How the Pandemic Saved 'Dune'

Plus: 'Eternals' reviewed and more

The Pandemic Was the Best Thing That Could’ve Happened to ‘Dune’

Here’s a take that will sound contrarian but is, in fact, perfectly logical: The pandemic was, all things considered, the absolute best thing that could’ve happened to Dune’s filmmakers and financial backers.

Wait, wait: Don’t click away in disgust and anger! Hear me out.

Consider first that big-budget sci-fi properties with decent name recognition are, at best, incredibly risky propositions. Since the day Denis Villeneuve’s Dune was announced I more or less assumed that it’d earn roughly what Blade Runner 2049 and Ender’s Game did. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner grossed $92 million domestic; Ender’s Game just $62 million. Dune currently sits at $73 million and will likely limp to around $100 million domestic and between $350-$400 million worldwide.

Dune cost $165 million to make; let’s guesstimate another $135 million in marketing for a nice, round, $300 million all-in number. Standard box office math suggests a film like this needs to gross around $600 million to break even after one subtracts the cut taken by theaters. (This is not exactly accurate, given that (1) WB takes a cut off the top as the distributor and (2) percentages of gross kept by theaters and studios varies depending on territory, but whatever, let’s roll with it.) Consider, by way of comparison, that Interstellar made $678 million worldwide on an identical budget and was considered a minor disappointment because it didn’t do much better than break even. In normal times, in other words, a $400 million worldwide gross would be considered something of a disaster.


“Aha!” I hear you exclaiming. “But these are not normal times!” Very true. These are not normal times: There’s a pandemic; some folks are still scared to go to theaters; and Dune debuted on HBO Max the same day it debuted in theaters, allowing some people to skip the theatrical presentation altogether.

What I am suggesting is that the lack of normalcy is all redounding to Dune’s benefit.

What I am suggesting is that the hardcore fans who make up most of big-budget sci-fi audiences would’ve gone to see it in theaters anyway. What I am suggesting is that the $400 million figure would have been only marginally higher even without the pandemic. What I am suggesting is that fence-sitters who wouldn’t have seen it in theaters wound up watching it on HBO Max, giving the studio the appearance of heightened interest. What I am suggesting is that all this gave the studio an excuse to greenlight Part Two despite Part One’s objectively disappointing box office.

I’d also suggest that this is the best possible way to get numbers for Part Two up, because allowing fence-sitters to watch for free and be part of this initial wave of hype gives them a reason to pay for Part Two when it hits theaters. If Dune: Part Two doesn’t outgross its predecessor, I’d be shocked.

Eternals Review and Links

Eternals is a little long, slightly overstuffed, concerned with the worries of gods rather than mortals, and shot with an eye that, when its allowed to roam, occasionally captures something quite beautiful, every frame a painting, every character a figure to be moved about on a distant horizon to suggest the immensity of it all.

Sitting in my local Drafthouse on opening night, it quickly became clear why this film is on track to earn the MCU its first splat on Rotten Tomatoes: Chloé Zhao has made a movie that apes the concerns (and thus ponderousness) of the DC films, yet every action scene is shot in the flat MCU house style that feels weightless (and thus stakes-free).

This is … not a winning combo.

Read the full review here.

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Elsewhere at The Bulwark this week:

  • On Across the Movie Aisle, Peter Suderman, Chris Orr, and I discussed The French Dispatch and our favorite Wes Anderson actors.

  • On The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood, I interviewed Jim Cummings, director of The Beta Test and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, about life as an indie filmmaker.

  • I reviewed Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho in the course of discussing his use of music more broadly in films like Baby Driver and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

  • And you have to read this story by Thomas Lecaque about the crazies who descended upon Dallas this week in the hopes that JFK would return and restore Donald Trump to the presidency. Also spotted, in addition to JFK? Dale Earnhardt, Robin Williams, and Michael Jackson. It’s all coming together, folks!

If you’re enjoying all this great stuff and haven’t done so yet, please consider signing up for Bulwark+! It keeps all this great content flowing like so much spice.

Assigned Viewing: The Wolf of Snow Hollow (Epix)

I rewatched The Wolf of Snow Hollow to prep for my interview with director/writer/star Jim Cummings about his new picture, The Beta Test, and it really is a remarkable little movie. I may write next week about Cummings and the tricky thing he’s doing in this, Thunder Road, and The Beta Test—basically, playing protagonists who are not exactly heroic, and thus tough for audiences and critics alike to reconcile themselves to—but I cannot recommend this movie and the weird energy he brings to it enough.