At the height of the pandemic, one theory that began to circulate within entertainment circles is that pent up audience demand would enable more dubious box office bets to over-perform in the aftermath of COVID. Though the U.S. isn’t in the free and clear, nearly 85% of North American movie theaters are now open, and the back half of 2021 is overflowing with major titles. Unfortunately, the booming theatrical recovery many foresaw has yet to materialize.
Even prior to the pandemic, Warner Bros. and Legendary’s Dune was a high-risk prospect at the box office as a big budget ($160 million) sci-fi epic based on a dense 1965 novel with one failed cinematic adaptation already in its ledger. Hailing from acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival) and featuring a remarkably talented ensemble cast headlined by Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya, the oft-delayed movie has become something of a rallying cry for Film Twitter. But it remains to be seen if the ambitious film, which is meant to be the first in a two-part series that will also include an HBO Max spinoff show, has captured the attention of general audiences.
What confluence of factors all need to break exactly right for Dune to reach its best case scenario? We assembled a panel of box office experts to find out.
Jeff Bock, Senior Box Office analyst at Exhibitor Relations
The main hurdle Bock sees for Dune is that despite reputation, the science-fiction genre is not a consistent blockbuster draw for casual moviegoers. He’s excited by the film’s artistic pedigree given the talent involved. But Villeneuve is also responsible for the critically lauded Blade Runner 2049, which flopped with just $260 million on a $150 million-$200 million budget. It’s difficult to escape that comparison with another high-concept swing on the horizon.
“You can count on one hand the number of successful sci-fi franchises in Hollywood, and you don’t even need the entire hand.”
“You can count on one hand the number of successful sci-fi franchises in Hollywood, and you don’t even need the entire hand,” Bock told Observer. “That’s how rare sci-fi success is in the industry. And while Denis and the cast are absolutely amazing at what they do, and will no doubt deliver the goods promised, it will be an uphill battle to convince families to see Dune. And that’s where most sci-fi films fail—they aren’t really 4-quadrant films. When you’re dealing with a massive budget, any film, regardless of genre, needs demographic multipliers to achieve success. Sci-fi is traditionally a very narrow audience, especially hardcore sci-fi like Dune.”
Another issue facing the film is the logjam of high-profile features it must contend with on the schedule. Originally slated in the legs-friendly Christmas 2020 window, Dune‘s delay (and the COVID layovers) to Oct. 22 has forced it into a very crowded marketplace that includes No Time To Die (Oct. 8), Halloween Kills (Oct. 15), Jackass Forever (Oct. 22), Last Night in Soho (Oct. 29) and Marvel’s Eternals (November 5).
“To be a hit, Dune will have to appeal to the same audience that makes up the Star Wars and Star Trek fanbase,” Bock said. “And that’s an extremely difficult nut to crack. Without a doubt, one thing is for certain: Dune needs a grand worldwide release with very little competition. And I’m not sure that’s going to happen.”
Paul Dergarabedian, Senior Media Analyst at Comscore
Further complicating Dune‘s quest for commercial success is its simultaneous release on HBO Max for 31 days alongside its theatrical release. It’s generally agreed upon that the day-and-date streaming component has eaten into Black Widow‘s ticket sales, though the Scarlett Johansson–led Marvel blockbuster is still the fastest film to surpass $150 million domestic in the pandemic and stands at $315 million worldwide at the moment. Still, the sentiment is that its ability to generate long-term playability and the grosses that accompany that have been offset with its Disney+ availability. Will that be the case for Dune?
“I may be an outlier on [saying it], but if you really want to see this movie, you might see it on both formats.”
“I don’t think so. I may be an outlier on that, but if you really want to see this movie, you might see it on both formats,” Dergarabedian told Observer. “If you’re a consumer whose excitement level for Dune is already high, you’re probably going to ignore the small screen component, at least for first viewing. If you love it, you’ll come home and watch it again on HBO Max.”
Day-and-date availability didn’t hurt Godzilla vs. Kong, though may have smothered Mortal Kombat‘s theatrical hopes a bit. Dune is staring at a more complicated situation and likely needs to surpass an opening weekend benchmark of success to have a shot at earning at or near its ceiling.
“Buzz, social media sentiment, the surrounding conversation, the box office. All of them have to be better than expected to be considered a home run,” Dergarabedian said. “Anything over $50 million in its opening weekend is still a good number in this environment.”
While Dergarabedian notes that we shouldn’t only judge the film on its opening weekend, he does concede the importance of the movie’s performance in regards to the studio’s ability to leverage the IP moving forward. We’ve seen many a promising franchise fail to get off the launchpad in recent years. With Dune being billed by WB as a “Part I” and Dune: The Sisterhood moving forward on HBO Max, the film’s success or failure has ripple effects throughout the studio. This first movie sets the tone and the ability to draw financial resources to launch subsequent pieces of content.
Scott Mendelson, Box Office Pundit at Forbes.com
Mendelson has long written about Dune‘s uphill battle as a commercial franchise-starter and not just Film Twitter’s idealized blockbuster. To him, there are a handful specific ways Warner Bros. can help usher the movie into profitability and beyond.
“They need to emphasize to audiences that it has five things: good reviews, ensemble cast, marquee director, high-concept pitch and escapist fun,” he told Observer. “Right now, the marketing says ‘Hey, it’s Dune!’ or ‘Come see this incredible fantastical world you’ve never seen before!’ But audiences don’t care as much about that as they did a decade ago. Otherwise, John Carter, Jupiter Ascending, Mortal Engines and Valerian would all be hits.”
“The last new-to-screen megabucks franchise was ‘The Hunger Games.’ The odds are against ‘Dune.’ But if there’s any studio that’s able to pull it off, it’s WB.”
Those five elements in a pre-COVID world represent the formula that gets people to see Mamma Mia in an Avengers world and Knives Out in a Frozen 2 ecosystem.
Mendelson notes that the film’s second trailer does a better job at conveying the core story, which will see a character who unknowingly represents an oppressive force fall in love and potentially switch sides. He believes WB should lean even more into that angle and begin promoting Zendaya’s character (Chani) as a co-protagonist to Chalamet’s (Paul). “Say what you will about misleading marketing, but if the movie is good, audiences don’t mind getting tricked,” Mendelson said.
Thus far, Dune‘s trailers have also carried forth a somber and esoteric tone, which can and likely will be creatively engrossing, but is not necessarily an attractive marketing hook. Mendelson believes a potential third trailer, either timed to the movie’s debut at the Venice Film Festival or attached to No Time to Die, should push the idea that Dune will be a good time at the movies. The first trailer also went to great lengths to highlight the movie’s sprawling talented cast. That should continue to be a focus moving forward as audiences may not show up for one actor they like, but might buy a ticket if there’s a dozen actors they like.
“This isn’t the same world as it was before The Avengers,” he said. “Chasing cinematic universes while streaming and prestige TV fill in the gap. The last new-to-screen megabucks franchise was The Hunger Games. The odds are against Dune. But if there’s any studio that’s able to pull it off, it’s WB, which has a long history of selling unconventional biggies into genuine event movies.”
Overall, Mendelson believes that if Dune earns as much as Alita: Battle Angel ($405 million worldwide) while garnering strong critical reviews and positive word-of-mouth sentiment from general audiences, it can still be considered a success even without tripling the production budget at the box office as most studios like to do with big budget tentpoles.