The plot is difficult to explain in a 30-second TV spot (something about dreams within dreams). The star has a choppy box-office track record (most do these days). The director is not a household name (yet).
When Warner Bros. on Friday opens "Inception," a complex action thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio as an agent who invades people's dreams, the studio will give filmgoers something that they say they want but rarely support: a movie that is not a sequel, adapted from a comic book or inspired by a toy.
For Warner Bros. and financing partner Legendary Pictures, the $160-million "Inception" represents a gamble at a time when Hollywood shuns making big summer movies based on novel ideas. But those involved believe the film will succeed and its director, Christopher Nolan, is on the cusp of becoming as familiar to audiences as Steven Spielberg, James Cameron or Peter Jackson.
"Christopher Nolan as a brand is very powerful," said Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing for Warner Bros. "You can only say that about a handful of directors."
Coming midway through a year when theater attendance is down and several big-budget pictures have performed poorly, the fate of "Inception" will demonstrate just how effective marketing a movie off the success of a director's previous blockbuster can be.
Although Nolan is widely admired among young filmgoers and fanboys for his two Batman movies, including the 2008 blockbuster "The Dark Knight," he has yet to cross over as a director who can sell a movie to the general public based on his name alone.
Warner Bros. intends "Inception" to change that.
The studio's $100-million-plus marketing campaign puts the director front and center. Although DiCaprio has the $1.8 billion-grossing "Titanic" on his resume, nearly every television ad for "Inception" announces that the film is "from the director of 'The Dark Knight' " before mentioning the actor, if at all. Posters, print and online ads do the same, emphasizing "The Dark Knight" in typeface that is as large, or larger, than DiCaprio's name.
Between fans who are familiar with Nolan and those who remember only the unique style of "The Dark Knight," studio executives believe "Inception" has what it takes to compete against more recognizable names in theaters this summer, including Disney's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" that opens against it, or Angelina Jolie in "Salt" that debuts a week later.
"It gives you some comfort to have a built-in audience with a franchise that's recognizable, so if you're going to make a bold choice you better do so with a great filmmaker," Legendary Pictures Chairman Thomas Tull said.
After "The Dark Knight," Warner attempted to interest Nolan in books the studio had optioned, while the director was also considering a big-screen version of the 1960s TV series "The Prisoner" for Universal Pictures.
But in early 2009, Nolan presented a complete version of his script for "Inception," and Warner made a deal to buy it over a weekend. Those involved admit it's not the typical "high-concept" movie that studios pounce on quickly.
"It raised lots of questions about the world, but we have made significant jumps with Chris in the past," said Warner Bros. Pictures Group President Jeff Robinov, pointing to the studio's decision to let him direct "Batman Begins," which took the superhero in an entirely new direction, based on a pitch.
Importantly, "Inception" also keeps Warner Bros. associated with Nolan, who will next year make a third "Batman" film for the studio and is also producing a new "Superman."
When studios invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a summer event movie, they typically get heavily involved in development and production, hiring one writer after another and giving frequent notes on the scripts. But Nolan was left alone as he shot "Inception" in Morocco, Tokyo, Paris, London and Los Angeles.
"We're generally very hands-on, but with Chris, we just sit back and let him do his thing," Tull said.
Adding to the risk, there's no video game or other tie-ins that could help Warner and Legendary generate revenue from "Inception" beyond sales of tickets and DVDs. Robinov said the film has sequel potential, even though the ending doesn't easily suggest one.
Early reviews for "Inception" have been rapturous, and prerelease surveys indicate that there's strong interest, particularly among men.
Nonetheless, original movies rarely enjoy the kind of $100-million-plus openings that spell guaranteed blockbuster.
"It's not tracking like the big tentpoles do, but that's because it's not a known property," said Kevin Goetz, chief executive of movie research company Screen Engine. "Audience awareness is a much slower build, and that panics some people."
"Inception" appears to be headed for an opening of $40 million to $50 million in the U.S. and Canada, a good but not sensational number given its cost. Overseas, where "The Dark Knight" generated about half its box office, "Inception" rolls out in major markets over the next three weeks.
Warner executives most often compare "Inception" to "The Matrix," a complex sci-fi thriller that opened to only $28 million but stayed in theaters for more than two months, riding word-of-mouth and buzz among hard-core fans who saw it several times to gross $171 million domestically.
"Sustaining the movie by having a presence on television and online after the opening is going to be important," Kroll said. "We don't have the brand equity that usually drives a big summer opening, but we have a great cast and a fresh idea from a filmmaker with a track record of making incredible movies. If you can't make those elements work, it's a sad day."