Can Denis Villeneuve’s Pricey ‘Dune’ Avoid the Box Office Fate of David Lynch’s 1984 Bomb?

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Blockbuster adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel hits theaters and HBO Max this weekend

Warner Bros.

In 1984, David Lynch attempted to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic “Dune” — only for his film to become a financial and critical bomb. Now Denis Villeneuve is attempting to avoid a similar fate as Warner Bros. releases his $165 million-budgeted adaptation of the sci-fi novel on 4,100-plus screens and HBO Max this weekend.

“Dune” comes into American theaters with strong reviews and Oscar buzz, sporting an 85% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes. It also has had a solid run over the past month in 18 overseas markets since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, grossing just under $130 million so far. The film also opens this weekend in 20 more countries, includes China, where it is expected to open modestly in the $20 million range.

But at a time when there’s been a hard ceiling on how Warner Bros.’ films have performed domestically as they all open simultaneously on HBO Max, “Dune” doesn’t look like it will break that ceiling. The film is projected to open this weekend in the $30-35 million range in North America, comparable to the $31.7 million that “Godzilla vs. Kong” achieved back in March (which remains the highest opening weekend for a Warner film this year).

It’s also on par with the $32.7 million opening of Villeneuve’s last film, “Blade Runner 2049,” back in 2017. Like “Dune,” “Blade Runner 2049” was a mature, dark sci-fi film that found an audience through fans of the original “Blade Runner,” but needed overseas revenue to avoid being a flop. The sequel grossed $92 million domestically and $259 million worldwide against a $150 million budget. The film’s weighty subject matter, long run time and confusion about what the film was about were among the factors that kept many general moviegoers at home.

This time, Warner Bros. is seeking to lure audiences unfamiliar with “Dune” with the epic scale of the production and a stacked cast led by It Boy Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya and featuring “Aquaman” star Jason Momoa heavily in the promotional material. But it will still be an uphill battle for this film’s domestic run, as it will only enjoy two weeks of full IMAX and premium format support before Marvel Studios’ “Eternals” arrives on November 5 and takes over both theaters and the pop culture conversation.

Thanks to the strong early overseas run, there’s a good chance that “Dune” could at least finish with a higher global box office than “Blade Runner 2049.” But given the $165 million production cost and a sizable marketing investment, “Dune” would be shaping up as a disappointment if it was strictly a theatrical play.

But the rise of WarnerMedia’s streaming service, which hit 69.4 million subscribers worldwide in the third quarter, has changed how the studio measures success for 2021 films, including “Dune,” that may have underperformed in pandemic-era movie theaters but found audiences via streaming.

Warner Bros. sees “Dune” as the launch pad for a new “Game of Thrones”-esque franchise that could encompass both the rest of Herbert’s original 1965 novel — Villeneuve’s film covers only the first half — as well as his five sequels. In fact, the studio already plans to adapt the second half into another film and to launch a spinoff series on HBO Max.

Also releasing this weekend is 20th Century’s animated family film “Ron’s Gone Wrong,” which is estimated for a $10 million opening from 3,550 locations. The film will face competition from the fourth weekend of United Artists’ “Addams Family 2” but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the film perform above projections slightly and reach the low-to-mid teens if it matches the turnout reached by recent family films like “Addams” and “Paw Patrol: The Movie.”

Unlike those films and many other animated releases in 2021, “Ron’s Gone Wrong” will be released exclusively in theaters this weekend as part of Disney’s plan to release all its remaining films wtih exclusive windows following the success of “Shang-Chi” last month. The film has received strong reviews with an 87% Rotten Tomatoes score.