Why Does Christopher Nolan’s Tenet Cost More Than $200 Million?

This morning, our spirit animals at Collider reported that Christopher Nolan’s upcoming July release TeneT is rumored to have cost more than $200 million dollars.

That’s roughly 100 million Strawberry Pop Tarts at Target. Or about 2.2 million Navage Nose Cleaner bundles at Amazon. Or 8 million of the Inception 4k Ultra HD Blu Ray at Best Buy.

There’s a lot you can do with $200 million. Some might say you could grant 50 independent filmmakers with unique and diverse voices a perfectly doable $4 million dollars to make their own project, while people like Michael Bay would ask for $50 million more just to make 7 Underground. But it’s a lot of money, especially when Inception only cost $160 million. Why the heck does the guy need that much money to execute the film, and why does a company like Warner Bros. pony up so much for the auteur filmmaker and his traditional, yet stunning fare?

Well, that’s not the story. At all.

The story is, where is all that money going? How is it being allocated? If you’ve ever looked at the budget for a big production, you know that the money is divided into two major categories, and then separated down from there. But there are two key terms you need to know when looking at a budget for a film like TeneT. What is the Above the Line (or ATL) budget, and what is the Below the Line (or BTL) budget?

Alright, class. Have a seat.

Above the Line refers to the key, major talents involved with a film. That’s the Director, the Producers, the Writer. That’s the Cast. That’s any cost to license the rights to intellectual property required to make the movie. That’s a big check to J.K. Rowling so you can use the Harry Potter characters. It’s the elements of a production that basically allow for said project to be greenlit. Perception wise, these are the elements that make a movie…well…possible.

But if you’re a Below the Line talent, you’d cry foul and say that without the BTL elements, a movie wouldn’t be possible at all.

And they’d be right.

Below the Line refers to everything else. The Production Designer and their team. The Director of Photography. The craft service table. The post production team. The visual effects, the drivers, the security, the everything. Without BTL you have no movie; although you can’t make a movie without ATL.

Oh, also? The ATL line items are typically a huge portion of the budget. Often times, a Director is challenged (in budget constrained situations) to look at both areas of the budget and figure out how to cut in order to make the movie for the price the studio is willing to green light it at. For a movie like The Irishman, that ATL price point for the talent plus the insane price point of the visual effects that lived down in BTL land were two thinks Scorcese couldn’t cut. And so Paramount walked away and money-flush Netflix came aboard.

On a film like TeneT, there’s no question that the cast and talent represent something insane.

Christopher Nolan, for example, made $20 million up front for Dunkirk and 20 percent of the gross receipts. What does that mean, kids? That means that Christopher Nolan has an amazing agent. Not only is he getting a gigantic Directing fee, but if that movie makes $200 million at the box office he’s taking $40 million more before the studio even tries to make back the costs of marketing or producing the film. And while the budget doesn’t take into consideration the gross receipts piece in the production budget, the studio definitely looks at it when evaluating what budget they can spend.

So, 10% of the TeneT budget is Nolan, plain and simple. The cast? They’re going to easily land in the $10 million range, especially with folks like Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, John David Washington and Robert Pattinson. The writing, since it’s Nolan, comes out of his fee. But don’t forget Producer Emma Thomas, who has been with Nolan since Memento. While a low level producer could probably snag $200,000 for a film, because she’s overseeing a $200 million dollar production and has been with Nolan for years — you can expect she’s easily pulling down $1 million when all is said and done. Add the rest of the ATL items, and you can easily round up that section of the budget to $40 million or 20% of the full budget.

For a ratio, 20% to ATL and 80% to BTL is a pretty reasonable percentage, but some have wondered what Nolan needs $160 million for in order to make TeneT. Those people asking the question have clearly not seen a Nolan film, who shoots on film, IMAX, on location in places like Mumbai and with extensive, larger-than-life action sequences and practical stunts. Nolan isn’t padding a CGI visual effects budget; he’s got huge line items for TeneT focused on practical stunts, cars, explosions, stuntmen and more. Nolan also had more than enough time to shoot his epic action mindfuck, requiring more than five months of shooting (or 150 days) for principal photography when standard movies typically don’t exceed 60-90.

It’s a hefty amount of money, but when you compare it to movies like The Irishman, which cost close to $180 million, and which often spent the length of the film sitting in quiet settings with understated action, you can see why something like TeneT could cost close to $200 million. The money here is being spent on a killer director, a stellar cast, and the kind of classic cinematic toys that a genius like Nolan needs to execute his vision.

And if his past movies didn’t deliver…he wouldn’t be getting it.

When you see what’s being spent on content these days, from $500 million for Friends or $200 million for 6 Underground or $300 million for twenty episodes of The Morning Show, it doesn’t sound so crazy to think that a guy like Nolan would get this for TeneT. After all, content is King.

All hail the Nolan.

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