Filmmaker Christopher Nolan is currently riding high on the big Oscar wins for his film “Oppenheimer.” As you probably heard by now, the film won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Robert Downey Jr.), Best Actor (Cillian Murphy), Best Director (Nolan himself) and Best Picture, among several others. These accolades are just the icing on the cake after Oppenheimer hauled in $1 billion in box office revenue. That’s enough to make it Nolan’s third-best performing movie of all time, just a teeny bit behind 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” which made $1.006 billion, and 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” which made $1.0081 billion.

There’s actually a little more icing for Christopher Nolan to enjoy. Thanks to a slightly unusual deal that he signed only two years ago, Oppenheimer’s $1 billion gross will result in a $100 million payday for Mr. Nolan.

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Inventing The Atomic Payday

Prior to September 2021, Christopher Nolan spent two decades making movies with Warner Bros. His love for Warner Bros. ended the moment the studio unilaterally decided to put his 2021 film “Tenet” onto its newly-launched streaming service, HBO Max (which today is known as just “Max”), free for subscribers.

Nolan was incensed by the move for several reasons, the most important of which was probably financial. For the better part of his time making movies with Warner Bros., Nolan happily operated under an arrangement where he received an upfront salary of $20 million plus 5-10% of each of his film’s backend earnings. By putting “Tenet” on HBO Max for free, his backend bonus opportunity was significantly diminished.

Nolan also had creative and ego reasons to not appreciate being regulated directly to a Streaming platform. As he put it at the time:

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.

So, after two decades and billions of dollars generated, in September 2021 Christopher Nolan announced he was leaving Warner Bros. and was making himself a free agent. And almost as quickly as he decided to leave, Universal scooped him up with an offer he could not refuse. Actually, the reverse was true. Christopher met with Universal and made them an offer the studio had to take or leave.

Nolan’s initial demand reportedly consisted of:

  • a) $20 million upfront salary
  • b) $100 million budget for his next movie. A passion project about the life of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Not exactly the kind of subject that typically results in a gusher at the box office.
  • c) 20% of “first dollar gross” on the film. First dollar gross is gross revenue after movie theaters take a 50% cut of box office totals. First dollar gross comes before the studio takes out any costs, such as marketing or budget recouping, so it’s significantly more lucrative than his former deal. To put this in perspective, such first-dollar deals are very hard to come by in Hollywood, even for big stars like Tom Cruise. They are almost unheard of for directors, with only top names like Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, or James Cameron securing such deals for themselves.
  • c) 5% “first dollar gross” for his producing partner/wife Emma.

Universal apparently agreed to all three points EXCEPT on point b), which they negotiated down to 15%.

With the film sitting at just around $1 billion in total earnings, that represents around $500 million in gross earnings after theaters take a cut. Conservatively, that works out to 15% of $500 million = $75 million. Adding in his $20 million fee brings it to $95 million. When you add in revenue that will come from the movie having another limited release in the wake of its Oscar wins and upcoming streaming sales, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer payday will easily exceed $100 million.

Oh! And don’t forget his wife/producing partner, Emma! She is looking at a payday of around $25 million thanks to her 5% stake. All-in, the Nolan family should easily clear $125 million from the film.

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