Box Office Rewind: A History of Christopher Nolan (So Far)

Photo Credits: Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, Newmarket Films, Zeitgeist Films

As directors go, there’s an exclusive club when it comes to whom can be considered a household name during any generation. Whether or not Christopher Nolan has been in that exclusive club alongside the ranks of Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, and Martin Scorsese has been hotly debated among film fans and box office enthusiasts for years — but the argument has only shifted more in favor of those supporting the notion. In fact, with the importance surrounding his latest release, it may be a moot point now.

Take, for instance, the auteur filmmaker’s resume thus far: eight films released on a wide scale, plus two others that played to limited audiences and critical praise during the early part of his career. In all, Nolan’s box office footprint has generated over $2 billion domestically and close to $4.8 billion around the world — more than quadrupling the combined production budgets of those directorial efforts (approximately $1.1 billion — more than half of which went toward his Batman trilogy).

For perspective, the industry rule of thumb is that an average film needs to double its budget at the global box office to be considered a financial success.

These results have cemented Nolan not just as a hugely popular artist among moviegoers, but also with studios who value working with a professional that has thus far delivered his work on time, on budget, and to consistently resounding success.

As the filmmaker approaches age 50 at this end of this month, he clearly still has many prime years ahead with which to continue influencing the film world. That will begin with his next original tentpole film, Tenet, as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic and its stranglehold on movie theaters and the world at-large reasonably allows.

For now, though, it’s an appropriate time to look back on Nolan’s career thus far as we celebrate his contributions to the great pastime of moviegoing.

No Film School, Just Pure Talent

Despite his deep knowledge of many cinematic aspects and subjects, Nolan never actually went to film school — instead relying on his own devices, traditional education, and ability to learn as fuel for his growth into a filmmaker.

During Nolan’s time at University College London in his formative years, he wrote and directed his first of several short films, Tarantella in 1989. That was followed a few years later by Larceny in 1996, but it would be 1997’s Doodlebug and 1998’s Following that helped draw the attention of award circuits and film festivals. He wrote, produced, and directed all four pictures, among other roles behind the scenes.

Shortly thereafter, Nolan was given his first significant budget ($9 million, seemingly modest now) and cast of stars (Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano) to work with on a raw indie film called Memento.

Adapted from an idea by his brother, Jonathan Nolan (Westworld), who penned a short story based on the initial idea, Memento garnered wide acclaim from film enthusiasts. Newmarket Films released the movie in 11 theaters back in March 2001, earning $235,488 on opening weekend — a strong $21,408 per-theater average by an unknown filmmaker beginning to cut his teeth in the broader world of film.

Memento would continue expanding to select theaters nationwide in the months ahead, peaking at 531 locations by the middle of May and earning north of $1 million in each of seven different weekends. By the end of the film’s theatrical run, Memento tallied $25.5 million domestically and just under $40 million worldwide — a major financial success whose original screenplay also helped land Nolan his first Oscar nomination.

Not unlike his early work as a student, Memento set the stage for what would becoming a running theme of Nolan’s career: manipulating the structure of narratives and using the flow of time as a creative tool to keep his audience guessing and engaged. The film claims some of the top scores in the filmmaker’s career thus far with 93 and 94 percent Rotten Tomatoes critics’ and users’ marks, respectively. In 2017, Memento was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress.

Wasting little time to work with a young talent, Warner Bros. hired Nolan to helm Insomnia, a remake of a 1997 Norwegian crime thriller. The film has the distinction of being the last in his career so far which he didn’t have a major writing credit on, instead being written by Hillary Seitz (who would go on to write 2008’s Eagle Eye).

Nolan was also presented another opportunity to work with A-list, known actors via the trifecta of Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank — the latter fresh off her first Oscar win for 2000’s Boys Don’t Cry.

Produced for a mid-range budget of $46 million and released for Memorial Day in the United States during May 2002, the film performed very well in its $26.1 million four-day holiday weekend debut, ranking third only behind the sophomore performance of Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and the fourth lap of Spider-Man.

Insomnia was another crowd-pleasing, financial winner as it legged out to $67.4 million domestically and $113.8 million worldwide.

Answering the Call of the Blockbuster

Nolan was two-for-two in his start as a Hollywood filmmaker by his early 30s. Warner Bros. was so impressed with his artistic proficiency and professional reliability that they took a gamble few studios ever had at that point by handing over the reigns of one of the industry’s biggest franchises to someone who would be working with his first big budget.

The Batman franchise had been waning for close to a decade at that point, following the critical and financial fizzle of 1998’s Batman & Robin. Several attempts were made in the years after to reboot the property (including a near-miss by Darren Aronofsky), but it was Nolan and a story he co-wrote with David S. Goyer that convinced the studio the right time and vision had finally come.

Batman Begins released in June 2005 to critical acclaim and instant fan adoration as a comic book film that took its source material seriously and elevated the expectations of what the sub-genre could strive for.

With a $72.9 million five-day opening in North America, the film was certainly a major hit by Nolan’s personal standards, but it was a tempered debut compared to the franchise’s glory days in the late 1980s through mid ’90s. Casual audiences needed convincing to come back to that world after camp overtook character during the colorful, innuendo-filled entries of the mid-to-late ’90s, and the studio’s own marketing campaign for Begins lacked a definable tone (including an infamous, pop-music-driven TV spot) that closely matched what Nolan was aiming for — which became evident with Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s popular score that would go on to help define the trilogy.

Word of mouth set in quickly, though. Batman Begins repeated in first place at the box office during its second weekend and remained in the top five through its fifth frame. The origin story developed notable staying power that was rare for a big franchise even in those days, legging out to $205.3 million stateside and finishing with $371.9 million globally (ranking eighth and tenth for the year, respectively).

Produced for $150 million, Begins didn’t boast the kind of profit margin Nolan had generated with his earlier films, but he delivered on everything the studio expected in the effort to reinvigorate the franchise knowing the uphill battle this particular film might face in the lead-up to sequels with more promise on the horizon. (The film has also gone on to earn more theatrically via re-release and has approached $400 million, although that figure is unconfirmed.)

Before taking on the first sequel of his career, Nolan jumped back into the mid-range film pool as he took on 2006’s The Prestige. Co-written with his brother Jonathan again, and adapted from Christopher Priest’s novel, Nolan re-teamed with his Batman star, Christian Bale, alongside Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, and Rebecca Hall to deliver another thought-provoking thriller — this time set in the world of late 19th century magicians.

The Prestige, budgeted at $40 million and released by Disney, drew a respectable opening thanks to its strong ensemble and the growing credentials of Nolan himself. Debuting to a first place, $14.8 million weekend in October, it was the filmmaker’s first venture outside the summer calendar with a major release.

Par for the auteur’s course, Prestige developed strong reception and stuck around theaters into the early weeks of 2007, earning $53.1 million domestically and $109.7 million globally.

Following the “one for them, one for me” trend of talented modern filmmakers being thrust into big Hollywood films at an early age, Nolan was back to work with Warner Bros. on the feverishly anticipated follow-up to their Batman breakout. Simultaneously, he returned to the summer corridor — a point on the calendar which has become quite common for the filmmaker ever since.

Leading up to release, The Dark Knight had already captured the cultural zeitgeist thanks to an intense marketing cycle from Warner Bros. that kicked off with a quick tease one year in advance, followed by an IMAX prologue attached to I Am Legend in December 2007.

That scene, and the marketing campaign in general, centered around Heath Ledger’s Joker who became the poster figure at the forefront of multiple viral-based ad campaigns. The film was an early pioneer in that realm of the modern film industry, while the actor’s tragic and untimely passing in January further added to the mystique of his final major role as the iconic villain.

Upon its release, The Dark Knight set the all-time opening weekend record with $158.4 million — eclipsing the previous titleholder, Spider-Man 3, which with $151.1 million in May 2007 had recently bested Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest‘s $135.6 million mark in 2006.

Dark Knight proved it was about more than a massive opening, though, with staying power that defied expectations for such a major blockbuster at the time. In North America, the film remained in the top spot for four weekends and eventually remained in the top ten for ten frames. The sequel legged out to $533.4 million domestically and $1.003 billion globally by the end of 2008.

Easily ranking first atop the charts that year on both fronts, the highly influential comic book adaptation became the second highest grossing film in North American history behind 1997’s Titanic ($600.8 million at the time) and the third highest worldwide behind the same James Cameron pic ($1.85 billion at the time) and 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ($1.14 billion).

Among its many other influences and accolades, The Dark Knight received eight Oscar nominations and won two — including Ledger’s posthumous Supporting Actor award. The film’s unpopular exclusion among that year’s five Best Picture nominees is widely pointed to as a key motivator behind the Academy’s decision to expand the field to ten nominees one year later, since revised to include varying numbers of nominees based on voting.

To this date, The Dark Knight remains the highest grossing title released from the world of DC Comics, and now trails only three Avengers films and Black Panther in the overall comic book adaptation realm.

Nolan next took a break from the franchise films to helm his first big-budget original project: Inception. The film was viewed as something of a financial risk at the time (despite Nolan’s budding credentials) given its $160 million budget and lack of any ties to a built-in fan base like that of a major comic book property.

Fears were quickly alleviated, though, as he assembled a star-driven ensemble cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio — who himself was entering the prime of his career and a decade in which he objectively proved to be one of the world’s most reliable box office draws. His work with Martin Scorsese during the 2000s helped elevate his presence in any film to one that appealed across a variety of audiences, something that helped drive interest in Inception itself.

Adding to the steady wave of rising momentum for the film was a teaser trailer shrouded in mystery and intrigue, released one year in advance while production was still underway. Featuring its star and the ever-sought-after “from the director of” name card for Nolan, no one had a clue as to what Inception was really going to be about, but it had audiences buzzing and speculating in ways they usually don’t for original films.

The film was a perfect storm for Nolan, DiCaprio, and Warner Bros. with another brilliantly coordinated marketing campaign and Nolan’s thought-provoking, ten-years-in-the-works, passion-project screenplay about dreams within dreams that drew praise as both as a piece of pop entertainment and boundary-pushing cinema.

Inception debuted to a strong $62.8 million in July 2010, and its final scene helped solidify the picture as a true “water cooler moment” in movie history. Word of mouth kept the film a hot topic of discussion for weeks as it remained in the top spot for three frames and in the top ten for eleven weekends, further solidifying itself as, arguably, the true event film of 2010 that exceeded expectations.

Ultimately legging out to an impressive $292.6 million stateside and $828.3 million globally, Inception remains one of the top performing original films in modern history. It ranked sixth domestically for 2010 — behind five franchise films — and fourth worldwide behind Toy Story 3Alice in Wonderland, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, confirming Nolan’s ability to draw international audiences without Batman on his back.

Beyond Nolan himself, the film’s many contributors were recognized for their work — ranging from Hans Zimmer’s now-iconic score to Wally Pfister’s Oscar-winning cinematography, among many more. Inception was nominated for eight Academy Awards that year (including Nolan’s nods for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay), winning four trophies in technical categories.

Nolan stuck to his two-year breaks between films and returned to finish his Dark Knight trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. Anticipation was growing at a feverish pace from the day Dark Knight wowed audiences with its rousing climax, but Nolan never fully committed to one final stab at the Batman franchise until after Inception released.

Again expanding the franchise’s ensemble cast with Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rises was, naturally, one of the most widely anticipated sequels of all time as fans and casual viewers wondered how Nolan would conclude his trilogy — especially without Ledger’s Joker. The hype train started rolling with a teaser trailer attached to the final Harry Potter film in summer 2011, one year from release. That was followed by another IMAX prologue in December, attached to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, this time featuring the opening plane heist scene which introduced Hardy’s Bane.

Rises debuted to a stellar $160.9 million in July 2012, the third highest opening ever only behind the previous year’s Harry Potter finale ($169.2 million) and Marvel’s Avengers, which had just set a then-historic record with a $207.4 million start two months earlier. Rises does hold the benchmark for the highest debut by a film not to release in 3D, though, a format which was still somewhat lucrative in the early 2010s thanks to its surcharges and kid-friendly appeal.

Nolan’s Bruce Wayne trilogy closed out on many high notes critically and commercially, though its staying power wasn’t quite as strong as its predecessors as the film topped out with $448.1 million domestically and $1.08 billion worldwide.

The figurative asterisk beside those numbers, and many metrics associated with Rises‘ opening weekend (particularly on the domestic front), denotes that the film’s $30.6 million midnight rollout (second highest in history behind Potter at the time) was unfortunately and irrevocably tied to the tragic movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

Consumer enthusiasm for the remainder of that summer’s box office market was somewhat deflated by fears of copycat crimes and elevated security in cinemas. Rises ultimately became the last major tentpole to employ a traditional midnight release as studios and exhibitors shifted toward Thursday evening starts in the months and years following, largely in response to the events of that opening weekend.

On the charts themselves, Rises stood second only to Avengers ($623.3 million) on the domestic front and third behind that film’s $1.5 billion and Skyfall‘s $1.11 billion globally among all 2012 releases. It ranked ninth on the all-time global chart at the time of its release.

The Post-Batman Era Begins

With his Dark Knight trilogy complete, Nolan began to set his sights on future projects of his own making, although he still had an early hand in the DC universe as he helped Warner Bros. anoint Zack Snyder as the man to reboot Superman with 2013’s Man of Steel. The final product, and certainly DC universe films that followed it, differed from the hands-on touch Nolan brought as a complete overseer to his own films, but there was a clear studio effort to make Superman and proceeding chapters take a page from the gritty nature of his Batman films.

Nolan ultimately received story and producing credits on Man of Steel, followed by producing credits on 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and 2017’s Justice League — alongside 2014’s Transcendence in between, directed by his longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister.

Nolan’s next directorial effort was actually an inherited one, in a manner of speaking. His brother Jonathan had developed a science fiction story for Steven Spielberg to helm, but after the latter decided not to pursue it, Christopher took on the project and helped re-write the story alongside his brother. It saw Nolan make his first jump in the holiday season with a November 2014 release, while also seeing him partner with a new cinematographer — Hoyte van Hoytema.

Following another year-in-advance teaser, Interstellar was marketed as the next big event film from “the director of The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception” — the kind of hype tactic that few studios or filmmakers can justifiably use as an advertising tool, but one that certainly helped drum up buzz for Nolan’s first original film in over years. Starring Matthew McConaughey in his first major role after winning the Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, as well as Anne Hathaway post-Les Misérables Oscar win, Jessica Chastain, and another strong ensemble didn’t hurt either.

The film rocketed to $47.5 million during its opening weekend (excluding $2.15 million from IMAX openings on the Wednesday prior), marking another successful start without the aid of an established property or brand beyond the concept and talent behind and in front of the camera. Critics weren’t as keen on the film as they had been for Nolan’s previous works, though, giving the pic a modest 72 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Like always, though, audiences were along for the Nolan ride with debates on hand after viewing. Interstellar boasts a much stronger 85 percent audience score on the review site, and the film legged out during holiday season to $188 million domestically and $677.5 million globally after being produced for $165 million. For now, it remains the second-highest grossing original film in the Nolan stable behind Inception.

On the box office charts that year, Interstellar ranked 16th domestically (third among non-franchise pictures behind American Sniper‘s $350.1 million and Big Hero 6‘s $222.5 million) and 10th globally (leading all original films in 2014 around the world that year). It was nominated for five Oscars, including another nod to Zimmer for his musical work, while the picture won for its visual effects.

After a half-decade break from the summer season, 2017 saw Nolan’s return to the July corridor with Dunkirk. Among the risks taken up to this point in his career, though, some could argue Dunkirk is among the most intriguing.

Granted, Nolan was already a brand unto himself by this point, but he again pushed the boundaries of storytelling with his take on the “war film” sub-genre, doing so with another big budget and a (mostly) unknown cast. The marketing machine began, on cue, with an “announcement trailer” one year in advance and an IMAX sequence that screened before Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in December 2016 — that year’s biggest domestic blockbuster.

Despite the lack of a DiCaprio, Bale, or McConaughey in the lead, Dunkirk was another hit out of the gate as it drew $50.5 million in its domestic debut, comparable to the Interstellar and Inception openings. The film won two weekends at the box office and remained in the top ten for nine weeks as a strong counter-programmer for adult audiences during the dog days of summer.

By the end of its run, Dunkirk legged out to $188.1 million domestically and $525.3 million worldwide. Although those figures ranked “modestly” in 14th and 19th places for 2017, the historical evacuation epic also competed with a glut of franchise and star-driven films. Among wholly original titles, Dunkirk posted the second best debut of the year (behind Coco‘s $50.8 million), the second highest domestic total (again, only trailing Coco‘s $209.7 million), and the third best global total (Coco earned $807 million, while The Boss Baby also edged out Dunkirk and tallied $528 million).

Beyond the box office, Dunkirk marked another major award season contender for Nolan. The film was nominated eight times (noticing a pattern?) by the Academy, including Best Picture, Nolan’s first Best Director nod, and Hoytema’s camera work. It won three trophies, again in other technical categories.

Tenet and Beyond

This year and the exact weekend of this story’s publishing were to mark the fifth time Nolan would have released a film in July had Tenet not been delayed from its original July 17 release. Combined with Nolan’s penchant for casting Michael Caine as his “lucky charm”, it’s no surprise that the filmmaker and Warner Bros. have chosen this point on the calendar so many times. After all, four of his top five box office performers have opened around this time of year — just before his July 30 birthday, no less.

Whether it’s indicative of superstition or just sheer preference, consistency is clearly an important attribute for the filmmaker. For example, he again teams with Caine and Dunkirk‘s Kenneth Branagh in Tenet, while Hoytema returns to direct photography. Nolan isn’t afraid of change either, though, as Oscar-winner Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther) is stepping in for the musical score, often a crucial component in Nolan’s films. This will be the first film since The Prestige on which Nolan hasn’t partnered with Zimmer, whom was busy scoring the upcoming Dune remake while Tenet was in post-production.

As of this writing, Tenet is tentatively slated for an August 12 release, but there is every expectation that Warner Bros. and Nolan will push the film back again (marking a third delay) in response to the current pandemic spikes across the United States and certain countries around the world.

(July 21 Update: As expected, Warner Bros. has delayed the planned August 12 release to a later date yet to be specified.)

(July 30 Update: Warner Bros. has announced a new release strategy for Tenet that will see the film debut internationally on August 26, followed by a domestic release in select cities beginning September 3.)

The truth is that we can’t be completely certain of when any film is going to release under the current circumstances, and even an industry giant and exhibition champion so prominent as Nolan is caught up in that ambiguity. It may be disappointing to both him and his fans that we’ll likely be waiting even longer than hoped to see his next project on the big screen, but it will be there when theaters are finally ready to safely re-open — experienced together, as it should be.

Until then, let this — the 10th anniversary of Inception, the X anniversary of his other films, and the anticipatory lead-up to Tenet — be looked upon as a celebration of one of the rare creative forces in Hollywood whose projects consistently remain a vital part of cinema’s past, present, and future.

Nolan: By the Numbers (as of July 2020)

  • 10 theatrical releases (8 wide)
  • 8 #1 openings
  • 85.8% (Rotten Tomatoes Critics Score – Average)
  • 88.3% (Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score – Average)
  • 5 Oscar Nominations (Individually)
  • 34 Oscar Nominations (by Film)
  • 10 Oscar Nominations (by Film)
  • $110.5 Million (Production Budget – Average)
  • $56.5 Million (Domestic Opening Weekend – Average)
  • $564.8 Million (Domestic Opening Weekends – Total)
  • $200.5 Million (Domestic Gross – Average)
  • $2.01 Billion (Domestic Gross – Total)
  • $478.4 Million (Global Gross – Average)
  • $4.8 Billion (Global Gross – Total)
  • 3.55x Average Domestic Multiple from Opening Weekend
  • 4.33x Average Global Multiple from Production Budget

Nolan at the Domestic Box Office

  1. The Dark Knight ($533.7 million, 2008)
  2. The Dark Knight Rises ($448.1 million, 2012)
  3. Inception ($292.6 million, 2010)
  4. Batman Begins ($206.9 million, 2005)
  5. Dunkirk ($190.1 million, 2017)
  6. Interstellar ($188 million, 2014)
  7. Insomnia ($67.4 million, 2002)
  8. The Prestige ($53.1 million, 2006)
  9. Memento ($25.5 million, 2001)
  10. Following ($48,482, 1999)

Nolan at the Global Box Office

  1. The Dark Knight Rises ($1.1 billion, 2012)
  2. The Dark Knight ($1.0 billion, 2008)
  3. Inception ($832.6 million, 2010)
  4. Interstellar ($677.5 million, 2014)
  5. Dunkirk ($527.3 million, 2017)
  6. Batman Begins ($400.7 million, 2005)
  7. Insomnia ($113.8 million, 2002)
  8. The Prestige ($109.7 million, 2006)
  9. Memento ($39.7 million, 2001)
  10. Following ($240,495, 1999)

Segments of this story originally appeared in this article.

Photo Credits: Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, Newmarket Films, Zeitgeist Films
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