After “Dune,” the upcoming cinematic retelling of Frank Herbert’s landmark 1965 sci-fi novel, had its world premiere at Venice Film Festival, critics — even those who weren’t particularly enthused about the movie — made a point of saying the striking visuals demanded to be seen on the big screen.
The reason that so many chose to emphasize the benefit of watching the movie in theaters is because “Dune,” like every 2021 Warner Bros. release, is premiering simultaneously on HBO Max. The positive reception toward “Dune” and its grandiose special effects sparked rumblings that Warner Bros., the studio behind the $165 million-budgeted space epic, would reverse its decision to put the film concurrently on streaming, a strategy that has proven to curb, even vivisect, box office ticket sales.
Of all the new titles from Warner Bros. this year, “Dune,” a film with an enormous budget that has been hailed for offering up a truly epic slice of world-building and big-screen spectacle, would have been a prime candidate to eschew the day-and-date model on HBO Max. When it was announced last year, director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”) was among those most vocally opposed to the film’s hybrid release and the decision to move movies to streaming. In a column for Variety, he blasted the studio’s “complete disregard” for its filmmakers and criticized its choice to “promote their streaming service” and forgo box office dollars in return.
“Warner Bros.’ decision means ‘Dune’ won’t have the chance to perform financially in order to be viable and piracy will ultimately triumph,” Villeneuve wrote in the days following the studio’s announcement. “Warner Bros. might just have killed the ‘Dune’ franchise.”
Insiders at Warner Bros. say there’s no chance “Dune,” starring Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya and Oscar Isaac, will have any sort of exclusive theatrical window in the U.S. when it debuts on Oct. 22. For one thing, amendments to contracts regarding its altered distribution plan have long been ironed out, which means that the studio won’t face the kind of legal challenge Disney did when Scarlett Johansson sued it for releasing “Black Widow” concurrently on Disney Plus. Some international markets, including Asia, will have the opportunity to play “Dune” and several other Warner Bros. titles for an exclusive period because the HBO Max day-and-date deal only affects the U.S.
Sources close to the production say that following the public outcry, Legendary Entertainment, the production company that financed the majority of “Dune,” was given the option to wait to premiere the film, which would have pushed it out of the HBO Max window and ensured a theatrical-only release. Executives at Warner Bros. have since maintained Project Popcorn, the nickname given to its controversial HBO Max deal, was a “unique one-year plan” and wouldn’t continue into 2022. In recent months, the studio has hammered out formal agreements with major cinema chains, including AMC, to keep its movies only in theaters for 45 days.
Since “Dune” had already been postponed three times, Villeneuve and other key stakeholders were opposed to pushing it again even though Legendary, months earlier, had considered taking legal action against Warner Bros. because it was left out of the decision to send the film to HBO Max. Legendary and Villeneuve declined to comment.
As a sign of the down-to-the-wire negotiation, the decision for “Dune” to forge ahead wasn’t finalized until the middle of August, shortly before the film’s debut at Venice. Other movies impacted by the HBO Max release date model had completed contracts months prior.
For Warner Bros., the arrangement to put its slate of films — a group that includes the musical adaptation of “In the Heights,” “Space Jam: A New Legacy” and the R-rated comic book adaptation “The Suicide Squad” — on HBO Max has been a massive financial undertaking because nearly every release has fallen short of already-tempered COVID-era box office expectations. Plus, the studio, in an attempt to keep talent happy, agreed to pay its A-list actors and filmmakers the bonuses they would have received had their movies been massive theatrical hits. That means everyone from Hugh Jackman to Denzel Washington was granted tens of millions in financial rewards despite titles like “Reminiscence” and “The Little Things” generating significantly less than the studio had expected when it greenlit the movies year prior to the pandemic.
Had “Dune” been bumped to next year, the filmmakers behind the sci-fi opera would not have been guaranteed backend payouts. By keeping the film on HBO Max, “Dune” will almost certainly make less money than it would have generated with an exclusive theatrical window, but it will ensure its filmmakers and talent are compensated handsomely regardless.
In the case of “Dune,” it’s the type of project that has been challenged at the box office as moviegoers have favored easy-to-digest action movies rather than narratively complex sagas. “Dune,” in particular, has been famously difficult to adapt; the 1984 David Lynch feature flopped in spectacular fashion because, among many reasons, it was hard to follow. The critical response to Villeneuve’s take on the story about warring political dynasties that clash over access to a vital planet, has, for the most part, been positive with an 85% average on Rotten Tomatoes.
Villeneuve knows the difficulty in getting audiences hyped for a film that doesn’t involve comic book heroes or radioactive beasts. His latest film was “Blade Runner 2049,” a sequel to the 1982 cult classic. The movie was widely praised, but was also a commercial disappointment, generating $92 million in North America and $260 million worldwide against a production budget over $150 million. All that is to say even without an industry-altering pandemic, “Dune” may have never hit the necessary milestones to trigger the generous backend deals that are tied to ambitious box office benchmarks. In non-COVID times, studios typically only pay out backends on three or four films a year. Most movies lose money during their theatrical run.
While stressing the importance of safety amid COVID-19 and the rapidly spreading delta variant, Villeneuve has made it clear he prefers moviegoers to watch “Dune” in theaters. “My team and I devoted more than three years of our lives to make it a unique big screen experience,” he wrote last December. “Our movie’s image and sound were meticulously designed to be seen in theaters.”
At the Venice Film Festival, he elaborated on the benefit of viewing “Dune” at the cinema rather than from the couch. “When you watch this movie on the big screen, it is a physical experience,” he said. “We tried to design it to be as immersive as possible.”
“Dune,” which runs at two hours and 35 minutes, is the first entry in an expected two-part saga. Already, a spinoff TV series titled “Dune: The Sisterhood” has been set in motion at HBO Max, but a sequel to the movie has not officially been greenlit. It stands to reason that the performance of “Dune: Part I” will help determine the financial viability of moving forward with another big-screen installment. However, it’s unclear what Warner Bros. and Legendary will deem a success in plague times. Studio executives have said streaming metrics on HBO Max have been in line with ticket sales; when a Warner Bros. movie hits big at the box office, it has also seen a sizable audience on HBO Max. But when a film has fallen flat in theaters, it has gone similarly unwatched on streaming. That means it’ll be trickier than ever to conclude if film producers should sink another $165 million into the interplanetary tale set in the desert land of Arrakis.
However, insiders say the HBO Max deal gives Villeneuve assurances that diminished box office revenues won’t prohibit him from having the chance to make his follow-up feature. Other films that had a hybrid release still have talks of sequels, with Warner Bros. looking to develop other installments in its “Mortal Kombat” universe.
“I hope we can do a second one,” Chalamet, who plays the lead character Paul Atreides, told reporters at Venice Film Festival. “That would be a dream.”