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‘Dune: Part Two’ looks to end box office drought with $80 million opening

There haven’t been any major blockbuster releases in 2024, leading to a domestic box office of $866.4 million through Sunday, a nearly 18% drop from the same period in 2023.
Timothee Chalamet in "Dune: Part Two".
Timothée Chalamet in "Dune: Part Two."Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
/ Source: CNBC.com

Movie theater operators are hoping that Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment’s “Dune: Part Two,” due out in theaters Friday, will be the much-needed oasis amid a drought of blockbuster content.

Since the start of the year, the domestic box office has tallied just $866.4 million in ticket sales through Sunday, a nearly 18% drop from the same period in 2023, according to data from Comscore. A boost at the beginning of the year could prove critical to a box office that’s still struggling to reclaim $10 billion in domestic annual ticket sales, a mark last seen before the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The arrival of ‘Dune: Part Two’ is coming at a point where the industry is looking for that momentum igniting blockbuster,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

So far in 2024, no film has generated more than $100 million in receipts. While surprise hits such as Sony’s “Anyone But You” alongside Paramount’s “Mean Girls” and “Bob Marley: One Love” have helped fill cinemas, the box office had few blockbuster holdovers from the holidays and limited new offerings in the new year.

Last year, the first quarter was buoyed by $263 million in ticket sales from Disney’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which hit theaters in December of the previous year. Similarly, 2022 had more than $200 million in residual sales from Sony and Marvel’s 2021 hit “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

“We’re used to these peaks and valleys,” said Bill Barstow, who runs ACX Cinemas, a theater chain with six locations in five states. “And certainly, there’s no mystery to the last three years of the pandemic and then strikes and all the stuff that kind of kicks us. But then along comes something like ‘Dune.’”

“It’s been a long slog of a winter at the box office, unsurprisingly so after numerous strike-induced delays crushed an already underwhelming studio slate in recent months,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. ”‘Dune: Part Two’ represents the turn of the tide.”

While Warner Bros. is projecting a conservative $65 million debut for the much anticipated sci-fi sequel, box office analysts foresee a haul between $70 million and $80 million, especially as moviegoers are likely to gravitate toward premium large format screenings, which are pricier than regular tickets.

“We’ve had sold out ‘See It First’ showings in all of our IMAX locations and guest response is already extremely positive,” said Jeff Whipple, vice president of advertising, marketing and public relations at Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theatres, which operates 15 locations, predominately in Utah.

“Utah movie fans know that ‘Dune: Part Two’ is a big movie that needs to be experienced on the biggest screen possible,” he noted, adding that Megaplex locations are seeing strong advanced ticket sales for premium auditoriums such as IMAX, Dolby Atmos and D-Box motion screens.

The draw of these higher-priced tickets is leading some exhibitors to think the film could outperform projections.

“I think Warner Bros. has been conservative,” said Tim Handren, CEO at Santikos Entertainment, a regional cinema chain with 27 theaters in eight states. “Warner Bros. has done an absolute fantastic job marketing this movie.”

“They are geniuses in marketing,” ACX Cinemas’ Barstow echoed. “They just know how to build awareness.”

The film’s cast has been heavily promoting the film for weeks, participating in junkets, video interviews and appearing on late night shows. Even the stars’ premiere outfits have been making headlines, driving more awareness of the film’s release.

Alongside industry veterans such as Christopher Walken, Stellan Skarsgard, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin and Dave Bautista, “Dune: Part Two” features four of the biggest young stars in Hollywood: Zendaya, Timothée Chalamet, Florence Pugh and Austin Butler.

Early ticket sales for the weekend are ahead of Universal’s “Oppenheimer,” which opened at $82.4 million, but below “Jurassic World Dominion,” which debuted at around $145 million, according to data from Fandango.

Cinema operators, while focused on the film’s opening weekend haul, are perhaps more interested in the longevity of “Dune: Part Two” at the box office.

While there are several new releases in March, which will help pad the overall domestic box office haul, “April is not nearly as strong,” Handren pointed out.

Titles like “Dune: Part Two,” which have a real shot at remaining in theaters with limited drops in ticket sales week after week, can help keep the box office afloat until the summer movie season begins in early May.

The film also offers exhibitors a chance to tease upcoming movies to audiences with those all-too-familiar previews before the film starts.

“I think ‘Dune’ opens up the entire world for us for summer,” Barstow said.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.