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Since the beginning of the year, the business of cinemas has been a shell of what it was 12 months ago, when the blockbuster releases of Avatar: The Way of Water and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania generated billions of dollars at the global box office. Although films with relatively modest budgets such as Paramount Pictures’ Mean Girls and Bob Marley: One Love have recently outperformed expectations, it’s mostly been a desert for big-budget megahits in 2024. Enter Dune: Part Two, the swashbuckling-in-the-sand sequel opening on March 1 that cinema owners are hoping will jolt the box office back into gear.

“Everywhere I go, everyone’s always asking me, ‘When’s Dune opening? When’s Dune opening?’ We really need that first blockbuster to start the year, as blockbusters fuel ticket sales for other movies, and I think Dune 2 is going to be it for us,” says Bob Bagby, chairman of the National Association of Theatre Owners and chief executive officer of the 100-year-old B&B Theatres chain. B&B’s ticket presales for the sequel are the best since the Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour concert movie, released in October, Bagby says.

(From left) Actors Josh Brolin, Florence Pugh, Léa Seydoux, Rebecca Ferguson, Souheiler Yacoub, Zendaya, Timothée Chalamet, Stellan Skarsgård, Austin Butler and Anya Taylor-Joy attend the world premiere of Dune: Part Two on Feb. 15 in London.

Dune: Part Two, the second of director Denis Villeneuve’s films based on Frank Herbert’s science fiction novels about warring intergalactic dynasties, has already garnered acclaim from critics attending advance screenings. It’s projected to bring in as much as $75 million in the US and Canada in its first weekend, according to Boxoffice Pro. If it reaches that number, it would be the biggest domestic opening since the Taylor Swift concert flick. A better financial comparison based on the film’s critical praise, running time and target demographic might be John Wick: Chapter 4, a Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. action movie released in March 2023 that opened to $74 million in the US and Canada and would ultimately go on to gross more than $400 million worldwide.

To build momentum, the Dune sequel’s backers—Legendary Entertainment and Warner Bros. Pictures—rereleased Villeneuve’s original 2021 Dune film in January, taking in about $5 million in ticket sales. That strategy worked well for Walt Disney Co.’s rerelease of James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar months before the sequel arrived in theaters in December 2022. Disney took in more than $70 million from the initiative, while the sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, went on to become the third-highest-grossing film in history, with $2.3 billion in ticket sales.

Villeneuve’s Dune follow-up, which cost $190 million to make and is intended to serve as the sophomore installment in a trilogy of pictures, isn’t expected to do anywhere near that kind of business. But it has several elements working in its favor to score the biggest opening weekend of the year to date: a star-studded cast with Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya in lead roles, as well as its producers’ full-throated commitment to the theatrical experience, which represents an about-face in strategy at Warner Bros. and in Hollywood more broadly.

Chalamet and Zendaya as Paul Atreides and Chani in Dune: Part Two.

When Villeneuve’s first Dune premiered in 2021, Warner Bros., then a subsidiary of AT&T Inc.’s WarnerMedia, tried to counter the lingering pandemic-era aversion to large gatherings by releasing all its films in cinemas and on its streaming service HBO Max simultaneously. The initiative, dubbed Project Popcorn and led by former WarnerMedia CEO and Hulu streaming service founder Jason Kilar, was met with scorn from many of the world’s most high-profile directors, who make films intended for the big screen. Christopher Nolan, whose Insomnia, Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk and Tenet had all been released in cinemas by Warner Bros. over a 20-year working relationship, said in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter that “some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”

Villeneuve subsequently wrote in a column for trade magazine Variety that in hunting for streaming subscribers at the expense of valuing a theatrical release, “Warner Bros. might just have killed the ‘Dune’ franchise.” The film ultimately leaked online, but despite those setbacks, it still hauled in more than $400 million at the box office and won six Academy Awards, as well as an Oscar nomination for best picture.

Warner Bros. has since come under new ownership, which has a new—albeit traditional—mandate: Dispense with straight-to-streaming movies and instead make films that can be seen, heard and felt on the big screen. In 2022 television group Discovery acquired WarnerMedia to form Warner Bros. Discovery Inc., with Discovery CEO David Zaslav running the combined entity. Zaslav made quick enemies in Hollywood by canceling the release of near-complete films including Batgirl, Scoob! Holiday Haunt and Coyote vs. Acme. But he’s gained admirers among theater operators, including executives of beleaguered chains such as AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. and Cineworld Group Plc’s Regal, whom he impressed with a freewheeling speech at last year’s CinemaCon in which he admonished WarnerMedia’s earlier strategy and emphasized that the purest forms of entertainment “are motion pictures in theaters. We believe in full windowing [exclusive periods for theater-only viewing]. We are in no rush to bring movies to Max.”

Warner Bros. has joined Hollywood’s other major studios, as well as cinema newcomers Amazon.com Inc. and Apple Inc., in reintroducing long theatrical windows before the pictures land on streaming services. And the old-school studio playbook, in some cases, is working as well as it ever has, if not better. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, released in cinemas last July and not available to purchase online until October, became the highest-grossing film in the history of Warner Bros., with $1.4 billion in ticket sales. Wonka, a musical about the origins of the Roald Dahl chocolatier released by Warner Bros. in December, cemented Chalamet’s star power as a lead actor, grossing more than $600 million. It won’t start streaming on Warner’s Max until March 8. Nolan’s Oppenheimer, made by Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures and released on the same day as Barbie, is the second-highest-grossing R-rated film in history, with close to $1 billion in ticket sales. It’s still playing in a handful of theaters in the runup to the Oscars on March 10, where it’s a favorite to win best picture.

Warner Bros. and Legendary also agreed to delay the release of Dune: Part Two from November of last year so the cast could participate in premieres in Paris, London, South Korea, New York and Mexico that would otherwise have been derailed by the twin Hollywood actors and writers unions’ strikes. The move, designed so the sequel would reach the widest possible audience, “was a risk that has already proven to have paid off,” says Legendary CEO Josh Grode. Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy, co-chairs of the Warner Bros. film studio, are hopeful that moviegoers will see Dune: Part Two “as it was intended to be seen: on the biggest screen possible,” they wrote in an email.

The makers of the Dune sequel aren’t the only ones in Hollywood betting that movie fans may be ready to head back to the multiplex en masse. Rival studios booked multimillion-dollar ad spots at this year’s Super Bowl for potential blockbusters due for theatrical release later this year, including Disney’s Deadpool & Wolverine, Paramount’s A Quiet Place: Day One and Universal’s Wicked.

Although analysts project this year’s theater ticket sales in thе US аnd Canada tо remain about а third below pre-pandemic levels—an estimated $8 billion, according tо researcher Gower Street Analytics—revenue from large-format, premium screens such аs those erected bу Imax Corp. hаs been growing recently, а sign that studios аrе succeeding in wooing moviegoers seeking аn experience that can’t bе re-created from their couches. Last year wаs Imax’s second-best in its history аt thе bох office, with sales uр 25% from 2022 аnd 2% higher than in 2017-19.

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2024-02-28 21:58

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