You can count the directors who’ve been able to command budgets over $200m (£152m) for original blockbusters on one hand, and still have fingers left over. There’s James Cameron, now apparently intent on spending the rest of his career making sequels to his $237m (£181m) Avatar. There’s Christopher Nolan, whose next movie, Tenet, has soared well over that $200m mark. And, well, that’s it. Every other film coming in north of $200m is an adaptation, sequel, spin-off, reimagining or tie-in. Nolan is now out there on his own as that rarest of things: a mega-budget auteur – the one film-maker permitted to take such huge financial punts with wholly new ideas.
Nolan carved this enviable niche in several ways. Firstly, he reliably makes very good films. His lowest-rated on Rotten Tomatoes is Interstellar with 72%, while Memento, Insomnia, The Dark Knight and Dunkirk are all above 90%. If your worst film is Interstellar, you’re doing something right. Secondly, each of his movies arrives riding a tsunami of anticipation. Ever since he turned the superhero movie on its head in 2005 with Batman Begins, audiences can’t wait to see where Nolan’s going next. Arguably, only Quentin Tarantino and, possibly, Jordan Peele are able to whip up comparable pre-release frenzy for a release that isn’t part of a franchise owned by Disney.
Thirdly, Nolan is a very canny businessman. In order to recoup the vast investments pumped into his films, as many bums as possible have to be on seats. This means gaining that all-important PG-13/12A certificate. And he’s done this with every film he’s released post 2002’s Insomnia. It’s an astute strategy that Nolan goes to great lengths to achieve, removing just enough blood or menace to sneak each film past the US’s PG-13 arbiters. So, even with the Joker’s “pencil trick”, Dunkirk’s bowel-churning tension and Inception’s balletic ballistics, you can take your kids along. You possibly shouldn’t, but you can.
The results speak for themselves: globally, Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk took $830m (£633m), $699m (£533m) and $527m (£402m), respectively. These are staggering numbers for non-franchise projects. Nolan has made a point of being a great return on investment. At a time when other auteurs tend to operate with self-limiting ratings of 15 and upwards – and the lower viewership and budgets that go along with it – no one does 12A with the same cocktail of artistry and business acumen as he does.
Tenet, though, may prove to be a rare failure in Nolan’s filmography. It’s estimated the film will need to make $800m to break even. The pandemic has all-but made that an impossibility. For the first time, Nolan’s financiers are looking at a loss, though surely the best way to recoup is by writing him a blank cheque for his next project, whatever it is – as long as it’s a 12A.