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Christopher Nolan found himself recently walking past “a beautiful” Regal theater in Manhattan, one that had fantastic LED displays showing coming attractions. The filmmaker, who has his own upcoming offering in Universal Pictures’ The Oppenheimer, said that as he strolled he happened to pass a young man walking in the opposite direction.
“Without breaking a step, just carrying on his way, he said to me as he passed, ‘You make the world a better place,’” Nolan detailed from the podium inside the Colosseum inside Caesars Palace on Thursday night during CinemaCon’s Big Screen Achievement Awards. “And then he was gone into the night, and I thought a couple things. First thing I thought was, my agents have never said anything that nice to me.”
The joke got lots of laughs from the crowd of theater owners and industry insiders during the starry Coca-Cola Company-sponsored ceremony that served to close out the official convention of National Association of Theatre Owners. The event wrapped up CinemaCon’s four-day run in Las Vegas, and it marked Nolan’s second showing of the week after he and Uni debuted Oppenheimer footage yesterday during the studio’s session. But tonight was about an award as Nolan and producing partner and wife Emma Thomas received the NATO Spirit of the Industry Award.
After the laughter died down, Nolan got serious: “Then I started to reflect on all of us who work in movies from the studios, distributors, executives, theater owners, marketers, the people serving popcorn. We are all engaged in a process that in some small way can make the world a better place. Does make the world a better place? It’s an absolute good because we all work in what is the greatest art form ever created; the one that combines pictorial beauty, two-dimensional, three-dimensional, sound, music, and language. It can combine the subjective experience of another human being the way a novel can, but it can combine that at the same time with the empathetic experience being in a theater and feeling what the rest of the audience is feeling.”
Another thought occurred to him. “If I’m to be completely honest, what the young man actually said was, ‘You make the world a better place, Mr. Sorkin,’ clearly having mistaken me for Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter of The Social Network. But I think the sentiment still stands, and I think it stands not just for the great Aaron Sorkin, but for all of us who work in movies.”
Part of that job, over the past few years, has included “sort of outrageously” having to defend the theatrical movie going experience.
“I’m often accused of magical thinking, nostalgia, of daydreaming as opposed to a sound business plan. It’s taken the last few years for us all to realize that when you’re talking about movies, magical thinking, nostalgia, and daydreaming, that is the sound business plan. It’s the only sound business plan. That’s what movies are,” Nolan continued to a round of applause. “And whatever spires and aspirations and dreamlike stories are allowed to come out of this medium, stands on the foundation built in your theaters.”
Nolan and Thomas were honored during a program that also feted Zendaya as Star of the Year; Melissa McCarthy with the Cinema Verité Award; Transformers: Rise of the Beasts stars Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback as Rising Stars of the Year; Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri with Excellence in Animation Award; the cast of Lionsgate and Adele Lim’s Joy Ride as Comedy Ensemble of the Year (Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu and Sabrina Wu); and Rolando B. Rodriguez with the NATO Marquee Award.
In her comments, Thomas called it a huge honor and privilege to accept the trophy. The veteran producer said that she and Nolan are at a unique point that comes during every filmmaking process, one where the creative work is done and it’s now time “to put our baby out into the real world.”
Thomas continued, “It is a terrifying, terrifying process. Regularly at this point in the process, we can look at each other and ask the question of why we do this regularly? We’ve been doing it long enough at this point to know that the answer soon comes,” she explained. “And usually that answer is when we are standing in the back of one of your theaters watching the first paid audiences watch our movies. … There’s something about watching an audience who’s bothered to come out of their house, sit within those four walls of a theater and be transported by the stories that we get to tell that makes sense of everything that we do.”
Nolan also took time at the start of his speech to pay tribute to outgoing NATO chief John Fithian, who received a wave of love from many of the night’s speakers. In doing so, Nolan recalled the first time they ever connected. (Hint: It did not go well.)
“I’ll tell you the first time I called John Fithian to ask him about film projectors and theaters, it was less than receptive. When I finally slammed the phone down at the end — I did say goodbye [after] the conversation gone on for about an hour — I immediately dialed Dad Feldman at Warner Bros. Distribution and said, ‘Who does this guy think he is?’ I rapidly came to realize that John knows exactly who he is.”
Nolan continued: “He is the person standing between the caprices and preferences of precious filmmakers like myself, and studios who have competing agendas, at times in financial terms, and theater owners who have to make rent, who have to make payroll through good times and bad. You should know from those of us who’ve worked with John in a different way than you get to and see how he represents and has represented your interests over the years, that no one has ever fought harder and more intelligently for a group of people than John Fithian fought on behalf of the owners. So we all owe him a great debt.”
Fithian had to be feeling the love during the Kevin Frazier-hosted ceremony as he was greeted by a standing ovation during his final appearance on the CinemaCon stage. Another standing ovation went to Nolan and Thomas, and Fithian made sure to shower the pair with praise during his comments.
“There are no greater champions of the cinematic experience — it’s in their DNA,” Fithian said, later adding how they fought to get Tenet into theaters at a time when chains were desperately struggling to get product amid the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. “Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas, you have absolutely changed cinema.”
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