Warner Bros because of ‘Tenet’ failing?

WarnerMedia managed to sent shock waves of earthquake size proportions across the film industry. Their sudden news about releasing Warner Bros. entire 2021 movie slate simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max caused riffs not just with theaters but with the whole industry. 

The news isn’t a first for WarnerMedia, but it’s shocking how they refused to wait and see how Wonder Woman 1984 does with its simultaneous release on Christmas.  

While talent agents dominated The Hollywood Reporters article, its most scathing review comes from Tenet director Christopher Nolan. Nolan is a long-standing & well-known cinephile and demanded Tenet get released in theaters despite an ongoing pandemic. According to Cnet, Tenet reportedly lost somewhere in the $100 million range, so could Nolan’s outrage be because of the film’s poor box office performance.  

Tenet isn’t why Nolan is outraged 

Nolan could care less about how much his movies make at the box office. To him, film is an art form meant to be experienced in a theater and a communal experience. If it were up to Nolan, he’d probably only show his films in theaters. Nolan creates expecting a theatrical release. It’s why you would never see the director sign a Netflix deal. 

To Nolan, releasing to streaming is like if Michelangelo, Da Vinci, or Van Gogh created a work of art and instead of displaying it in a gallery, it’s thrown on the internet – the experience isn’t the same. Some fans are theater purists, like Nolan & countless other directors, who still make a conscious effort to see these films in theaters. Like Nolan, we are craving to go back to a movie theater. 

Nolan has been a long-standing creative partner at Warner Bros. Since 2002, Warner Bros. has produced and/or distributed Nolan’s work. He even handled one of Warner Bros.’s most prolific franchises, directing a three-part Batman series. WarnerMedia has a bear on its hands, and they didn’t just poke it – they stabbed it. 


Christopher Nolan heads an elite list of directors staunchly against releasing films on streaming. The list includes Quentin Tarantino, James Gunn, Denis Villeneuve, and Orson Wells, Stanley Kubrik, and Alfred Hitchcock if streaming services were around during their careers. It’s no surprise Nolan denounced HBO Max, WanerMedia, and their decision to simultaneously release their 2021 slate in theaters and on HBO Max. 

These “platform-agnostics”, as The Hollywood Reporter describes them, are hard-core film buffs. They are scoffing at the idea of releasing their films on HBO Max and would do the same at other studios. It might be a different story if Nolan was at Disney. Nolan called HBO Max the worst streaming service, and while we disagree, it is underperforming compared to Disney+.

In HBO Max’s first four months, it only managed to pick up 8 million subscribers. In comparison, Disney+ had 73 million by the end of September. To Nolan and many other directors & creatives, the decision feels like WarnerMedia’s trying to pad their subscriber numbers. Hoping the ability to watch the newest releases from the comfort of their own home draws them to the service.

Long term implications

WarnerMedia announced it was only their 2021 slate simultaneously release on HBO Max. However, if it’s successful, why would they only do it for one year. There aren’t many theater purists left in the world, so how would this model fail. Why pay $36 for the whole family to see the biggest releases each month when they can pay half and get so much more. 

The move makes sense because the premium VOD (PVOD) model has not worked throughout the pandemic. As mentioned in other articles, the PVOD model only works with family films like Trolls World Tour. Still, even Mulan failed at PVOD probably because Disney was asking subscribers to pay an additional $30 on top of their Disney+ subscriptions. 

If WarnerMedia’s experiment pays off, and the industry makes the switch, we will lose a reliable way to determine a movie’s success. Box Office numbers are public information, and there will be no public metric to determine a movie’s success. Streaming services keep their subscriber numbers private and release a fraction of the data during earning calls. 

There are also plenty of other metrics studios could use like total views, unique views, or watch percentages, turning movies into YouTube videos using the same analytics. Imagine if Jake or Logan Paul decided not to give Nolan another movie because viewers only watch 50% of Tenet on HBO Max.

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