It’s hard to overstate how unusual Dunkirk is as a potential summer blockbuster in 2017. Christopher Nolan’s latest, which many critics are calling the best film he’s ever made (though our own David Edelstein was less effusive), tells the story of an enormous evacuation of British soldiers in the early days of World War II. It was shot and is being shown in the near-extinct 70-mm format, which has experienced a recent reinvigoration in the hands of filmmakers like Nolan (Interstellar), Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master), and Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight).
But unlike The Master and Hateful Eight, which were modestly budgeted affairs distributed by mini-major the Weinstein Company, Dunkirk cost a hefty $150 million and will receive a wide release courtesy of Warner Bros., which has been in the Nolan business since 2002’s Insomnia. And unlike most of the fare coming to us from the seven major studios, it isn’t based on any preexisting intellectual property — it isn’t a superhero story or the revival of some beloved monster, and it isn’t the adaptation of a major novel or inspired by a rich stable of toys. That raises a question that might seem strange to ask in light of the film’s rapturous reception, not to mention Nolan’s storied track record: Can it be a financial success?
First, it helps to look at the precedent of Nolan’s own work, particularly Inception and Interstellar. Like Dunkirk, these films were crazy-ambitious original productions on comparable budgets; Inception arrived to similar acclaim as Dunkirk, while the reception of Interstellar was more mixed, though still positive overall. Inception opened with $62.8 million, which was the seventh-best debut of 2010, and ultimately grossed $292.6 million domestically (sixth-best) and $825.5 million worldwide (fourth-best). Four years and one more Batman movie later, Interstellar opened with $47.5 million (19th) and went to make $188.0 million domestically (16th) and $675.1 million worldwide (10th). Considering these factors, you’d have to rate Inception as a smash-hit and Interstellar more like a mild success and even, in some minds, a disappointment. That might seem strange — a movie that earned nearly $700 million isn’t a home run? But that’s the industry we live in right now. With international takes skyrocketing thanks to the development of markets like China, and domestic grosses having to compare with the likes of Star Wars and Marvel, the bar is high for all studio releases, particularly the ones with budgets in the nine figures. You don’t get bonus points for not basing your film on preexisting IP, and to have the kind of awareness necessary to generate a billion-dollar worldwide gross practically requires preexisting IP.
At the moment, Dunkirk is tracking toward an opening in the $35–$40 million range, according to Deadline. Opening-weekend numbers have become inflated to the point that a sub-$40 million performance would be, at best, the 18th-highest debut of 2017, a year that’s only halfway over. But at the same time, that would also be the second-highest bow for a film that isn’t either a sequel, a reboot, or animation, and if Dunkirk beats Split’s $40 million opening, it would be tops. That’s the extent to which the market is dominated by familiarity right now, and while, again, that’s not going to net Warner Bros. any sympathy dollars from the gods of cinema, it does lend some much-needed context to the discussion.
How about war movies? Those do well, right? Eh. Since the dawn of the superhero era — a shift that you can roughly tie to the release of Iron Man in 2008 — the best debut belongs to Tarantino’s remarkably idiosyncratic Inglourious Basterds, which managed $38 million in 2009, a performance that wouldn’t even get you on the phone with Disney these days. Other recent WWII outings like Fury and Hacksaw Ridge were working with radically smaller budgets than Dunkirk, and comparing their grosses would do little more than send Warner Bros. looking for a paper bag to breathe into.
So is there any hope? It depends on what you’re hoping for. Dunkirk won’t earn a billion dollars worldwide, no matter how many One Direction fans buy tickets to see Harry Styles. But Styles’s presence does legitimately give the film some appeal to demographics that wouldn’t be interested without him, and with a PG-13 rating the singer’s many young fans can see the movie without having to sneak in. These are populations who don’t factor into the tracking as significantly as your more conventional audiences for a movie like this, too. And the outstanding reviews, combined with what you would expect will be corresponding word of mouth, could ultimately define the movie’s success.
Inception’s opening proved to be just 21.5 percent of its total gross, an achievement only slightly behind this year’s hottest release, Get Out, which comes in at 19 percent. By comparison, Interstellar’s opening comprised 25.3 percent of its total gross. That’s still quite good; it would be the third-best ratio for a 2,000-plus theater wide-release this year, which is a testament to how front-loaded box office tends to be nowadays. My guess would be that Dunkirk’s best-case domestic scenario resembles that of Inception and another Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The Revenant, which opened to $39.8 million, right in the neighborhood of Dunkirk tracking, and legged it out to $183.6 million domestically. Of course, Dunkirk doesn’t feature DiCaprio, one of the last remaining stars whose presence seems to guarantee a fantastic worldwide gross — though whether that’s thanks to DiCaprio himself or his tendency to pick winners is unclear. Moreover, Inception and The Revenant each managed to make some 65 percent of their overall gross internationally. Interstellar actually topped that, bringing in 72 percent of its money from foreign markets, good for a remarkable $487.1 million.
If its reception by audiences is as rapturous as that of critics, this feels like the range that Dunkirk will live in: A domestic gross of $200 million, give or take $25 million on either side, and somewhere in the realm of $350–$400 million overseas. (Interstellar made a combined $190 million or so in China and South Korea versus Inception’s $72 million in those territories, a discrepancy that alone accounts for most of the difference between the two films’ international grosses. I highly suspect that a war film like Dunkirk is going to earn much more comparably to The Revenant than to an effects-laden sci-fi spectacle like Interstellar.) Such a run would have to be considered a victory for Nolan, but it’s also literally half of what Beauty and the Beast earned worldwide at the same budget — not to mention less than Interstellar’s overall tally. If you’re looking for a case study in why Hollywood looks the way it does now, the muted prospects for Dunkirk are one hell of an example.