2021s Dune — Rumoured Theatrical-Only Release
Deadline recently released an article in regards to the production of the upcoming Warner Bros film “The Little Things”, starring Denzel Washington. In the midst of the report, there was a brief reference in regards to the distribution of Dune. It was as follows:
Legendary is in a big fight that might result in lawsuits after it financed 75% of tent poles Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong and was completely blindsided. Rumors have the solution to that breach being to preserve Dune as a traditional theatrical to preserve its franchise potential and since its October 1 release date falls well after the estimated late spring date when Covid vaccines should achieve herd immunity. Godzilla vs. Kong might stay an HBO Max hybrid in its May 21 slot, but only if Warner Bros makes a deal with Legendary that uses as a base the $250 million value established when the film was shopped earlier to Netflix. — Mike Fleming Jr
This statement implies that there is a possibility that Dune might end up getting a theatrical-only release. As of the writing of this article, I still believe that the HBO Max release is still likely due to the fact that this was just a brief rumour mentioned in a passing.
But, what if this actually came into fruition? After all, the official HBO Max 2021 Release Slate has been removed from the official YouTube page, even though it’s still present on the official Warner Bros Tweet and non-official YouTube pages. This editorial will outline why a theatrical-only distribution might be detrimental to the performance of Dune and why HBO Max is actually healthy for the movie in the long-term.
COVID — Previous Predictions
The pandemic is expected to last longer than most people anticipate. Throughout this year, various professionals predicted that the viral outbreak would have ended at some point this year. Earlier predictions believed it would end by April, then May, June, August, September, Christmas etc. Every time the forecasted end-date of the pandemic arrived, a new end-date is predicted. This is similar to studios constantly delaying the movies to a more ‘healthier date’, before delaying it to some other time after it was clear the pandemic was not going away anytime soon.
Expected To Surpass 2021
This led some people to speculate that the pandemic will last beyond 2021 and this will not be all-that surprising. Even though vaccinations are slowly being handled out, experts believe that the effects of the vaccinations will not be felt until way after the mass application. Some people predict that the effects won’t be present until summer 2021. However, just like the previous predictions, don’t be surprised if the effects of the pandemic lasts beyond this year. And this is not even taking into consideration the mutated form of the virus which was recently unleashed in London, England, U.K which has a much higher transmission rate. Moreover, some people are against the vaccination as a whole, which means it would take forever to gain herd immunity, if ever.
Dune, as of the writing of the article, is expected to premier on the 1st October 2021. Judging by the expected persistence of the virus, cinemas are still likely to be closed by the time Dune actually comes out. This means they are back at square one. If Legendary insists on releasing Dune theatrically only, there will only be a limited audience who would be capable of seeing Dune in the first place and so it will significantly decrease the viability of the movie. Also, there is a possibly that AMC might become bankrupt at some point during January 2021, which will further limit theatre capacities.
There is a real possibility that AMC will no longer be around by the end of 2021. Of course, I do pray and wish that the employees of AMC and their families are well looked after. I still wish AMC to have a success, despite everything going after them. And this is coming from a person who usually streams content. I sincerely hope it all goes well.
If Legendary opts Dune for a theatrical-only release, chances are that October 2021 might not be a healthy release date either. If Legendary is still insistent for a theatrical-only debut, this means they will be forced to delay the movie to next year. Or maybe even the year after. This will effectively destroy the hype of the movie and dismantle the potential movie franchise even before the premiering. Even now, the Dune hype is currently in a stasis after receiving more popularity than Robert Pattison’s Batman and Wonder Woman 1984.
For every delay, there will be additional marketing costs incurred. A big-budget movie will typical have a larger marketing campaign. This means that for every delay Legendary decides to approve, there are additional marketing costs added as part of the expense for the movie. Also, studios typically borrow money from investors to finance their film. The more you delay, the bigger the interest payments. Some upcoming movies, such as James Bond’s No Time To Die, incurs $1,000,000 every month in interest payments. This means that Dune will have to earn even more revenue just to break-even, something which is unlikely in foreseeable future.
Even if the world was healthy and the COVID pandemic never happened, there is still doubt towards the success of Dune. This property has always been a gamble. This is not a typical family-friendly popcorn-eating type of movie, despite the PG-13 rating. It’s not a movie which drives the mainstream audience, so there was never a guarantee it would actually be viable in the first place. Some people compared it with the Lord of the Rings franchise, which was also in a similar position to Dune and the gamble eventually paid off, creating a successful movie franchise. But, here is the catch: The Lord of the Rings had sold 100 million copies worldwide before the movies, whereas Dune has only around 20 million copies sold worldwide. Dune is indeed one of the best selling science-fiction novels of all time and has recently made a resurgence, but this number pales in comparison to the former Tolkien book.
There was definitely a potential for Dune, but it was always a high-risk high-reward scenario. This type of science-fiction is not something which is typically accepted by the mainstream audience. This means that Dune will need all the help they can get. And then, enters HBO Max.
HBO Max Popularity
Despite the angry reactions of certain filmmakers, HBO Max is actually a blessing for the film industry, though not so much for the theatrical chains. As we have discussed above, Dune will have a lot of obstacles if Legendary still attempts to switch over to a theatrical-only mode. HBO Max is actually the perfect solution for this: HBO Max is expected to gain a significant amount of subscribers over the course of 2021 thanks to the high caliber of Warner Bros films. This essentially means that more people will actually watch Dune. People who had never had an interest in Dune might actually end up watching it out of curiosity and hence increase the popularity of the franchise, significantly increasing the chances of a sequel.
Woman Woman 1984 will be the first major movie as part of this Warner Bro strategy. A recent Deadline article stated that the DC superhero movie significantly underperformed at the overseas theatres. This had nothing to do with the HBO Max strategy at all. It was simply due to the current nature of the world and a lack of action in the movie for which is why the movie did not perform as it should have. There will be a similar expectations with the domestic outcome:
Don’t expect much is pretty much the domestic box office outlook, and that really has nothing to do with the HBO Max plan or the quality of the Patty Jenkins directed movie which delivers equally, if not greatly more, upon its 2017 first installment — Anthony D’Alessandro
Thanks to HBO Max, people will actually be able to watch the film. Something which would have not been possible with a theatre-only release.
This begs the question, how would we know if Dune is actually a success on the streaming service? There are two key ways:
- New Subscribers — If there is large surge of new subscribers at the premier of Dune, this means there will be a significant level of revenue gained combined with the increased potential of people who will decide to stick around with HBO Max in the long-term.
- Sustained Subscribers — If Warner Bros believes that Dune is sustaining a significant number of subscribers, this means there is a big demand for the film with an ever-building popularity of the franchise.
Either way, this means that there will be a significant source of revenue for Warner Bros in the long-term. The strategy should be seen from a collective point of view: If the 2021 Warner Bros strategy as a whole generates around 20 million subscribers or so by the end of the year, they will consider this strategy as a success and will want to continue this strategy. In the short-term, there will be loss from the lack of a theatrical-window, but they would have easily managed to make up for their loss if this hybrid strategy proves to be a success. Warner Bros is aware of this and therefore would have adjusted their expectations accordingly.
Furthermore, whenever a movie airs theatrically, it’s not always certain if the movie would become a box office hit or a flop, outside of established franchises. Every time a studio makes a big movie, they are aware of the possibility it might not do well. In other words, the revenue and profits for the movies are in doubt. Even if the movie does well theatrically, the studio typically divides half of its revenue with the exhibitors and so the studios may only earn around 50% of the total revenue. A streaming service, on the other hand, guarantees a steady-level of income with a possibility of increased revenue if certain movies turn out to be hits. And the studio will also keep all of the money they earn. Even if a movie did not turn out to be as good, the money will still keep flowing in. This streaming strategy is far more viable than the theatrical release.
For comparison sake, let’s take a look at 2019. That was a great year for the box office, where there were 9 films which crossed the billion-dollar mark. 7 of those films were owned by Disney. Disney as a whole made around $15 billion as a result of their cinematic success. Netflix, on the other hand, gained around $20 billion in the same year. In 2020, cinemas were practically dead and the streaming services were on the rise.
Streaming is always adaptable, regardless of the state of the world.
Desire For More
What does all of this mean in terms of the Dune franchise? If everything goes according to plan, this means that Warner Bros will indeed want to make more Dune films to sustain the streaming service. This would lead to eventual adaptation of the rest of the Frank Herbert novels as well as the expanded books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. The expanded books are quite cinematic in nature, especially the “Legends of Dune” trilogy, so there is a lot of money-making potential. If Disney managed to create a network of movies and TV shows based in the universes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars for their streaming service, then Warner Bros can do the same with the Duniverse via HBO Max.
Lack of Censorship
This also means that Dune will not have to be restricted to a lower age-rating to broaden the potential audience for a cinematic release. On PVOD or a typical streaming service, people can decide how they watch the film and which type of content they want to watch. Mature-rated shows, i.e. Game of Thrones, are now worldwide phenomena and they have generated a huge amount of money for HBO. If Dune was orientated towards HBO Max to begin with, nothing would be censored and the length of the film can possibly run longer if required. The script itself felt quite adult and I believe this should have been reflected with an R-rating. I don’t believe it’s current PG-13 rating would really help the film theatrically anyway, as it was not designed for a teenage audience in the first place. Stephen King’s IT adaptation was in a similar position: The well-known book was divided over two movies. Only this time, they were both R-rated and it collectively generated over a billion dollars in the cinema and was successful. I was hoping Dune would follow a similar suite, especially after an R-rated Joker film made more money than the PG-13 Star Wars: Episode 9 movie. Also, last year marked the release of the Martin Scorsese film The Irishman. This was a $175,000,00 budget movie with a lengthy runtime surpassing 3 hours and it had an R-rating. And this was considered a success. The only reason this was possible was because of Netflix:
We needed to make an expensive picture. The movie business is changing hour by hour — not necessarily for the better — and many of the places we would have gone to for funding in the past were no longer viable. Then we started talking to Netflix. We agreed on everything, most importantly that we all wanted to make the same movie. So we went forward. — Martin Scorsese
In terms of budget and scope, it was much more appetizing to Netflix than to a traditional studio — Emma Tillinger Koskoff
The producer, Emma, believes that the movie would have been a bit of a bore for a theatrical audience and so a streaming service was the best place to debut the critically-acclaimed movie. Dune is also expected to have a similar structure, since the books are filled with elements of messianism, ecology, philosophy, culture, society, religion and more. It’s a not a typical action-packed extravaganza. It’s not something which drives in huge crowds, especially not the younger audience. For this reason, Dune should have a simultaneous HBO Max premier.
By contrast, Dune has a net budget of $165,000,000. This was $10 million less than The Irishman. If the latter movie proved to be a success via this strategy, then so can Dune. Some people who don’t believe Dune should be R-rated refer to the poor domestic box office performance of 2017s Blade Runner 2049. The age-rating had NOTHING to do with the domestic performance. There were three key reasons for the flop:
- Marketing — This was the primary reason. Warner Bros botched the marketing campaign and this eventually led to a lack of interest in the movie.
- Cult Classic — Blade Runner was always considered a cult classic. The original movie did not do well at the box office either, but it gained a following overtime. The amount of people who were interested in a sequel was severely overestimated.
- Pacing — To lesser extent, some people found the movie too slow or boring. It’s a not a typical fast-paced experience, so a lot of the mainstream audience did not approve of the film. Dune is expected to have a similar structure.
The movie itself was a masterpiece. As of the writing of this article, Blade Runner 2049 has the highest grossing worldwide release of any Denis Villeneuve movie. It later made almost $30,000,000 on video sales and it became the third highest-selling video title in 2018.
TV Series Format
There is an alternative which might make Dune more viable in the long-term. Turn it into a big-budget TV show. This will allow the show to premiere around the world regardless of the pandemic situation and there is much more screentime to cover all of the contents of the books. This can easily be mature-rated. It can also become quite cinematic in nature, regardless of what director Denis Villeneuve claimed on Variety:
But I want the audience to understand that streaming alone can’t sustain the film industry as we knew it before COVID. Streaming can produce great content, but not movies of “Dune’s” scope and scale. — Denis Villeneuve
There has been an upsurge of high-budget TV shows in the recent decade. Popular examples include HBO’s Game of Thrones, Netflix’s The Witcher and The Crown, Disney’s The Mandalorian and Amazon’s Carnival Row. That’s not even counting the upcoming shows, such as HBO’s Game of Thrones Prequel Series, Amazon’s Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time as well as Apple’s Foundation. TV is surpassing the quality of theatrical films and so streaming is more than capable of producing movies of “Dune’s scope and scale”.
Dune has already been adapted as a successful miniseries beforehand, which led to the adaption of the two subsequent books. As this was created by SyFy, it was indeed a low-budget production. As of now, this has been the only successful adaptation of the source material and it also marks the only time where other Dune books were also adapted. It also had mature elements. The 1984 film adaptation was a flop. If Denis Villeneuve agrees to adapt the Dune sequel/s as a miniseries instead, this would be a great both financially and creatively.
Currently, there’s a plan to make a Dune trilogy. These would be called Dune (2021), Dune: Prophet and Dune: Messiah. The trilogy as a whole will adapt the two original books (Dune & Dune: Messiah) and would detail the rise and fall of Paul Atreides. If they could adapt subsequent books via a miniseries, this would make the franchise viable in the long-term.
The only downside to all this is piracy: Dune and the rest of the 2021 Warner Bros films will likely be heavily downloaded online via illegal means. I foresee a similar scenario to Game of Thrones, where even though a lot of people pirated the content, it still managed to generate a large amount of revenue nonetheless. The more people who subscribe to HBO Max, the less the need for piracy.
Shortly after the announcement of the 2021 HBO Max announcement, Legendary threatened to sue Warner Bros. Legendary is a long-time partner of Warner Bros and they did not discuss with them about this release strategy. There was actually a reason for this and it’s in regards to the release of Tenet. According to renowned filmmaker Robert Myers Burnett, a credible man with insider information, Legendary only has the rights to approve a new release date. Warner Bros wanted to shift Tenet towards Christmas. However, Christopher Nolan had a contract where his film must not air within 6 weeks of another Warner Bros film. This forced Warner Bros to release Tenet early and it wasn’t as successful as it could have been.
In other words:
1). Legendary has the authority to approve a new release date for Dune.
2). Warner Bros wanted to shift Tenet to Christmas.
3). Christopher Nolan had a contract saying his movie must not air within 6 weeks of another Warner Bros movie.
4). Legendary refused to push Dune.
5). Warner Bros were forced to release Tenet early.
6). Tenet underperformed domestically.
7). Warner Bros got angry with Legendary.
8). Hence, Warner Bros did not inform Legendary of their 2021 plan.
Warner Bros regains full distribution rights for Dune and they are not technically breaking any contractual obligations with this hybrid strategy as Dune will premier in cinemas at the same time. However, due to the fact that Legendary did indeed finance 75% of the budget for Dune, they do have a possibility of winning any potential court case.
Only time will tell what will actually happens.
Whatever happens, I only hope the movie is financially successful. Of course, I would personally prefer to watch it online. It is definitely possible that theatres will become viable once again. I just hope the bond between Warner Bros and Legendary is mended. Maybe Warner Bros could outright buy the Dune movie with bonuses provided for the creative team. That way, everybody is happy. I only wish for the best for everybody involved.
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