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What brands can learn from Christopher Nolan’s enduring crossover appeal

Christopher Nolan stands alone in Hollywood as a director whose brand eclipses IP. Here’s how he does it.

What brands can learn from Christopher Nolan’s enduring crossover appeal
[Source photo: Christopher Nolan [Photo: Francois Durand/Getty Images]]

Oscar season always seems to feel a bit endless, but it seems even more so this year, when the Best Picture race has been all but locked up since July. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer will win. The rest is just a formality at this point.

For the past couple of months, Nolan’s staggering biopic about the conflicted father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, has been decisively cutting through the field of contenders like a hot knife through butter. It won at the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards, and the National Board of Review Awards, and it swept the letter soup of the PGA, DGA, AFI, and BAFTA. Meanwhile, the sharps in Las Vegas currently have the odds of Oppenheimer winning Best Picture at -4000. In other words, it’s such a fait accompli that you have to wager $4,000 just to win $100.

The question, then, isn’t whether Oppenheimer will win, but rather why it will win. How did a three-hour period piece about a theoretical physicist—in which the difference between fusion and fission is a major plot point—manage to make $958 million at the global box office? The answer can be summed up in four words: “A Christopher Nolan Film.”

Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer [Photo: © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved]

Like Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s and ‘60s, when he made such classics as VertigoNorth by Northwest, and Psycho, Nolan has become not just a name-brand phenomenon, but a peculiar and enduring one with a distinctive appeal among moviegoers. While Hitchcock was famous for laying suspenseful traps and appearing in cheeky, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos, he also made films that were hugely popular and intellectually rich. Most Hollywood directors can do one or the other. But Nolan, like Hitchcock, is a virtuoso at both. He generates massive, big-canvas spectacles that are simultaneously serious and smart. He indulges his sweet tooth for eye candy while also serving audiences art that sticks to your ribs.

Ever since his breakout at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival with the twisty indie moebius strip, Memento, Nolan’s mix of massive-scale visual spectacles and clever (sometimes, too clever) narratives have made him the master of the thinking-person’s blockbuster. Nolan maintains an extremely high level of quality control. Over the past 25 years, he has not made a single bad film. In fact, he hasn’t made a single film that wasn’t great—something which, if we’re being honest, you can’t say about Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and Ridley Scott. That ridiculously high batting average is why his fans consistently line up on opening weekend for his latest epic, whether it’s about a theoretical physicist, a crew of high-tech thieves prowling around in people’s dreams, or a rich playboy vigilante in a bat costume.

I’m sure there are a lot of people who still write off Oppenheimer’s box office success as luck, having been released as counterprogramming to Barbie and benefitting from the viral portmanteau of the summer’s “Barbenheimer.” But that’s not just nonsense, it’s nonsense on stilts. Audiences went to see Oppenheimer not because of, or despite, Barbie, but because . . . it was “A Christopher Nolan Film.” It was made by the same person who directed DunkirkInterstellarInceptionThe Dark Knight, and The Prestige. Nolan’s name means something, and that’s rare.

[Photo: © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved]

For decades, until sometime in the mid-2000’s, there were actors whose names a studio marketing team could simply slap on a movie’s poster to guarantee that it would open well: Toms Cruise and Hanks, Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford, Adam Sandler, etc. Today, perhaps the only one of those names that still holds any of the same juice is Cruise’s. At 61, he is still putting his life on the line doing his own death-defying stunts in the Mission: Impossible sequels (while being a mindful custodian of our collective nostalgia; see Top Gun: Maverick). Brand-name blockbuster directors were always in shorter supply, and now they’ve slowed to a trickle. M. Night Shyamalan, for one, ended up painting himself into a tighter and tighter corner with his signature twist endings until he eventually became a victim of his own brand.

Today, when Netflix is right down the block with a Brinks truck parked outside, movie studios are in a position where they have to capitalize on whatever marketing edge they can get. This is another reason why “A Christopher Nolan Film” is a brand that holds so much currency in 2024. It’s what makes the botched release of his previous film, 2020’s Tenet, so confounding. Warner Bros. had been Nolan’s de facto home since Memento. During that period, his movies had made more than $6 billion combined at the global box office. But when the pandemic hit, the studio decided to debut Tenet on its streaming service rather than give it an exclusive theatrical run first. (The movie ended up as a commercial disappointment, but in retrospect, it probably would have fared just as poorly no matter how it was rolled out during those dark times.) It’s no secret that Nolan makes big movies that he wants to be seen on the big screen. He still prefers to shoot on actual celluloid instead of digitally. Needless to say, he was not happy about the decision. It was a dumb move for Warners, if not from an immediate financial perspective, then at least from a brand-management one, which has longer-term costs.

Warner Bros. alienated the biggest asset in its portfolio, and the studio probably turned off a lot of other filmmakers who might have been contemplating making their next picture there. Nolan, meanwhile, came out of the whole mess looking like a principled artist, his brand fully intact. When it was time to find a home for Oppenheimer, he went with rival studio Universal. And you can be damn sure they have been doing everything in their power to keep Nolan happy.

This was not some calculated fight that Nolan picked in order to look good. My guess is that he would have preferred that it never became public. Instead, it was a genuine stand by someone who cares about his profession, his art. Which, of course, also just happened to add to the luster of his brand. It may sound like the ultimate irony, but it’s just another reason that when we say “A Christopher Nolan Film,” we feel a sense of Pavlovian excitement as our hand automatically reaches for our wallet. It means something because Nolan isn’t trying to be a brand. Which, of course, is the best sort of branding you can have.

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