‘Dune’ Is Opening in Movie Theaters… and Your Living Room. Here’s Why That’s a Mistake (Column)

3. — is going to stand revealed as the rather patchy affair it is. That’s because Frank Herbert, in the "Dune" books, may have been a better world-builder than he was a storyteller. Tolkien too, but we can debate that another time.) The world of "Dune," like the world of "Lawrence of Arabia" or the original "Blade Runner," needs to overwhelm and envelop you. Growing up, I once watched "2001: A Space Odyssey" on a 16-inch black-and-white TV set, and it actually worked. It’s going to play a lot less well on television. That’s how great a movie it is. I would argue that it’s a reasonably commanding sci-fi parable that begins to run out of gas in its last hour. (I would say that’s true of J.R.R. But if you watch it at home, the film’s narrative — is Paul Atreides the Messiah? Watch the House Atreides go down to defeat… and look out for that sandworm! "Dune" is a lot less great. When you shrink the grandeur of "Dune," you shrink its appeal.
The movie has already opened in international markets (exclusively in theaters), where it is doing well, but using its domestic take as a yardstick, let’s say it winds up matching "Shang-Chi’s" total receipts, which are closing in on $200 million. Especially if the grosses seriously decline in the weeks ahead. 1. If "Dune" opens with $95 million, it will be clear that the studio left a lot of money on the table. The film will be less profitable. It's being marketed as the new "Star Wars" meets "Lord of the Rings." It should be, far and away, the biggest movie of the year. That sounds like a lot of money, but this is "Dune" we’re talking about.
In the first year of the pandemic, which was the year of HBO Max’s ostensibly game-changing launch, it became a transcendent corporate goal for Warner Bros. And since people, for most of last year, couldn’t go to the movies, it was decided that each of the studio’s 2021 films would be made available, the same day it’s released in theaters, on HBO Max. We know the answer, and there’s a kind of petty spreadsheet logic to it. Warner Bros. to do all it could to put its new streaming service into orbit. "Dune" is opening simultaneously in movie theaters and on home screens because Warner Bros., the company that 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 (for no extra cost) to subscribers. is owned by AT&T and will be merging, probably next year, with Discovery. The revamped company will have many interlocking priorities.
So why would this overwhelmingly epic, visually spectacular, one-of-a-kind sci-fi popcorn movie be opening Oct. 22 on a television set near you?
But the year when people couldn’t go to the movies is over. And at a moment when many have begun to question the wisdom of opening a film simultaneously in theaters and at home (day-and-date, as it’s known), "Dune" now stands as the apotheosis of an issue hovering over the entertainment industry and defining it. The question is: Does it really make sense to take one of the most feverishly anticipated movie extravaganzas of the decade and give it away to folks in their living rooms? Moviegoing has returned in force. The pandemic is still with us, of course.
22, people watch it on HBO Max, and it still goes on to be a massive theatrical hit. That would be a happy ending, one that might help rewrite the rules of what’s coming. It breaks the bank. Of course, there’s another possibility in all this. "Dune" opens on Oct. But I’m not holding my breath.” />
But it’s amazing how much common sense "sophisticated" business rationales can leave behind. It’s now too late for Warner Bros. Or so goes the reasoning. to reverse its day-and-date decision about "Dune" — commitments have been made, logistics have been locked in — but here are a few reasons why I think it will prove to be a mistake.
There’s simply too much anticipation for "Dune" on the part of three generations of sci-fi fans who are devotees of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel (not to mention its daisy chain of sequels). One is that on opening weekend, the film crashes and burns, making back just a small fraction of the $165 million it cost to produce (which, of course, doesn’t include the huge sum it cost to market). The whole world pronounces it a disappointment and a bomb. I think there are two basic potential scenarios for how the release of "Dune" could play out. If that happens, the HBO Max release will be seen to have been a disaster — but I don’t think that’s a very likely scenario.
It’s been a key aspect of cinema for 100 years, going back to silent films like "Intolerance," stretching into the widescreen sagas of the '50s and '60s ("Lawrence of Arabia," "The Greatest Story Ever Told," "2001: A Space Odyssey"), into the Lucas/ Spielberg '70s ("Star Wars," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") and beyond. It’s fine to watch it at home." In an age when even the "Star Wars" universe has been successfully shrunk down to TV size, I would argue that the gargantuan quality of "Dune" is almost its key selling point. Making "Dune" a day-and-date release radically cuts down on the film’s event status. 2. It does so in two ways. But the awesome singularity of "Dune" is compromised when you tell your audience, "Okay, the bigness isn’t essential. It’s something you don’t see every day, or every year. The bigness of movies is primal. If "Dune" were available in theaters only, the revenues would probably spike — but those numbers would also become a billboard, a way of saying, "Here’s the movie you have to see." More important is that you’d feel you have to go to the theater to see it because it belongs in a theater. The film is something to gawk at, like "Lawrence of Arabia" with Mayan design and insect helicopters.
If so, a qualified victory will be declared, and we’ll be left speculating about how much the movie might have made if it weren’t competing with itself on TV. My guess is: somewhere between $175 and $250 million domestic. They should really lose that.) Of course, "Shang-Chi" opened exclusively in theaters. We’ll also speculate about what it would have made on opening weekend in pre-pandemic times. Far likelier is the following scenario: that on opening weekend, "Dune" does… okay. So if it makes $95 million three weeks from now, how much of that shortfall will be pandemic-related and how much will be HBO Max-related? But let’s say that "Dune" manages to match its receipts. The highest opening-weekend gross earned by a movie 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 by "Black Widow" and the $70 million made by "F9: The Fast Saga." (Sorry, but when did "The Fast Saga" becomes part of that movie’s title?
And for entertainment conglomerates, imitating the model invented by Netflix, subscriptions have become the coin of the realm. The studio would say, in essence, "We’re fine with a $95 million opening. Winning massive numbers of subscribers is the new "It opened huge!" Under different circumstances, who can say how well the movie would have performed?" And, of course, they’ll double down on making the argument for how much it helps the company’s bottom line to offer the film on HBO Max. will take all that speculation — the lack of certainty — and use it as cover for its decision. A movie like "Dune" is a subscription magnet; that’s the whole point. Warner Bros.
The entire industry has a vested interest in the success of "Dune." It used to be that if a major movie turned out to be a commercial disappointment, the only people who suffered were those connected to it, including the executives at that studio. Last summer, "Tenet" was supposed to be the movie that jump-started moviegoing; for various reasons (notably the stubbornness of the pandemic), that didn’t work out so well. I think they do, but it’s not foregone. But movies in the last six months have indeed been jump-started, and that makes "Dune" the right movie at the right time. It’s a film that could remind us of the primacy — and profitability — of the theater experience. You wouldn’t want every movie to be like "Dune." But you want "Dune" to be "Dune." If it turns into the commercially compromised, lagging version of itself, that becomes a gigantic blown opportunity. And part of it is that we need to see the enthusiasm of movie-theater audiences, to be reminded of what a potent force they are. 4. (In the rest of the industry, there was schadenfreude.) But thanks to the karmic double whammy of the streaming revolution and the pandemic, the whole world is suddenly asking if movies in theaters have a future. And everyone suffers.
"Dune" has the potential to be the biggest movie of the year. But however well it does or does not do at the box office, it’s undeniably the biggest, grandest slice of movie in a long time. As in images and sounds that fill the screen and fill the senses. Big as in: The movie transports you to the desert planet of Arrakis, and for 2 hours and 35 minutes you live there. Big as in vast.

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