Dune has the potential to be the next big franchise in the media landscape. But potential is the keyword there. Warner Bros. has assembled an A-list cast led by Timothee Chalamet under the direction of Denis Villeneuve to provide a modern, big screen update of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel. This could, it would seem, go one of two ways. Will it end up being more like Blade Runner 2049, or are we possibly looking at the next Lord of the Rings?

Before diving into the nitty-gritty here, it is worth noting that any discussion of a movie's box office potential right now comes with some huge asterisks. Movie theaters have suffered greatly in 2020. AMC is on the verge of bankruptcy. Regal has shut down again for an indefinite period of time. Filmmakers are lobbying Congress for financial aid to save theaters as we know them. Quite honestly, by the time we arrive at Dune's current release date, the exhibition business as we know it may no longer be a thing. But this piece will be offering a speculative look at the movie's prospects assuming theaters will continue to exist around the world. If movie theaters do collapse, there is a much larger discussion to be had about what that means for the future of the industry.

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In this case, Denis Villeneuve is tied to both Dune and Blade Runner 2049. But that is not the only similarity between the two properties. They are both, in their own way, beloved sci-fi properties that didn't quite get a fair shake in the 80s. Dune was adapted by David Lynch and didn't turn into the franchise starter that it was positioned as. Though it is, in its way, regarded as a cult classic of sorts. Blade Runner, on the other hand, was a heady sci-fi movie directed by Ridley Scott, now heralded as a masterpiece, that was not exactly a financial success in its day, to say the least.

Decades later, Warner Bros. decided that the world of Blade Runner was worth re-visiting. Harrison Ford returned. Ryan Gosling and Jared Leto were brought in to add star power. Denis Villeneuve, having earned a great deal of credibility with movies like Sicario and Arrival, was given a huge budget in the $150 million neighborhood to make it happen. The result was Blade Runner 2049, a critically-heralded, sprawling sci-fi masterpiece that clocks in at nearly three hours long. Financially though, it was a disaster, earning just $260.5 million at the global box office.

On paper, taken at face value, Blade Runner 2049 earning $260 million decades after Ridley Scott's original adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? failed to connect with audiences at the box office, is impressive. The problem is, relative to its budget and marketing spend, the sequel was a disaster for the studio. There are no two ways about it. No amount of critical acclaim and filmmaker mastery can circumvent that.

Now, when it comes to Dune there are indeed similarities to Blade Runner 2049, both when it comes to the director's chair and the source material in relation to its potential audience. Not to mention that Warner Bros. is once again taking another crack at something that didn't quite work the first time around. But comparisons have been made to The Lord of the Rings, which represents the best-case-scenario in this case.

Peter Jackson was tasked with adapting J.R.R Tolkien's masterwork The Lord of the Rings for the big screen in the late 90s/early 2000s. Because the trilogy went on to become a box office behemoth and Oscar-winning sensation, it's easy to forget that most people around the world, save for hardcore lovers of fantasy, didn't much care about Frodo and Middle Earth before 2001. It was Jackson's ambition and execution with The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, which would go on to win Best Picture, that made people care.

From a financial standpoint, moviegoers of the world cared a lot. The Lord of the Rings trilogy grossed more than $2.9 billion worldwide, with the movies winning 17 Oscars overall. That ultimately paved the way for The Hobbit trilogy. The general consensus from fans and critics is that those movies did not match the level of LOTR. Yet, moviegoers showed up, once again, en masse, with the trilogy earning another $2.9 billion at the box office.

It is difficult, at this stage, to determine which side of the line the Dune reboot will fall on. The edge perhaps goes to Lord of the Rings, given that this will offer audiences a fresh start to a new franchise. Blade Runner 2049, meanwhile, was a sequel to an 80s movie that was not on the level of something like Star Wars, in terms of its cultural penetration. Be that as it may, some version of what success or failure might look like for Dune can be obtained by looking at these previous examples from cinema history.

What Dune does have going for it, aside from having one of the most respected filmmakers in the business at the helm, is a massive cast full of people audiences like. In addition to Timothee Chalamet, it stars Jason Momoa, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen, Charlotte Rampling and Javier Bardem. That is about as stacked as it gets.

Warner Bros. is determined to give this movie the best chance possible in the theatrical marketplace. Movie theaters are facing an uncertain future. At the very least, in the short-term, as the studio learned with Tenet, box office dollars are hard to come by right now. It is tough to know what the exhibition business will look like a year from now but the studio opted to delay the release until next fall, committing to a theatrical run. They believe, and perhaps rightfully so, that they have a possible billion-dollar franchise on their hands. Dune arrives in theaters on October 1, 2021 from Warner Bros.

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Ryan Scott at Movieweb
Ryan Scott