Why ‘Dune’ Sequels Could Still Happen Even Without Blockbuster Box Office

With the rise of streamers, ticket sales become less of a factor for many films Hollywood wants to turn into long-lasting IP

Even before the pandemic, Warner Bros./Legendary’s “Dune” was shaping up to be one of the biggest cinematic gambles of the year. And based on the opening weekend numbers, it wouldn’t look like this gamble resulted in a jackpot for the Burbank studio or its China-based production partner.

“Dune” posted a $40 million domestic opening — a fraction of the film’s $165 million production budget. But there is good news for the studio: It was the best debut this year for Warner Bros. as well as the best career opening for director Denis Villeneuve (topping his previous best of $32.7 million for “Blade Runner 2049”). And $9 million of the film’s opening came from Imax screens, continuing the trend of the premium format boosting the opening of recent blockbusters as Warner reports that 24 of the top 25 highest grossing theaters nationwide for “Dune” had Imax auditoriums.

The bad news is that while “Dune” is on course to have a higher global total than the $259 million grossed by “Blade Runner 2049,” — it currently stands at $220 million — its run may get cut short by the arrival in two weeks of Marvel Studios’ “Eternals,” which is expected to dominate the 18-35 demographic.

Given the competition and the lingering hurdles of the pandemic, “Dune” isn’t likely to raise its total much higher than $300 million, which box office analysts estimate is the break-even point for a film that had a sizable marketing spend that included a premiere at the Venice Film Festival. In fact, those numbers cast a cloud over Warner’s plans for “Dune” to launch a franchise that would include a sequel — also directed by Villeneuve — that adapts the second half of Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel, as well as a spinoff streaming series that would be based on Herbert’s many sequels.

But in an era where most of Hollywood’s top studios are in a race to build the subscriber counts for their streaming services, the metrics of success for a franchise launch title are quickly changing. Nowhere is this more evident than at Warner Bros., where studio chairman Ann Sarnoff and WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar have indicated that they are looking beyond theatrical grosses for “Dune,” and that they will continue to do so long after the theatrical marketplace finally recovers fully from COVID.

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Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • jeremy.fuster@thewrap.com • Twitter: @jeremyfuster