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'Dune' is nearly here. The stakes are high for devoted fans — and a fragile box office

Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi epic lands in theaters with big hype. But fans of the novel have been burned before, and the U.S. box office is still shaky.
Image: Dune
Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in "Dune."Chia Bella James / Warner Bros. Pictures

Donald Riggs has been obsessed with Frank Herbert’s novel "Dune" for more than 40 years. He first read the book in 1977, when he was 24, intoxicated by Herbert’s heady mix of environmentalism, philosophy, religion and psychedelia.

Riggs, an English professor at Drexel University who teaches courses about "Dune," plans to see the new big-budget movie adaptation when it hits theaters and HBO Max on Friday. But ahead of the debut, he said, he is feeling tentative that it will live up to his expectations.

"I would say I’m cautiously optimistic," Riggs said with a laugh.

"Dune" aficionados know all too well that Herbert's famously complex and lengthy sci-fi epic has repeatedly proven difficult to bring to the screen, foiling maverick filmmakers' plans and disappointing many lifelong fans of the book.

Herbert's devoted readers are not the only people keeping their fingers crossed that Denis Villeneuve’s film version — a 155-minute saga about a messianic young hero in a world of spice mining and giant sandworms — delivers the proverbial goods.

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Warner Bros. Pictures, the studio behind the project, also has a lot riding on the commercial success of a long-delayed movie believed to have cost at least $165 million  — and so do brick-and-mortar theaters, which are still trying to find their footing in the pandemic.

"They are obviously hoping this is the next 'Star Wars' franchise. It was made to have many future installments," said Jeff Bock, a senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations, an entertainment research firm. "I don’t think the stakes get any higher in Hollywood when you spend this much on a sci-fi vision."

The long road to Arrakis

In the 1970s, the iconoclastic Chilean French director Alejandro Jodorowsky aspired to adapt "Dune" into a 14-hour extravaganza featuring Salvador Dalí, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles. But the project fell apart — an ordeal chronicled in the 2013 documentary "Jodorowsky’s Dune."

David Lynch, fresh off "The Elephant Man," tried his hand in 1984. He planned a three-hour feature, but producers pressured him to shave the running time. Lynch’s "Dune" was a box-office disaster and a critical punching bag, although it has since amassed a cult following.

"It was a heartache for me," Lynch told The Hollywood Reporter last year, later adding: "I like certain parts of it very much — but it was a total failure for me."

The mishaps and misfires created the impression that maybe Herbert’s sprawling tome was “unfilmable.” But over the years, directors and producers kept trying to get another big-screen edition off the ground, leaving a trail of speculation across the internet.

“It has been hard to take rumors seriously since there have been so many attempts to make adaptations that fall over,” said Kara Kennedy, an academic and researcher who runs a website called Dune Scholar and wrote her doctoral dissertation on Herbert’s full six-book series.

But another attempt gained momentum around Villeneuve, the Canadian auteur behind “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049.” The production, which started to take shape in 2017, assembled a stacked ensemble, including Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson and Oscar Isaac.

And yet doing justice to Herbert’s layered interplanetary narrative was always a tall order — especially so in an era when social media empowers average viewers to instantaneously voice their objections and media fandoms sometimes resemble armies on high alert.

The campaign to release Zack Snyder’s cut of the superhero spectacle “Justice League,” for example, highlighted the growing influence of ground-level fan movements. #ReleasetheSnyderCut supporters pressured Warner Bros. to do just that — for better or worse.

Denis Villeneuve and Chalamet on the set.Chia Bella James / Warner Bros. Pictures

In this climate, it certainly helps to have buy-in from the stalwarts. Notably, Brian Herbert — Frank’s son, the keeper of his father’s literary estate and himself a writer in the expanded “Dune” universe — has said he was consulted during the scriptwriting process.

“We want to get things right. It’s a very complicated universe. So we did receive drafts of the script, and we would send comments back to Denis and his team. Then they would make various adaptations,” Brian Herbert told Wired magazine this month.

“It’s a very good working relationship in which Denis wanted to create the definitive version of ‘Dune.’ He wants this movie to follow Frank Herbert’s vision,” he added.

“Dune” officially premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 3 and later screened at the Toronto Film Festival, where it drew glowing reviews from most critics in attendance. (The movie already has a spot on the IMDb Top 250.)

“I have been looking forward to something new for ‘Dune’ that has a more modern aesthetic and can take advantage of the major advances in CGI and technology to make the science fiction elements come to life,” Kennedy said. “The sandworms deserve that much.”

The pre-release hype, fueled in part by a series of evocative trailers, resembles Villeneuve’s last attempt to reboot a cult property: “Blade Runner 2049,” released in 2017, said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore, which tracks box office data.

But strictly in terms of box office performance, the resemblance may not be ideal.

Theatrical moviegoing at a crossroads

“Blade Runner 2049,” Villeneuve’s visually hypnotic follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic, landed in theaters four years ago this month, backed by critical acclaim and months of breathless anticipation on the internet.

But the sequel, believed to have cost $150 million to $185 million, disappointed at the box office, grossing just under $100 million domestically and collecting a relatively modest $259 million worldwide.

Bock, the Exhibitor Relations analyst, said “Dune” checks many of the same boxes, including genre and demographic appeal. The core fan base for both titles is believed to skew older and more male, he said.

“You’re probably looking at a debut in the mid- to high $30 million range,” Bock said. “That’s obviously not ideal given the size and scope of this film.”

"Dune" is also running up against three other challenges, Dergarabedian and Bock said.

The first is sheer competition. "Dune" will vie for ticket sales in a crowded field that includes holdovers like "Venom: Let There Be Carnage," "No Time to Die," and "Halloween Kills." Marvel’s "Eternals" arrives in theaters two weeks after "Dune" debuts.

The second complication is not unique to "Dune." The pandemic box office has lately seen some big hits — "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" and "Black Widow" foremost among them — but it is clear that many people are still reluctant to return to the multiplex.

“We’ve seen the box office rebound, especially on opening weekends, but it still hasn’t recaptured the legs that it had pre-pandemic, and that’s the biggest concern going forward,” Bock said.

"No Time to Die," Daniel Craig’s final outing as James Bond, ginned up solid sales and good reviews — but with an estimated price tag of $250 million (plus another $150 million in marketing costs), the Bond franchise entry is unlikely to turn a profit, underscoring the difficulties facing studios.

Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac and Stephen McKinley Henderson in "Dune."Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures

The third is slightly more distinctive to "Dune." Warner Bros. is releasing all its 2021 titles in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. It’s a strategy that might help boost subscriptions to the streaming service but arguably cut into revenues at brick-and-mortar theaters.

"It's a very interesting test case when it comes to the hybrid release model," Dergarabedian said. "There’s really no way to know whether having 'Dune' on HBO Max keeps people there," he added, noting that HBO Max (like Netflix) does not release detailed viewership data.

Villeneuve blasted the hybrid model in an editorial for Variety in December, knocking Warner Bros. for depriving his film of potential ticket revenues and writing, “​​I strongly believe the future of cinema will be on the big screen, no matter what any Wall Street dilettante says.”

"Dune" is widely believed to be the first chapter in an intended two-part film series — maybe even a wider franchise. (The on-screen title, according to people who have already seen it: "Dune: Part One.") Warner Bros. has not officially announced a follow-up, however.

Big numbers would make greenlighting a sequel a no-brainer, Bock said. But the inverse might also be true. In that sense, the long journey to tell Herbert’s epic story on the big screen could be far from over.