Did Christopher Nolan’s Disdain For HBO Max Cost “Tenet” an Oscar Campaign?

A complex story of director and studio

Sartorial adventures in time and space.
Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet had a lot going for it, including a cast headlined by John David Washington and Robert Pattinson and a complex narrative that evoked both the globetrotting storyline of Inception and the cause-and-effect meditations of Memento. Unfortunately, Tenet also happened to be among the first blockbusters slated for release after the pandemic altered moviegoing; both film and filmmaker took on an almost symbolic role when it came to the big-screen experience.

Nolan’s advocacy for seeing movies in theaters caused the release date for Tenet to be moved back repeatedly. It also led him to denounce Warner Bros. for their plan to release their 2021 slate of films to theaters and HBO Max on the same day. “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service,” Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter.

In a new article for IndieWire, Anne Thompson makes the case that Nolan’s comments cost Tenet a studio-backed Oscar campaign. That Warner Bros. would put more energy behind Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t necessarily that shocking — historical dramas tend to do very well in award season, whereas films where time travel is prominently featured do not — but it still something of a surprise, given Nolan’s films’ track record during award season.

Interstellar was up for 5 Academy Awards and won 1, while Dunkirk and Inception were each nominated 8 times, with the former winning 3 awards and the latter winning 4. Tenet, by comparison, was nominated for just 2 awards: Best Production Design and Best Visual Effects.

Thompson also notes that Nolan had asked Warner Bros. in November to emphasize “extending [Tenet‘s] release, not an Oscar campaign.” What did this boil down to? Thompson explains: “Warners did not mail screeners to Academy members, did not plunk down $12,500 to upload the film on the Academy portal, placed no FYC ads, and mounted no digital screenings or Q&As.” According to the article, Tenet will be made available on the portal on March 29.

It’s a surreal and bewildering ending to what had previously been a successful connection between filmmaker and studio. Then again, “surreal and bewildering” could describe a lot that’s transpired in the last year.

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