The Oscar pedigree is too much to ignore. Director Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic Dunkirk (out July 21) features Academy Award winner Mark Rylance as an ordinary man showing uncommon courage under fire, and Oscar nominees Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh (as, respectively, a fighter pilot and a Naval commander). The score is by Hans Zimmer, a 10-time Oscar nominee with one win. Then there’s the thrice Oscar-nominated Nolan himself: the blockbuster auteur whose surrealist time-cop procedural Inception landed Academy nods for best original screenplay and best picture in 2011.
From its somber yet pulse-quickening promo clips to its wide release in old-school 70mm, even the average multiplex-goer can’t help but register Dunkirk’s designation as a Prestige Film—an ambitious bio-dramatization of Operation Dynamo, the May 1940 “Miracle at Dunkirk,” during which 400,000 Allied troops overcame the odds to escape certain destruction from the German army’s big bombs on a desolate beach in Northern France.
So what’s a classy movie like this doing opening between Transformers: The Last Knight and The Emoji Movie?
It’s a curious choice in an era when awards season—that unofficial span of weeks between Labor Day and year’s end, when Hollywood traditionally trots out its Oscar-worthiest movies—has come to be dominated by historically significant fact-based films. And with few exceptions—Nolan’s own Inception being a major one—summer blockbusters tend to be distant memories by the time Academy balloting rolls around in January. Seemingly aware he’s in an odd spot, Nolan has helped adjust expectations downward regarding the kind of bombastic overkill typically associated with summer film fare. Dunkirk is “not a war film,” he has explained, and “does not necessarily concern itself with the bloody aspects of combat that have done so well in so many films.”
Dunkirk’s studio Warner Bros., meanwhile, is opening the film not only at the height of popcorn movie season, but on the same weekend as French auteur Luc Besson’s rollicking $180 million sci-fi fever dream Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (a.k.a. “Star Wars on Crystal Meth”), setting up one of summer 2017’s biggest box-office showdowns.
“In the entire industry, no one understands what [Dunkirk] is doing here,” Besson tells me. “Typically this kind of film—great director, important subject—comes in November, going for Oscars. Why in July? It doesn’t make sense.”
Warner Bros. declined to publicly comment about the movie’s scheduling. But according to one veteran awards campaign strategist, the boilerplate for Dunkirk’s release pattern was likely set by another film. Not Inception, but a different historically significant, poignant-yet-prestigious World War II action epic: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
That movie took in $30.5 million over its July 24 opening weekend in 1998, eventually grossing a robust $481.8 million worldwide and earning 11 Academy Award nominations and five Oscar wins, including best director for Spielberg. “Ryan came out in the summer and faced the same questions: why put out an important movie like this now?” the strategist says. “I think [execs at Warner Bros.] want to make Nolan happy, play this as a commercial movie with old-fashioned awards appeal, hope for long playability and work up the awards as it goes along.”
“A fall release may have indicated to audiences it’s an Imitation Game-type of flick: boring, fusty,” he continues. “Also, should it come out in the awards window and take a beating, then it will be hotly argued they blew it. It’s a gamble to make either way.”
Two of Nolan’s epochal Batman reboots—The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises—were, in addition to Inception, July releases; the director is nothing if not a world-class creature of habit. And according to a marketer who has worked with him on a previous movie release, Nolan “wants to engage people in a theatrical experience. That is his primary goal.” Not, in other words, standing on stage exuding gratitude and humility at the Dolby Theatre in February.
To hear it from another battle-tested For Your Consideration mastermind, the major liability of a summer release—selective Academy amnesia—can be effectively counteracted by a well-run awards campaign later in the year. (In one indications of this phenomenon, the low-budget horror hit Get Out is already getting major love from senior citizen-age Oscar voters.)
“If the movie feels big and is entertaining—all the things that Dunkirk feels like—put it out in the summer,” the second campaigner says. “You can make shit tons of money and then revive it in October. You will also have home video by that point. It’s cheaper—you don’t have to send out millions of dollars of DVD screeners, and you don’t have to worry about someone pirating the film.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, the only time Nolan rolled out one of his movies during awards season, he turned up empty-handed in all marquee Oscars categories. The filmmaker’s sci-fi Mobius Strip Interstellar arrived in theaters in October 2014. But he prohibited its distributor, Paramount, from sending out watermarked DVD “screeners” to Academy voters. “I think it’s much better to have people see it on a big screen,” Nolan told The Wrap that year. “And the way my process works, it would be a bit counter-intuitive to be inviting people to watch it at home when it’s in the theaters.”
The upshot? Interstellar took home a visual effects Oscar, but was shut out of all writing, directing, and acting nominations.
Whether Dunkirk can, in fact, be a summer blockbuster remains to be seen. Pre-release tracking estimates place its opening weekend haul in the $30 to $40 million range. The stuff that’s fared best at the multiplex so far this summer has been pure bubblegum escapism: the Amazonian triumphalism of Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s klutzy galaxy-questing, the coming-of-age super heroism of Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Besson, for his part, is quick to praise Nolan as a visionary filmmaker—and points out that if, say, Inception 2 were coming out on July 21, he would have moved Valerian off the contested release date for fear of the films cannibalizing each other’s audience.
As it stands, however, the Frenchman believes moviegoers will likely divide along generational lines. “Everyone under 50 will go see Valerian,” Besson says, “and everyone above 50 will go see Dunkirk.”
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