Could Chris Nolan have convinced anyone but Warners to make 'Inception'?
Over the years, whenever I've stopped by the Warners lot to interview Clint Eastwood, I've always been struck by how much his Spanish-style studio bungalow felt like a home away from home, down to the little parking space right by the front door. The whole domestic image is especially appropriate, since Eastwood has been making movies regularly at Warners since he directed "The Outlaw Josey Wales" there in 1976, when Gerald Ford was president, Harvey Weinstein was promoting rock concerts in Buffalo and some of Warners' top young executives were still in diapers.
Eastwood is just one of a host of filmmakers that have what you might call special relationships at the studio, which under the aegis of Warner Bros. Picture Group President Jeff Robinov has been especially aggressive in courting a new generation of gifted filmmakers. The biggest payoff, of course, came this weekend with the release of Christopher Nolan's "Inception," which not only was the weekend's top-grossing film, making more than $60 million, but has created shock waves all across Hollywood, serving as a reminder to cautious studio bosses that a strikingly original film could compete at the height of the summer moviegoing season with all the usual sequels and remakes and other franchise fodder.
But would Warners have made "Inception," which cost $160 million to produce and even more to market, if Nolan hadn't earned the trust of Warners' top brass after making a string of well-received films at the studio, including the critically beloved "Insomnia" (bankrolled by Alcon Entertainment but distributed by Warners) as well as the mega-hits "The Dark Knight" and "Batman Begins"?
"I don't know if we would've made 'Inception' without already having the relationship with Chris," Robinov told me over the phone Monday. "But he is so compelling and so good in a room that we were willing to bet on him making 'Batman Begins' at a time when all he had made was 'Memento' and 'Insomnia.' And you could argue that we took an even bigger risk of betting on him with 'Batman Begins,' since we had so much riding on that film, which was an effort to reboot one of our biggest brands.
"But to make a studio successful, you always have to believe in talent and that often requires taking a certain leap of faith with filmmakers, which is easier to do if you've enjoyed a certain level of success together."
Warners is the studio most invested in filmmaker relationships. In addition to Nolan and Eastwood, it has longstanding relationships with Steven Soderbergh, who since 2000 has made all but one of his major studio films at Warners, and Zack Snyder, who has two upcoming films on the Warners slate after making "300" and "Watchmen" at the studio. Rob Reiner, whose "Flipped" is due out from Warners next month, hasn't made a film away from Warners since the mid-1990s.
But Warners isn't alone. Even though the age of the studio system, when actors and filmmakers were under long-term contracts to studios, is long over, most studios still have steadfast relationships with key filmmakers whose work often reflects the studio's vision of itself. Sony's Amy Pascal, who loves films about complicated romantic relationships, has enjoyed a close creative alliance with James Brooks, whose "Everything You've Got," is due out from Sony this fall. Brooks hasn't made a film outside of Sony since 1987's "Broadcast News."
Universal, which has a particularly good track record at making irreverent comedies, has a close rapport with Judd Apatow, who has made all three of his films as a director at the studio. Universal also has a strong relationship with Paul Greengrass, who has made all four of his U.S. studio films at Universal, including two of the studio's series of "Bourne" thrillers. Paramount has a close relationship with J.J. Abrams while Shawn Levy, one of the top comedy directors in the business, has made five of his last six films at 20th Century Fox. Fox, of course, is also the home of James Cameron, who has been there longer than even Rupert Murdoch, having made all his films (outside of "The Terminator" series) there since "Aliens" in 1986.
It's not even unusual for filmmakers to outlast their original studio patrons. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," which flopped at the box office this weekend, was directed by Jon Turteltaub, who may not have a lot of critical cachet but definitely has Disney staying power. While the studio has had a complete turnover in its executive ranks, Turteltaub is still alive and kicking, having made eight straight films at Disney (including the hit "National Treasure" films) dating back to 1993's "Cool Runnings."
Why do studios keep such close ties with filmmakers even after the executives who originally brought them in have been sent packing? Keep reading.
"Believe it or not, there is still such a thing as an institutional memory in Hollywood," says "Erin Brockovich" producer Michael Shamberg, who is producing Soderbergh's next Warners film, "Contagion," which shoots in the fall. "Most of the studios have either inherited or adapted a lot of the old studio practices. Once a director has made a lot of money for a studio, they're eager to keep that director in the fold. That's just good business practice. And if you're a filmmaker, if all things are equal, you want to stay at the same place, where you have executives that you know and trust and are comfortable with."
It's no secret that Warners has the most top filmmakers in its fold because, unlike some studio bosses, Robinov actually recognizes that the true source of creativity on a film derives from the filmmaker, not meddling studio executives.
"We're just a filmmaker-driven studio," Robinov says. "It doesn't mean that it's always going to be easy or that things are always going to work out as we'd hoped. But every movie needs a strong vision and the people that have the most exciting and interesting and accessible vision possible are the filmmakers. So they are the ones we want to build a long-term relationship with."
After Nolan had struck pay dirt with "The Dark Knight," everyone in town was throwing juicy projects at the filmmaker's feet. "But Chris hadn't found anything that quite landed with him," recalls Robinov. "So he went back to working on 'Inception,' which he'd started seven or so years ago. When it was done, his agent, Dan Aloni, said that Chris wanted to offer it to us first, out of respect for the relationship."
In Hollywood, respect for the relationship is a two-way street, especially when the filmmaker has just directed one of the top-grossing films of all time. Robinov and Warners chief Alan Horn immediately read Nolan's script and met with the filmmaker. "We asked a lot of questions and he had answers for all of them," says Robinov. "We wanted to know whether people would be able to understand where they were--in terms of the different subconscious levels and dream states. But Chris knew exactly where he was going, narratively and digitally. We agreed on a budget and Alan greenlit the movie right there in the room."
In the relationship game, not every bet pays off. Insiders have predicted that Baz Luhrmann, after the failure of "Australia," may make his next film elsewhere after having directed all of his U.S.-made films at Fox. Warners has hedged its bets in the past, famously forcing Eastwood to find outside financing for films like "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby" before the studio pitched in with part of the budget. Night Shyamalan was an integral part of the Disney family until then-production chief Nina Jacobsen told the filmmaker she had problems with his script for "Lady in the Water." Insulted, Shyamalan left the studio in a huff, taking the film to Warners, where it bombed.
It's easy for relationships to flourish when everything is going smoothly. The true test comes when a film tanks. Studios often blame the filmmaker while filmmakers often blame the studio's marketing efforts. So the real test of Warners' belief in its filmmakers doesn't come so much with Nolan, who has something of a Midas touch, but with a filmmaker like Soderbergh, who has delivered both hits (the "Oceans Eleven" series) and misses ("The Good German" and "The Informant!").
Referring to those last two films, Robinov says: "They weren't necessarily all that accessible, but they were really interesting to us on an artistic level. And if you want to send a message to the creative community that you're willing to try to do different things, then you actually have to try to do different things. That's the bet we make and it always starts with the filmmakers."
Photo: Leonardo DiCaprio, left, with Christopher Nolan at the "Inception" premiere in Los Angeles earlier this month. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press