Why ‘Dune’ Can’t Depend On HBO Max To Justify A Sequel

Variety dropped a big feature related to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, which screened to positive notices at the Venice Film Festival and begins its slow worldwide theatrical roll-out starting tomorrow in advance of its October 22 domestic debut. Buried in the article is the notion that the film might still spawn a sequel (Dune part Two, since the upcoming film is only the first half of Frank Hubert’s massive tome) even if underwhelms at the box office. HBO Max viewership will be factored in alongside the raw theatrical revenue. However, recent history shows that if Dune bombs in theaters, it will suffer a similar fate on HBO Max as well.

It’s no secret that I’m convinced/concerned that the online interest in the $165 million sci-fi action fantasy is not indicative of general audience interest. Dune could follow a fate similar to Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. That film earned rave reviews and a $90 million domestic/$252 million worldwide theatrical cume. That would have been great had the 2.5-hour, R-rated, action-lite, star-free (Ryan Gosling isn’t an opener and Harrison Ford hasn’t been one since What Lies Beneath in 2000), “hard sci-fi” flick not cost $155 million. It was… interesting to see the filmmaker get another $150 million-plus budget to make another “strictly for the fans” sci-fi adaptation of what is (in terms of general audiences) a cult property.

Anyway, the notion that even an underwhelming global box office might be salvaged by strong HBO Max viewership numbers is… optimistic at best. Simply put, glancing at the 2021 WB release slate, the films that have done somewhat well on HBO Max are the same ones which have succeeded at the box office. Going by the Samba TV opening weekend figures (which are as good as we’ve got until HBO Max starts being included in the Nielsen lists), Godzilla Vs. Kong earned a $50 million Wed-Mon opening weekend over Easter 2021 and logged 5.1 million households over the first 17 days. Likewise, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It earned 3 million households, by which time it had grossed $53 million domestic from a $24 million debut weekend.

When In the Heights crashed on opening weekend with just $11 million, everyone hoped that it merely meant that lots of folks watched the acclaimed Jon M. Chu-directed musical on the Warner Media streaming platform. I can’t speak to long-term, but the film was viewed by just 696,000 households (out of the 28 million American “smart TVs” measured by Samba) over its opening weekend. Likewise, Malignant opened with just $5.5 million domestic this past weekend and logged only 753,000 households. That’s lower than Reminiscence (which opened with just $2 million last month) and 53% less than the 1.6 million that watched Conjuring 3 on its HBO Max opening weekend. Contrary to popular belief, the folks not seeing Warner Bros. theatrical movies in theaters aren’t instead watching them on HBO Max.

It also shows, again, that topics and content that dominate entertainment-specific Twitter discourse (like In the Heights, The Suicide Squad or Malignant) don’t correlate to general audience interest. It’s pretty easy to get something related to the SnyderVerse trending on Twitter, but Zack Snyder’s four-hour version of Justice League nabbed just 3.2 million households in the first 17 days, right between The Conjuring 3 and Wonder Woman 1984 (3.9 million in late 2020). The Suicide Squad did pretty well by HBO Max standards, nabbing 4.7 million households in the first 17 days. But money is money, and the $180 million James Gunn flick has grossed just $165 million worldwide.

The biggest big movie premiere for HBO Max this year was, amusingly enough, Mortal Kombat. The R-rated video game reboot/re-adaptation opened well with $23.3 million but plunged afterward with a mere $43 million domestic (and $88 million global) cume. To the extent that Mortal Kombat’s strong (5.5 million households in the first 17 days) merits a possible sequel, A) it might justify itself as “proof” that the “Project Popcorn” plan didn’t kneecap all of WB’s big franchises and B) the film only cost $55 million. I wouldn’t say the Lewis Tan-starring flick was a commercial hit, but its strong HBO Max figures correlates with a pretty decent opening weekend.

I have yet to see Dune, and I’m hoping I’ll like it (Arrival and Sicario > Prisoners and Blade Runner 2049). I’m not optimistic, but I’ll happily eat crow if folks actually show up for the ambitious and star-filled (Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, Dave Bautista, etc.) in theaters and/or on streaming. But recent history suggests that not-good-enough box office will then correlate with not-good-enough HBO Max viewership. And since the film will have opened in much of the world prior to its domestic debut (which will mute some piracy concerns), we may already know if Dune is doomed before it premieres here on October 22.

Truth be told, the main motivator for a sequel, unless of course it’s actually a hit, is the notion that having one half of a full story won’t be of any long-term value to Warner Media. Dune part One without Dune part Two won’t be of much use to Warner Bros. or Discovery, either as an A-level streaming attraction or something that can be released and re-released in various physical media formats. The question is whether spending another $160 million will be worth it so that Dune doesn’t become the modern equivalent of Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings (an animated adaptation that ended at the 2/3 mark).

The notion of studios waiting to see how the first film performs before green-lighting a sequel is still how things work, even if it sometimes seems otherwise due to the sheer amount of pre-release chatter focused on future installments and possible spin-offs. If Dune is a hit, it’ll get a sequel. If it’s not, well, then it probably won’t. That such formulas are in doubt shows how desperate studios are to maintain the notion that day-and-date releases didn’t do real harm to seemingly surefire theatrical franchise titles (Jungle Cruise, Wonder Woman 1984, etc.). Alas, I’m not sure Dune was ever “surefire” in the first place.

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