“Oppenheimer” shows that Christopher Nolan is the prestige box office hero Hollywood needs

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LOS ANGELES — Christopher Nolan's films, from The Dark Knight to Inception, have been box office staples for two decades.

But “Oppenheimer,” the director's adult historical drama about the man who pioneered the development of the atomic bomb, exceeded even the highest of expectations.

As of Sunday, the dizzying, dialogue-heavy three-hour epic has grossed around $300 million at the domestic box office, the fifth-highest this year, and surpassed $777 million worldwide, the fourth-highest since its July 21 debut. And it continues to attract audiences.

For each consecutive weekend since its release, “Oppenheimer” has seen domestic ticket sales fall by less than 45%. Typically, box office receipts for films drop by 50 to 70%. Last weekend, revenue was down just 23%.

And that without ever being the number one film at the local box office. Warner Bros.The record-breaking Barbie, which opened the same weekend as Oppenheimer, has held the top spot five times in the past six weeks. “Barbie” is the highest-grossing domestic release of the year and is set to be eclipsed soon Universals “Super Mario Bros. Movie” as the world's highest grossing film in 2023.

Universal is banking on Oppenheimer's longevity at the box office, as the film won't be available to stream until February, which usually falls in the middle of the Oscars campaign season. The film itself, Nolan and stars Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. are considered first favorites for next year's Academy Awards.

Back in the fall, “Oppenheimer” faced limited direct competition at the box office, but the ongoing double-worker strikes in Hollywood have resulted in several films being released later in the year or being scrapped from the calendar altogether.

Last week, Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment pushed back Dune: Part Two, which was originally scheduled for release in early November, until next year. The epic sci-fi film was expected to take the majority of premium format cinemas, but now “Oppenheimer” can hold several of them for weeks.

The film's success also comes at a time when major superhero films and franchise sequels are falling short of expectations. Meanwhile, original storytelling is thriving with Warner Bros. Angel Studio's funky and metafictional Barbie and conservative-friendly Sound of Freedom dominate the box office.

Nolan himself has used his success with Batman movies to allocate big studio budgets to ambitious, twisted big-screen films like Dunkirk and Interstellar.

Oppenheimer is Nolan's third-highest-grossing domestic release, behind 2008's The Dark Knight and 2012's The Dark Knight Rises. Globally, it is his fourth-highest-grossing film, just behind $825 million from 2010's “Inception.” Both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises grossed more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office.

The Nolan touch

Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan has called 70mm IMAX film the “gold standard”.

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“I think it starts with the filmmaker,” said Jim Orr, president of domestic theatrical distribution for Universal Pictures. “We feel very privileged to be in business with Christopher Nolan. He has written an extraordinarily compelling story about one of the most significant events in human history.”

Nolan's films have become event cinema. In several films, most notably Oppenheimer, he eschewed computer-generated imagery in favor of practical effects. His films are also known for their thunderous soundscapes.

That's why 37% of all tickets sold for “Oppenheimer” up to Monday were for premium-format screenings IMAX and Dolby, according to EntTelligence. Typically, these more expensive theaters account for less than 15% of a film's ticket sales.

Notably, the average premium ticket price for “Oppenheimer” was $16.90, while standard tickets for the film averaged $11.68 apiece.

“IMAX played a major role in keeping audiences looking for the biggest and best screens, resulting in the film selling out through its sixth weekend of release,” said Shawn Robbins, principal analyst at “His box office performance in this format is among the best ever, surpassed only by super-franchise sequels like Avengers, Star Wars and Avatar.”

Nolan's 70mm version of “Oppenheimer,” which drew huge crowds on equipped IMAX screens, also broke records at one of Hollywood's most legendary cinemas, the TCL Chinese Theatre. Within the first three weeks in cinemas, “Oppenheimer” became the highest-grossing film in the cinema's 97-year history.

It beat 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which broke the record in 15 weeks. Growing interest in “Oppenheimer” led the theater to add 6am showings to meet demand.

Word of mouth has only helped the dialogue-heavy drama, as many non-target audiences head to theaters to see it that would not normally have been drawn.

“The success of ‘Oppenheimer' reflects a unique combination of factors,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “The allure delivered by a reputation as one of film's most respected directors, a perfectly executed marketing campaign, an inspired release date and an epic cinematic experience that elevated the film to event status.”

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal distributed “Oppenheimer.”

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