Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Confusion over plans to release DUNE to home streaming as well as cinema

Warner Brothers have potentially reignited a disagreement with Legendary Pictures over the release of their upcoming science fiction epic, Dune.

Dune was originally set for release in December 2020, but the COVID19 pandemic made that impossible and the release of the film was rolled back ten months to October 2021. However, Warner Brothers subsequently confirmed their plan to simultaneously release Dune, along with the entirety of their 2021 release slate, on streaming service HBO Max. This resulted in immediate pushback from Legendary, who threatened legal action should Warner Brothers attempt to proceed with that plan.

Nothing more was heard on the matter until yesterday, when Deadline reported that Dune will now debut at the Venice Film Festival in September, followed by a limited run in cinemas ahead of its streaming bow on 1 October. However, Warner Brothers have forcibly pushed back on that today, stating that Dune will hit cinemas and HBO Max on the same day.

The battle over Dune represents a second tussle between Legendary and Warner Brothers. In 2020, the two clashed over release plans for Godzilla vs. Kong. Netflix offered a $250 million deal to get exclusive streaming rights to the movie, which would automatically put the film into profit. However, Warner Brothers apparently vetoed the idea without consulting Legendary and then put the film onto HBO Max without consulting with their production partner. This resulted in far less money for Legendary than the Netflix deal, to the production company's fury.

The company is determined not to let the same happen with Dune. A major tentpole film for the production company, Legendary see Denis Villeneuve's Dune as a film with both big box office appeal (as a widescreen, SF epic with a top-tier cast of modern stars and cutting-edge effects) and a potential awards contender at next year's ceremonies. Dune is also more desperate than most films to make enough profit to justify a sequel: the movie only covers the first half of Frank Herbert's expansive, 500-page novel, with the rest contingent on the film doing well. There are also a further five novels in the canonical Dune sequence (as well as a plethora of prequels and sequels of lesser standing by other writers, which have a risible reputation among fans and critics alike). In the case of Dune, diluting the film's box office take by simultaneously releasing it for home streaming may be disastrous. The director has also voiced his opposition to the move.

The fact that, at least in the UK and US, the entire adult population should be vaccinated against COVID by October makes the argument for a home release less convincing.

Whether Legendary follows through on its threat to use legal action to stop Warner Brothers taking this move, or backs down (perhaps in the face of not wanting to make it so they cannot work together again in the future) remains to be seen.

Dune is currently slated for release, in one format or both, on 1 October 2021.

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