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LOS ANGELES — Christopher Nolan’s films, from “The Dark Knight” to “Inception,” have been a force at the box office for a solid two decades.

But “Oppenheimer,” the director’s R-rated historical drama about the man who spearheaded the creation of the atomic bomb, has outpaced even the loftiest of expectations.

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

In each consecutive weekend since its release, “Oppenheimer” has seen domestic ticket sales drop less than 45%. Typically, films will see box office receipts shrink by between 50% and 70%. In its most recent weekend, receipts shrunk just 23%.

And that’s without ever being the number one film at the domestic box office. Warner Bros.‘ record-breaking “Barbie,” which opened the same weekend as “Oppenheimer,” has held the top spot for five out the of the last six weeks. “Barbie” is the highest-grossing domestic release of the year, and is looking to eclipse Universal’s “Super Mario Bros. Movie” as the top-grossing global film in 2023.

Universal is banking on the longevity of “Oppenheimer” at the box office, as it does not plan to make the movie available on streaming until February, which falls in what’s usually the thick of Oscar campaign season. The film itself, Nolan, and stars Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr. are considered early favorites for next year’s Academy Awards.

Already, “Oppenheimer” was facing limited direct competition at the box office heading into the fall, but the ongoing dual labor strikes in Hollywood have pushed several films to dates later in the year or off the calendar completely.

Last week, Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment moved “Dune: Part Two,” which was slated for release in early November, to next year. The epic sci-fi film was expected to take the majority of premium format screens, but now, “Oppenheimer” can continue to hold several of those for weeks to come.

The film’s success also comes at a time when major superhero movies and franchise sequels have underperformed. Meanwhile, original storytelling has thrived, with Warner Bros.’ funky and metafictional “Barbie” and Angel Studio’s conservative-friendly “Sound of Freedom” dominating the box office.

Nolan himself has parlayed his success with Batman movies into the kind of big budget trust from studios to ambitious, twisty movies on a large scale, 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’s his fourth-highest film, falling just shy of the $825 million “Inception” tallied in 2010. Both “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises” generated more than $1 billion at the global box office.

The Nolan touch

“Oppenheimer” director Christopher Nolan has called 70-millimeter IMAX film the “gold standard.”
Julien De Rosa | Afp | Getty Images

“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 crafted an extraordinarily compelling tale about one of the most significant events in human history.”

Nolan’s films have come to be event cinema. In several films, and particularly “Oppenheimer,” he has shied away from computer-generated images in favor of practical effects. His movies are also known for their thunderous soundscapes.

That’s why 37% of all tickets sold for “Oppenheimer” through Monday were for premium format screens like IMAX and Dolby, according to data from EntTelligence. Typically, these more expensive screens account for less than 15% of ticket sales for a film.

Notably, the average premium ticket price for “Oppenheimer” has been $16.90, while standard tickets for the film averaged at $11.68 a piece.

“IMAX has played a major role with audiences seeking out the biggest and best auditoriums, resulting in sellouts going into the sixth weekend of release,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “Its box office performance in that format ranks among the best of all time, matched only by uber-franchise sequels like Avengers, Star Wars and Avatar.”

Nolan’s 70mm version of “Oppenheimer,” which has been a major driver of foot traffic to IMAX screens equipped to show it, has also broken records at one of Hollywood’s most legendary cinemas, the TCL Chinese Theatre. Within its first three weeks in theaters, “Oppenheimer” became the highest-grossing film release in the theater’s 97-year history.

It beat out 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which made the record in 15 weeks. The influx in interest for “Oppenheimer” led that cinema to add 6 a.m. showings to satisfy demand.

Word of mouth has only benefitted the dialogue-heavy drama, with many non-target audiences heading to theaters to see it that typically wouldn’t have been drawn.

“The success of ‘Oppenheimer’ reflects a unique confluence of factors,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “The draw created by the reputation of one of the most well-respected movie directors, a perfectly executed marketing campaign, an inspired release date and an epic movie theater 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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