Dune Succeeded At The Box Office, But A Sequel Might Be Riskier

Film fans around North America rejoiced this weekend as the much-anticipated "Dune" finally hit theaters, in addition to being released on HBO Max. Despite the hybrid release, which has seemingly hampered the earning potential for other Warner Bros. releases, this year, director Denis Villeneuve's epic adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel defied expectation, taking in $40.1 million over the weekend at the domestic box office. Coupled with the already solid international numbers, not to mention widespread critical acclaim, it seems all but assured that a "Dune" sequel is in the cards. As exciting as that may be for fans, this presents an entirely new batch of risks for the studio as it pursues a possible franchise. We're here to take a closer look and break it all down.

Dune Exceeds Expectations

"Dune" taking in $40.1 million set a new high-mark for Warner Bros. this year, as no other movie released by the studio in 2021 had a better opening weekend. All of the studio's films have been released day-and-date on HBO Max in the U.S., meaning that subscribers can stream those movies on the same day they hit theaters. That, for obvious reasons, has cut into the box office for many titles. Though the likes of "Godzilla vs. Kong" and "The Conjuring 3" have still found success. It's been a mixed bag.

In any event, Villeneuve was quite adamant that he had crafted the movie for the theatrical experience. And, indeed, this project came together long before the pandemic was on Hollywood's minds. Warner Bros. saw this as a major franchise play, which is why they ambitiously billed this movie as "Part One," clearly paving the way for a "Part Two" to come. The current circumstances certainly didn't help to mitigate any of that risk. However, demand for this movie and its A-list cast proved to be enough. Though "enough" may well be the keyword here.

"Dune" comes with a budget said to be in the $160 million range. Accounting for marketing, the movie likely needs to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 million to break even. Though, in this case, the HBO Max numbers will be factored into the studio's decision-making. As of this writing, thanks to a robust overseas turnout thus far, the movie sits at $220.7 million. It's well on its way to breaking even. But is that enough to justify another expensive adventure on Arrakis? Probably, yes. That being said, for as much as this movie was hugely risky on its own, the presumed follow-up may be even riskier, with potentially huge losses or earnings sitting on either side of that cavern of uncertainty.

The Risk With Dune Part 2

The fact of the matter is that every studio in Hollywood is desperate for franchises right now, and there just aren't that many sure things around. The ones that are safe bets are already locked up at major studios, such as Marvel, DC, "Star Wars," and "Harry Potter." Warner Bros. saw a possible "Lord of the Rings" play with "Dune," especially with a guy like Villeneuve at the helm. It's impossible to say what might have come without COVID, in terms of this movie's fate, but on some level, by doing this movie as a "Part One" and with it making just enough, they are kind of pot-committed to the sequel. The risk may be worth the reward but make no mistake, this is a total dice roll at this point.

For one, sequels tend to be more expensive, not less expensive. $160 million is already a sizable budget. Even if we assume that the studio can keep the budget in the same ballpark, that's still a lot of money. But talent tends to earn bigger paydays for sequels, which is why they often cost so much more. That means a heavier investment for "Dune Part Two." That would also mean the movie would need to earn more, be it through box office or another hybrid release, to become profitable. While sequels can often make more, like "Dawn of the Planet fo the Apes" ($710 million) doing significantly better than "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" ($470 million), it often goes the other way.

Look at "IT," which became the highest-grossing horror movie in history, raking in a shocking $701 million. Meanwhile, "IT Chapter Two" took a pretty steep dive, making $469.5 million. Granted, the sequel still made an avalanche of cash for Warner Bros. given the relatively moderate budget, but moviegoers care not about what a movie cost to make. The point is, depending on the appetite viewers have for the sequel compared to its predecessor, it can go either way.

A Calculated Risk

The reason the risk is still worth taking, from Warner Bros.' perspective, is that there is a lot of upside. For one, there is so much A-list talent involved, from Villeneuve, to cast members such Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya, among many others. Not to mention that if the sequel goes the way of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," it could pave the way for spin-offs, further sequels, and a whole "Dune" universe. At worst, they may lose some money in the short run but, at the very least, complete the ark laid out in the first movie, which may help matters in the long run.

A unique comparison is "Edge of Tomorrow." The sci-fi flick was beloved by critics and audiences but faced a botched marketing campaign that hampered its earnings potential. Against a reported $178 million budget, it earned just $370 million. Though it has had a long life on home video as audiences have found their way to it. The numbers didn't scream sequel. However, because it was well-liked, and with talent such as Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, and director Doug Liman involved, a sequel has been in development ever since. The sum total of the pieces makes the risk a calculated one. "Dune" may be a similar situation.

The difference here is that Villeneuve is ready and waiting to go for his "Dune" sequel. It won't be years of waiting. If Warner Bros. gives him the green light, filming will begin as soon as next year, which could help keep the momentum going. That can be hugely important in a situation like this. The main point is, no matter how this shakes out, "Dune Part Two" is about as far from a sure thing as we're ever going to see in the realm of blockbuster filmmaking.

And the Rest...

"Halloween Kills" came in at number two over the weekend with $14.5 million. While that helped push the "Halloween" franchise past the $700 million mark worldwide, it represents a steep 70.7 percent week-to-week drop. That tends to happen with these hybrid releases, and that is something to look out for with "Dune" next weekend. Though horror often suffers big drops in week two, regardless of the release strategy. In any event, this is still a big hit for Universal.

"No Time to Die" added another $11.8 million, sailing past $525 million worldwide. It's only the second major movie after "F9" to make more than $500 million at the box office this year. "Venom: Let There Be Carnage" landed at number three with $9.1 million, working its way past $350 million globally. It still has quite a few markets to roll out in internationally as well. The big thing will be whether or not it gets released in China, where the first "Venom" made a killing.

The other big story of the weekend was "Ron's Gone Wrong." The well-reviewed animated flick from Disney's 20th Century Studios made just $7.3 million in its opening frame. While the budget hasn't been revealed, animated flicks don't come cheap, so this one is firmly falling in flop territory. That has largely been the case for most of the movies Disney inherited from Fox as part of the $71 billion merger that went into effect in 2019.

Looking ahead to this upcoming weekend, we've got Edgar Wright's "Last Night In Soho" and Scott Cooper's "Antlers."