Earlier this month, WarnerMedia announced that its entire 2021 film slate will be released simultaneously on HBO Max and in theatres. Shortly after the announcement, it was revealed that they did this without telling their subsidiaries. Companies like Legendary Pictures are considering legal action, and some of their filmmakers and stars have taken to the internet to voice their disappointment. A concern was that many felt it wasn’t fair that people were losing their fair wage.
One filmmaker, Denis Villeneuve, revealed his disappointment to Variety. His film, Dune, is due to be released October 2021 from WarnerMedia and Legendary Pictures, and now will have more of a challenge at the box office. While Denis Villeneuve is a critically acclaimed filmmaker, his films have underperformed at the box office in the past. Before he started production on Dune, he released Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the 80s classic Blade Runner. While the film was critically praised (currently sitting at 88% on Rotten Tomatoes), the movie only grossed $250 million at the box office having had a $150 million budget.
Not being able to find an audience can crush a film’s chances at the box office and ruin any hope for subsequent work for a filmmaker. Luckily Denis Villeneuve has been able to keep working and making big budget passion films. Dune is one such film. The latest attempt to adapt Frank Herbets’ classic book is something that Denis Villeneuve had been hoping to make for some time. This decision from AT&T has made Dune’s path to success more difficult and therefore is being seen as a betrayal to those who’ve worked hard on these films.
Villeneuve wrote a passionate essay for Variety about his thoughts on this move, saying “Warner Bros.’ decision means Dune won’t have the chance to perform financially in order to be viable, and piracy may ultimately triumph. Warner Bros. might just have killed the Dune franchise.” Respectfully, he has a right to feel that way. Unlike many of his peers, he doesn’t see this move as the death of cinema, but a betrayal to further the bottom line. With the debt that AT&T acquired with the purchase of TimeWarner, it’s clear that this decision was an attempt to pay down some of that debt and drive people to HBO Max which has struggled with its $14.99 price point.
This move will cost films the type of box office gross they normally would have if they were theatre exclusive. It’s likely every movie will make upwards of 50% less than what they usually would have made. In the case of Dune, with a budget of $250 million, it would need
to make at least $600 million to be profitable for the studio. It would then have to make more than that to be considered a significant hit to justify any sequels that the filmmaker would want to make. With Villeneuve’s films always underperforming at the box office, it’s possible that Dune will be the first time one of his films actually flops at the box office.
One would have to hope that Warners is making concessions for this move. Knowing that their films will lose significant gross, they’ll have to find room to move money around in order to account for the film’s loss. The upcoming Wonder Woman 1984, would normally be projected to match Wonder Woman’s $800 million gross, but it probably won’t make much more than $400 million…that is terrible for a film with an average budget of $250 million.
The box office projections have been so skewed this year with many theatres not allowed to open. The most successful film during the time of COVID so far has been The Croods: A New Age which has made a dismal $77 million worldwide at the time of this writing. Films coming out around this time will more than likely not make more than $150 million by the time their box office run is over. Where is Warners willing to make the cuts to subsidize the losses? Unlike Disney with Soul, WarnerMedia has a harder time selling this move as a “gift” to fans because of the sheer number of films being added. So, the only explanation is that this is to bring in more subscribers to HBO Max.
Dune isn’t just another big budget blockbuster. It is a passion project, with the love and devotion that is needed to bring such a seminal classic to the big screen. Sure, the next year is uncertain terrain, but to just call it quits on the entire year this early seems premature, especially with a promising vaccine on the way. Many of Villeneuve’s WarnerMedia peers have expressed similar sentiments. Legendary Pictures is considering some sort of legal action since they co-financed some of the films, such as Godzilla vs. Kong and, of course, Dune. While he’s critical of the move, Denis makes it very clear that streaming films have a positive effect on cinema. He admits that right now is not the time to be forcing people to go to theatres to see the latest blockbusters. But, October is well into the next year where the outlook is looking far more positive for theatre exhibition.
The betrayal felt by Denis and his peers isn’t because they’re lamenting the death of cinema. They’re not being “whiny auteurs” or “stuck up” theatre afficianadoes. They’re concerned at the lack of transparency at this decision. They’re concerned that their films, films they and their collaborators worked very hard on, will underperform and that’ll just be the end of it. The streaming market doesn’t currently have the infrastructure to accommodate the type of movies like Dune and therefore the fear is that the franchise will be dead on arrival. The cinema experience isn’t dead. It won’t die, but these films could.