Hopes were always high for Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” The studio knew the film was great, and commercial. But no one in the industry expected that a long, talky, R-rated drama released at the height of the summer movie season would earn over $900 million at the box office.
After an early screening, “ Dune” filmmaker Denis Villeneuve said he knew he’d just seen “a masterpiece.” He even remembered saying that it would be a big success.
“But where it is right now has blown the roof off of my projection,” Villeneuve told The Associated Press. “It’s a three-hour movie about people talking about nuclear physics.”
As of Monday, “Oppenheimer’s” global total was nearly $913 million, making it Nolan’s third highest grossing film, trailing only the “Dark Knight” sequels. It’s also the third biggest film of the year behind “Barbie” and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and the most successful biopic ever, surpassing “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s a staggering sum that has been driven by audiences of all ages and an enthusiasm for film and large format screenings.
“When you make a film, you hope that you’re going to connect with an audience in some form or another,” “Oppenheimer” producer Emma Thomas told the AP. “But, particularly with a three-hour film that has a serious subject and is challenging in many ways, this sort of success is beyond our wildest imaginings.”
Even after nine weeks in theaters, 11 of the 25 screens capable of projecting the coveted IMAX 70mm prints ( Nolan’s preferred format ) continued to play the film on some of the busiest screens, like the TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles and the AMC Lincoln Square in New York.
“The reason we’re still in those theaters is because the audience is demanding it,” Thomas said. “This is not something that we can impose — I wish we could, but it’s genuine.”
Thomas, who is married to Nolan, has produced all of his films going back to his short “Doodlebug.” From “Memento” and “The Prestige” to “Inception,” “Interstellar” and “Dunkirk,” their original films have often defied conventional box-office logic. With “Oppenheimer,” they felt good about what they’d made but also know that the marketplace, and box-office tracking, has been a little unpredictable since the pandemic.
“Chris has always made films that challenge audiences,” Thomas said. “He has faith in his audiences and, generally, they’ve met him where he is.”
Their “pipe dream,” she said, was that it would beat “Dunkirk’s” opening weekend. Instead, it nearly doubled it. Now, “Oppenheimer” has many in the industry looking at the Universal Pictures release as a gratifying affirmation that projection and format aren’t just the domain of a few. Mass audiences are interested too.
“When a filmmaker as strong as Chris is pointing a finger at you and telling you where to go…you listen…and audiences have been rewarded for it,” filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson wrote in an email. “I know some film buffs who drove from El Paso to Dallas to see the film properly. That’s about 18 hours round trip.”
Twenty-four of the 25 top earning theaters showing “Oppenheimer” played it in IMAX 70mm or 70mm. Domestically, the 25 IMAX 70mm screens have grossed some $20 million; standard 70mm locations accounted for over $14 million. And this a decade after production of Kodak motion picture film stock nearly ceased.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who could disagree – seeing ‘Oppenheimer’ on film is superior in every single way,” Anderson said. “Not to mention, people are tired of asking, ‘Why would I go to a movie theater to watch TV?’ Good question…you don’t have to anymore.”
Theaters rallied around “Oppenheimer” from the beginning. The historic TCL Chinese Theatre even brought a film projector back into operation and built a custom booth. It was an effort that was richly rewarded: “Oppenheimer” is the highest grossing film in its 97-year history with $2.3 million and counting, passing the previous record holder, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which grossed $1.5 million in 15 weeks, after just four.
The highest grossing theater overall, though, is AMC Lincoln Square, where every IMAX 70mm showing was sold out for over four weeks. Both locations are among the 10 that will continue to present the film in IMAX 70mm in its 10th weekend. By contrast, “Dunkirk” finished its IMAX 70mm run in week eight.
What to make of theaters projecting movies on film often outgrossing the digital projection?
“I would call this is nature’s way of healing,” Anderson said.
Nolan, and other influential film enthusiasts like Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have been beating the drum for celluloid for years, but Thomas said it feels like, “This is a moment where everyone else is sort of catching that bug.
“Chris has always talked a lot about the formats and wanting people to see the best version possible, as far as the way that he intended the film to be seen. … Now I’m hearing that there are other studios who are interested in putting their films out on those film screens,” she said. “It’s not that we think that film is the only way. Every every project is different and requires a different toolkit. We’ve always just wanted filmmakers to have that option.”
And it’s not exclusively film that’s succeeding either. IMAX overall has seen some of its biggest profits ever from “Oppenheimer,” with over $179 million globally.
“The future of cinema is IMAX and the large formats,” Villeneuve said. “The audience wants to see something that they cannot have at home, that they cannot have on streaming. They want to experience an event.”
About a month into “Oppenheimer’s” run, Thomas took her kids to see a matinee of “Theater Camp” and peeked into the auditorium where their movie was playing “just to see how it was doing.
“It was packed, like it was 7pm, Friday night, opening weekend,” she said. “But what was fantastic was seeing the broad range of people in that screening. It was younger people, it was older people. That excitement in theaters is why we make movies.”
Thomas has found it especially gratifying that the film has reached younger audiences and teenagers, whom she was told time and time again don’t have the attention span for a film like “ Oppenheimer.”
“We have teenagers and everyone’s sort of dismissing them as potential audiences,” Thomas said. “They think they’re just not into longform storytelling or big ideas and that’s complete nonsense. … It’s just been incredibly touching, honestly, to hear people talk about the film and hear about young people going to see it multiple times.”
“Oppenheimer” is also continuing to play exclusively in theaters into the fall, in a time when even the biggest movies are often released in homes after just 45 days. Though its opening weekend companion, “Barbie,” is newly on video-on-demand, “Oppenheimer” won’t be available to watch at home until late November, Thomas said.
As far as what happens to the 600lb, 11-mile-long IMAX 70mm prints, Thomas laughed that after nine weeks of use, some are probably going to need a bit of a rest. But she hopes that there will be opportunities for re-releases with the ones that are in good shape.
“We’ve been incredibly lucky in our careers. We’ve had some really great moments before. We’ve had some very successful films that have allowed us to continue making films,” she said. “But I would argue that this one is the most successful when you look at what the film was and then how it’s played out.”
For filmmakers, its import extends beyond a single movie.
“There’s this notion that movies, in some people’s minds, became content instead of an art form. I hate that word, ‘content,’” Villeneuve said. “That movies like ‘Oppenheimer’ are released on the big screen and become an event brings back a spotlight on the idea that it’s a tremendous art form that needs to be experienced in theaters.”
Article first appeared in: AMNY