“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. Big as in vast. 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.
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?
We know the answer, and there’s a kind of petty spreadsheet logic to it. “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. Warner Bros. is owned by AT&T and will be merging, probably next year, with Discovery. The revamped company will have many interlocking priorities. 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. to do all it could to put its new streaming service into orbit. 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 — a strategy that now looks like it will be carried over to 2022.
The pandemic is still with us, of course. But the year when people couldn’t go to the movies is over. Moviegoing has returned, in force. 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?
I think there are two basic potential scenarios for how the release of “Dune” could play out. 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. 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. 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).
Far likelier is the following scenario: that on opening weekend, “Dune” does… okay. 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? They should really lose that.) Of course, “Shang-Chi” opened exclusively in theaters. But let’s say that “Dune” manages to match its receipts. 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. We’ll also speculate about what it would have made on opening weekend in pre-pandemic times. My guess is: somewhere between $175 and $250 million domestic. 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?
Warner Bros. will take all that speculation — the lack of certainty — and use it as cover for its decision. The studio would say, in essence, “We’re fine with a $95 million opening. 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. A movie like “Dune” is a subscription magnet; that’s the whole point. And for entertainment conglomerates, imitating the model invented by Netflix, subscriptions have become the coin of the realm. Winning massive numbers of subscribers is the new “It opened huge!”
Or so goes the reasoning. But it’s amazing how much common sense “sophisticated” business rationales can leave behind. It’s now too late for Warner Bros. 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.
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 grosses seriously decline in the weeks ahead. 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. That sounds like a lot of money, but this is “Dune” we’re talking about. 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.
2. Making “Dune” a day-and-date release radically cuts down on the film’s event status. It does so in two ways. 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 bigness of movies is primal. 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. 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. The film is something to gawk at, like “Lawrence of Arabia” with Mayan design and insect helicopters. It’s something you don’t see every day, or every year. But the awesome singularity of “Dune” is compromised when you tell your audience, “Okay, the bigness isn’t essential. It’s fine to watch it at home.”
3. It’s going to play a lot less well on television. Growing up, I once watched “2001: A Space Odyssey” on a 16-inch black-and-white TV set, and it actually worked. That’s how great a movie it is. “Dune” is a lot less great. I would argue that it’s a reasonably commanding sci-fi parable that begins to run out of gas in its last hour. That’s because Frank Herbert, in the “Dune” books, may have been a better world-builder than he was a storyteller. (I would say that’s true of J.R.R. 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. 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! — is going to stand revealed as the rather patchy affair it is. When you shrink the grandeur of “Dune,” you shrink its appeal.
4. 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. (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. I think they do, but it’s not foregone. 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. 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. 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 everyone suffers.
Of course, there’s another possibility in all this. “Dune” opens on Oct. 22, people watch it on HBO Max, and it still goes on to be a massive theatrical hit. It breaks the bank. That would be a happy ending, one that might help rewrite the rules of what’s coming. But I’m not holding my breath.