What Is 'Inception' Director Christopher Nolan's Box-Office Secret?

One film analyst points to Nolan's knack for combining a cinephile's intelligence with a 'blockbuster mentality.'

For the last five years, Christopher Nolan has been arguably the most successful director in Hollywood. When it comes to domestic box-office mega-business, Nolan's movies have out-sold Michael Bay and his "Transformers" flicks, Gore Verbinski's final two "Pirates of the Caribbean" films and even James Cameron's "Avatar."

Beginning with "Batman Begins" in 2005, a Nolan film has not once missed hitting the #1 spot during opening weekend. "The Dark Knight" was the top grosser of 2008 and now, [article id="1644865"]"Inception"[/article] -- based on an original idea rather than an existing property -- has just notched its third-straight weekend at the top of the box office. Even his least lucrative project, "The Prestige," which still managed to gross more than $100 million worldwide, is a critically respected film.

So how does he do it? What's the secret ingredient to his special sauce, both creatively and at the box office?

"As a traditional movie fan and someone who is steeped in film history, Nolan brings with him a richness that cinephiles appreciate," explained Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "Yet he also has a blockbuster mentality, a key element that has transformed him, in a very short period of time, into the preeminent director of the present time."

While no one doubts Cameron's ability to mix cinematic richness with popcorn-flick verve ("Avatar" did a mind-boggling $2.7 billion at the worldwide box office), he works on a much slower creative timeline, with more than a decade passing between "Titanic" and his blue alien epic. Nolan has simply worked at a much faster clip -- and has the ticket sales to back up that creative approach.

Tim Burton, meanwhile, has found his greatest successes with adaptations of existing material, from "Alice in Wonderland" to "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." That's also the case with Bay and Verbinski. With the wholly original "Inception," Nolan has effectively transformed himself into a brand and proven that audiences will turn out for his films -- original or adapted -- in much the same way they will show up for big-ticket franchises.

Of course, none of that matters if the movie stinks. But "Inception" rocks. It's a [article id="1643849"]nearly critic-proof[/article] flick that has inspired repeat viewing (note the film's impressively small weekend drops at the box office). It's a film that has all the whiz-bang theatrics of a blockbuster with [article id="1643895"]a cerebral core[/article] that invites debate.

"Nolan, with each successive multilayered effort, is looking more and more like a cinematic wunderkind -- capable of having a storybook career in Hollywood and joining the elite ranks of a Steven Spielberg, a James Cameron or a Martin Scorsese," Bock said.

In the past, we've seen other directors threaten to join that vaunted club. A few years before Nolan came on the scene, M. Night Shyamalan made a staggering debut with "The Sixth Sense" and then delivered "Unbreakable" and "Signs," three films that combined to gross $615 million domestically.

Yet, a handful of misfires later, Shyamalan finds himself facing a critical and fan backlash. His latest, [article id="1642995"]"The Last Airbender,"[/article] was eviscerated online and performed disappointingly at the multiplex. Could Nolan someday find himself in this position, accused of being a one-trick pony who just likes to mess with your head?

As high as Nolan's cool factor has risen recently, it's important to exercise some caution before thrusting him into Spielberg territory. After all, Roland Emmerich's films have done $1.6 billion worldwide since 2004, and no one is calling "2012" the next "E.T."

"Let's see Nolan make a second original to gross over $150 million worldwide before we deify him," said David Poland of Movie City News. "What comes of this premature deification is the tear-down when his film after the next 'Batman' doesn't do massive business or just isn't what his rabid fans expect. Not pretty when it happens, and no one of this talent level deserves it."

Is a Nolan backlash in the works? Not anytime on the horizon: He's simply exercised too much creativity, been frothed over by too many rabid fanboys and shown that he deserves all the adulation. Will the cool factor hold until the summer of 2012, when the next "Batman" hits theaters? All we can say for sure is that Nolan is guaranteed to receive tons of public attention and that the movie will sell crazy numbers. That and, oh, yeah, he's never made a bad movie.

"Expect nothing less than another dazzling show," Bock predicted. "While the film will never measure up to the Heath Ledger factor -- in terms of box-office gross or mass pop-culture hysteria -- it will most certainly be an entertaining and intelligent ride."

Do you think Christopher Nolan should be considered among the great directors like Steven Spielberg? Tell us what you think in the comments!

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