“Dune” has the potential to become the biggest film of the year. But no matter how well it does or does not do in the box office, it is undoubtedly the greatest, magnificent piece of film in a long time. Big as in big. As in images and sounds that fill the screen and fill the senses. Big as in: The movie transports you to the desert planet Arrakis, and for 2 hours and 35 minutes you live there.
So why does this overwhelmingly epic, visually spectacular, unique sci-fi popcorn movie open on October 22 on a television near you?
We know the answer and there is a kind of little spreadsheet logic in it. “Dune” opens simultaneously in cinemas and on home screens because Warner Bros., the company Wikipedia now describes as “an American diversified multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate”, also owns HBO Max, the streaming service where “Dune” will be made available (without additional costs) for subscribers. Warner Bros. is owned by AT&T and is likely to merge with Discovery next year. The renewed company will have many coherent priorities. In the first year of the pandemic, which was the year of HBO Max’s seemingly game-changing launch, it became a transcendent corporate target for Warner Bros. to do everything it could to put its new streaming service into circulation. And since people could not go to the cinema most of last year, it was decided that each of the studio’s films from 2021 would be made available, the same day it was released in cinemas, on HBO Max – a strategy that now looks like just as it will be carried over to 2022.
Of course, the pandemic is still with us. But the year when people could not go to the cinema is over. Filming has returned in effect. And in a moment where many have begun to question the wisdom of opening a film at the same time in theaters and at home (day-and-date, as it is known), “Dune” now stands as the apotheosis in a problem that hovers over the entertainment industry and defines it. The question is: Do it really does it make sense to take one of the most feverishly awaited movie extravaganzas of the decade and give it away to people in their living rooms?
I think there are two basic potential scenarios for how the release of “Dune” could play out. One is that at the opening weekend, the film goes down and burns, giving only a small fraction of the $ 165 million it cost to produce (which, of course, does not include the huge sum it cost to market). The whole world pronounces it like a disappointment and a bomb. If that happens, the HBO Max release will be seen as a disaster – but I do not think that is a very likely scenario. There is simply too much expectation for “Dune” from three generations of sci-fi fans who are followers of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel (not to mention its daisy chain of sequels).
Far more likely is the following scenario: that “Dune” in the opening weekend does … okay. The highest grossing content of an opening weekend so far this year is the $ 94 million made by “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” over the long Labor Day weekend, followed by the $ 80 million made of “Black Widow” and the $ 70 million made of “F9: The Fast Saga.” (Sorry, but when did “The Fast Saga” become part of the film’s title? They really should lose that.) Of course, “Shang-Chi” opened exclusively in theaters. But let’s say “Dune” manages to match his receipts. In that case, a qualified victory is declared, and we are left wondering how much the film might have earned if it did not compete with itself on television. We will also wonder what it would have done at the opening weekend in pre-pandemic times. My guess is: somewhere between $ 175 and $ 250 million domestically. So if it earns $ 95 million in three weeks from now, how much of this deficiency will be pandemic related, and how much will be HBO Max related?
Warner Bros. will take all that speculation – the lack of certainty – and use it as cover for its decision. The study would essentially say: “We are fine with an opening of $ 95 million. Who in different circumstances can say how well the film would have performed? And of course, they want to double that by arguing about how much it helps the company’s bottom line to offer the film on HBO Max. A movie like “Dune” is a subscription magnet; that’s the whole point. And for entertainment conglomerates who emulate the model invented by Netflix, subscriptions have become the currency of the kingdom. Winning a large number of subscribers is the new “It opened hugely!”
Or so the reasoning goes. But it’s amazing how much common sense “sophisticated” business rationales can leave behind. It’s now too late for Warner Bros. reversing his day-and-date decision on “Dune” commitments has been made, logistics has been locked in — but here are a few reasons why I think it will turn out to be a mistake.
1. The film will be less profitable. If “Dune” opens with $ 95 million, it will be clear that the studio left a lot of money on the table. Especially if the gross falls sharply in the coming weeks. The film has already opened in international markets (exclusively in cinemas), where it is doing well, but let’s say it uses the domestic term as a yardstick, and it matches “Shang-Chi’s” total revenue, which closes in on $ 200 million . It sounds like a lot of money, but it’s “Dune” we are talking about. It’s being marketed when the new “Star Wars” meets “The Lord of the Rings”. It should be by far the biggest movie of the year.
Making “Dune” a day-and-date release radically reduces the event status of the movie radically. It does so in two ways. If “Dune” was only available in theaters, revenue would likely increase – but those numbers would also become a billboard, a way of saying, “Here’s the movie you should see.” More importantly, you feel like you have to go to the theater to see it because it belongs in a theater. The greatness of the film is primary. It has been a central aspect of cinema for 100 years, going back to silent films such as “Intolerance”, which extends into the widescreen sagas of the 50s and 60s (“Lawrence of Arabia”, “The Greatest Story Ever Told , “” 2001: A Space Odyssey “), into Lucas / Spielberg ’70s (” Star Wars “,” Close Encounters of the Third Kind “) and so on. At a time when even the” Star Wars “universe has successfully shrunk to TV size, I would argue that the gigantic quality of “Dune” is almost its main selling point.The film is something to look at, like “Lawrence of Arabia” with Mayan designs and insect helicopters. is something you do not see every day or every year.But the amazing singularity of “Dune” is compromised when you tell your audience: “Okay, greatness is not crucial. It’s nice to see it at home. ”
3. It’s going to play much less well on TV. When I was growing up, I once watched “2001: A Space Odyssey” on a 16-inch black-and-white television set, and it actually worked. It’s such a great movie it is. “Dune” is much less amazing. I would argue that it’s a reasonably commanding sci-fi parable that’s starting to run out of gas in the last hour. This is because Frank Herbert in the “Dune” books may have been a better world builder than he was a storyteller. (I would also say that this is true for JRR Tolkien, but we can discuss it another time.) The world of “The Dune”, like “Lawrence of Arabia” or the original “Blade Runner”, must overwhelm and envelop you. But if you watch it at home, the film’s narrative – is Paul Atreide’s Messiah? Watch House Atreides go down to defeat … and watch out for that sandworm! is going to be revealed as the rather vague affair it is. When you diminish the grandeur of “Dune”, you shrink its appeal.
4. The whole industry has an interest in the success of “Dune”. It used to be that if a major film turned out to be a commercial disappointment, the only people who suffered were those associated with it, including the leaders at that studio. (In the rest of the industry, there was schadenfreude.) But thanks to the karmic double-hammy of the streaming revolution and the pandemic, the whole world is suddenly asking if movies in cinemas have a future. I think they do, but it’s not a given. And part of that is that we have to see enthusiasm from cinema audiences, to be reminded of what a powerful force they are. Last summer, “Tenet” was supposed to be the movie that started filming; for various reasons (especially the stubbornness of the pandemic), it did not work so well. But movies of the last six months have really gotten underway, and that makes “Dune” the right movie at the right time. It is a film that can remind us of the primacy – and profitability – of the theater experience. You did not want every movie to be like “Dune”. But you want “Dune” to be “Dune”. If it turns into the commercially compromised, haunting version of itself, it becomes a giant blown option. And everyone suffers.
Of course, there is another possibility in all this. “Dune” opens on October 22, people watch it on HBO Max, and that still becomes a massive theatrical hit. It breaks the bank. It would be a happy ending, one that can help rewrite the rules of what is to come. But I’m not holding my breath.
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