On Friday, July 21, Time Warner's (TWX) Warner Bros. released Christopher Nolan's WWII thriller "Dunkirk" into 3,720 theaters. The film's $50.5 million debut -- right in line with TheStreet's prediction -- took the #1 spot at the box office and cemented Nolan's status as one of the most bankable names in the film industry right now. The fact that Nolan was able to turn a little-known WWII battle into a blockbuster movie event speaks to the mass appeal of the Nolan brand.
But Nolan wasn't always such a reliable box office draw. The director began his career with indie features, and he had to work his way up to the string of blockbusters we know him for today. Here's a look at how Nolan's films have done at the box office, from "Memento" to "Interstellar."
Updated from July 22 with additional information.
1. Memento (2001)- $25.5M domestic/$39.7 million worldwide
Technically, Nolan's first film was 1999's micro-budget noir "Following," but follow-up "Memento" was his first to make any noise at the box office. The film stars Guy Pearce as a man suffering short-term memory loss who is searching for his wife's murderer. The story is told in reverse so that the audience is often just as out-of-the-loop as the protagonist, resulting in an unpredictable thriller that caught on with U.S. audiences. Despite its initial limited release and the inexperience of its young distributor Newmarket Films, "Memento" became a summer sleeper hit in 2001, with its $39.7 million final gross more than quadrupling its $9 million budget. The film was also nominated for two Oscars -- Best Original Screenplay for Nolan, as well as Best Editing -- and attracted Nolan enough attention to nab his first big-budget studio venture.
2. Insomnia (2002)- $67.4M domestic/$113.7M worldwide
Nolan's next film was this atmospheric thriller about an LAPD detective (Al Pacino) who is sent to a small Alaskan town to investigate a murder. "Insomnia" garnered mostly enthusiastic reviews, but some criticized it for being too slow. While the film may not have lit up the box office -- $113.7 million worldwide off a $46 million budget -- "Insomnia" was an important stepping-stone for Nolan, acquainting him with the logistics of directing a big-budget film for a major studio. This knowledge would be put to the test on Nolan's next feature...
3. Batman Begins (2005)- $206.9M domestic/$374.2M worldwide
Warner Bros. signed Nolan in 2003 to direct the studio's next Batman feature, which Nolan wanted to do as an origin story grounded in realism. The director found his Batman in Christian Bale, and cast Liam Neeson as the Caped Crusader's nemesis Ra's al Ghul. The film opened to glowing reviews and $48.7 million over its opening weekend, and would prove (like many of Nolan's films) to have exceptional legs at the box office.
Indeed, the film only fell 43% in its second weekend, a slight drop that had not been emulated by another superhero film until this year's "Wonder Woman." The origin story finished with over $200 million at the domestic box office and nearly $400 million worldwide -- Warner Bros. was surely hoping for more given the $150 million budget for "Batman Begins," but the reception was so positive that the studio signed Nolan to direct a second Batman film.
4. The Prestige (2006)- $53.1M domestic/$109.7M worldwide
In between Batman outings, Nolan found time to fit in this fantasy drama about 19th century magicians. Featuring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as rivals on the magic scene in London, as well as David Bowie in a supporting role as Nikola Tesla, "The Prestige" could not overcome its hard-sell premise despite positive reviews. The film only grossed $53.1 million at the domestic box office in the fall of 2006, and international audiences were not much kinder. "The Prestige" has only grown in esteem over the years, though, being included in a few best-of-the-decade lists and becoming a favorite among Nolan fans for its use of misdirection and its twist ending.
5. The Dark Knight (2008)- $534.9M domestic/$1 billion worldwide
Luckily for Nolan, his next film would gross ten times as much as "The Prestige," and none of his major films have grossed less than $675 million worldwide since. "The Dark Knight" charted the largest domestic opening of all-time when it was released in July 2008, earning $158.4 million over its first three days. A confluence of factors -- ecstatic reviews, goodwill from the last film, and Heath Ledger's untimely death among them--contributed to the record debut for "The Dark Knight." The movie dominated for the rest of the summer, remaining #1 for four weeks and never dropping more than 55% (impressive for the superhero genre, whose films' performance is typically front-loaded).
When the film ended its run at $534.9 million domestically, it was the second highest-grossing film ever at the time, behind only "Titanic" ($600.8 million). Thanks to strong performances in international markets, the film just eked out a $1 billion worldwide gross. "The Dark Knight" and Nolan were notoriously snubbed at the Oscars -- many think that the expansion to ten Best Picture slots the following year was to include acclaimed blockbusters like Nolan's film - -but Heath Ledger was posthumously honored with the trophy for Best Supporting Actor for his total immersion into the role of the Joker.
6. Inception (2010)- $292.6M domestic/$825.5M worldwide
A $160 million gamble on an original sci-fi movie, "Inception" was a big gamble for Warner Bros. that paid off. It's doubtful that Nolan would have had the opportunity to make this heist-in-a-dream-within-a-dream film had he not just directed a billion-dollar hit for the studio. As risky as the film was, however, the involvement of megastar Leonardo DiCaprio proved irresistible to audiences, especially with Nolan (by now a household name) at the helm. "Inception" opened to $62.8 million when it was released in July 2010, and went on to gross nearly five times its opening weekend thanks to fervid word-of-mouth and a weak slate for the rest of the summer. Warner Bros. is surely hoping that this weekend's "Dunkirk" can emulate that success, given that it is one of the final major blockbusters of the summer.
7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)- $448.1M domestic/$1.08 billion worldwide
Although "The Dark Knight Rises" may not have lived up to its predecessor domestically, it actually flew past "The Dark Knight" worldwide thanks to strong grosses from international markets. The decline in the stateside performance was understandable given the tragedy that became associated with the film -- the 2012 shooting inside the Aurora movie theater happened at a midnight premiere for "The Dark Knight Rises," and the subsequent box office slump was especially tough on the gloomy and violent final installment in the "Dark Knight" trilogy. Considering the obstacles the film had to overcome, the $448.1 million domestic gross should be viewed as a success -- it's a threshold that no DC film has been able to pass since.
8. Interstellar (2014)- $188M domestic/$675.1M worldwide
Nolan turned to outer space for his Batman follow-up, and assembled an all-star cast to man the mission: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine (a Nolan regular) and Matt Damon are just a few of the big names in this ensemble space drama. The movie received positive reviews, but not on the same level as past efforts like "The Dark Knight" and "Inception" -- some criticized the sentimentality of the picture, but the effects were praised across the board.
"Interstellar" was Nolan's first movie since "The Prestige" to receive a fall release, and it played well through the Thanksgiving and Christmas corridors, ultimately grossing four times its $47.5 million opening weekend for a strong $188 million domestic total. As has increasingly become the case with Nolan's movies, the bulk of the box office revenue came from overseas markets, where the film grossed nearly $500 million for Warner Bros. (Viacom's (VIAB) - Get Report Paramount distributed domestically, which ended up being the short end of the stick). It's astounding that a $675 million result constitutes one of Nolan's more modest recent efforts, but the director, at this point, has become a brand unto himself.
All hail the blockbuster king.