Another COVID casualty
Well, this isn’t a huge surprise: Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures have apparently bumped the release date of their adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune from December 18th 2020 to October 1st, 2021, according to Variety.
It’s the latest shift in release dates for the entire theatrical industry amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, we saw a flurry of films move over to VOD or streaming quickly, like Bloodshot, Birds of Prey, and Onward. When it became clear that the pandemic wouldn’t go away within a couple of weeks, we started to see the summer’s films shift their release dates.
That’s no small thing: ever since Jaws debuted in theaters in 1975, the summer has been the prime date for the blockbuster-class film, from Star Wars to Terminator 2, to Armageddon, to The Avengers. It’s the period of the year where studios anticipate taking in most of their revenue. While that’s begun to change a bit in recent years — Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the various Harry Potter films, and most recently, Disney’s Star Wars films have all demonstrated that big science fiction blockbusters could do equally well around the Christmas holiday season.
No doubt, there’s been some of that thinking here: the pandemic would go away over the course of the summer as community mitigation efforts took hold, and the theatrical industry would get back to normal.
But in recent weeks, we’ve seen some high-profile films move away from their new release dates: Wonder Woman 1984, Marvel’s Black Widow, Sony’s No Time To Die, all of which had moved out of the summer slots to winter ones. Some films have moved over to streaming services directly, like Onward (which went from theaters directly to streaming) to Mulan, which went directly to streaming, provided Disney+ subscribers were willing to plunk down an extra $30 to check it out. That seems to be the outlier though: Disney and Warner Bros. just don’t seem to be all that eager to take their $200 million + blockbuster and hope that their subscriber bases will tune in.
On the flip side, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have found that some of their originals have done really well: Hulu’s Palm Springs and Netflix’s Enola Holmes, The Old Guard, and Project Power have debuted to fairly good reviews. As John Scalzi noted on Twitter, this seems to be a good opportunity for studios to relearn the value of a mid-range film: the smarter stories that don’t blow all of their budgets on special effects.
John Scalzi @scalziYup, and more than that other streamers did well with mid-tier budget films over the summer, too. Apple had Greyhound (which at $70M was the most expensive) and Hulu had Palm Springs. I will not complain if Hollywood rediscovers the $25M - $75M film as a smart idea.
Ian Rennie @theangelremiel@scalzi @BillandTed3 Netflix have been cleaning up with mid-budget films like The Old Guard and Enola Holmes. Stuff that would have been a flash in the pan last year holds the eye for longer right now.
October 2nd 202024 Retweets279 Likes
Blockbusters earn an enormous amount of money, and that’s been a bit of a detrimental thing for theaters in general: they squeeze out the mid-list projects, making it harder for the entire ecosystem. Streaming services have begun to fill that hole. With studios getting their own streaming services (Disney+, Paramount+, and HBO Max, for example), maybe we’ll see more of these sorts of films again — just not in theaters. The pandemic has certainly shown that being able to stream your movie on demand is a really good asset when nobody’s going to theaters.
And that’s what’s happening. Warner Bros. planned to release Christopher Nolan’s Tenet this July, only to bump it back to the end of August. Hell or high water, it wanted that film to reopen cinemas. That hasn’t happened — the film has most certainly come in under expectations, financially, although I suspect that Warner Bros. will keep it in theaters for quite a while longer.
With Tenet floundering at the box office, other films have moved on: No Time to Die has moved to April 2nd, 2021. Black Widow is moving to May 7th. The Eternals is moving from February to November. And now Dune: October 1st, 2021. It’s also why we’ve seen Disney delay its Avatars 2-5 by a full year each. Avatar 2, which recently completed filming, was set for release in December 2021 — it’ll now hit theaters in 2022. The delay of the blockbuster films has had a ripple effect within the theatrical industry, which saw Regal Cinemas announce that it was closing down all of its US theaters starting October 8th.
Hopefully, COVID-19 will be under some measure of control by then, either through a vaccine (unlikely, let’s be realistic), or through more lockdowns and better policy coming from the US government (provided we elect a more competent / less terrible administration into office this November — GO VOTE).
Dune moving almost a full year is a bit of a bummer. Of all the films hitting theaters this year, it’s the one that I’ve been the most excited about. I’ve been writing about the project for a long time now at various outlets, and it’s certainly been on my mind this year as I’ve worked on New Worlds. (More on that in a moment.)
On the other, I’m relieved. The pandemic hasn’t hit Vermont very hard, thanks to fairly diligent mask-wearing and a low population density. My kids are back in school and daycare, and I don’t feel the pangs of anxiety that I felt back in March and April every time I stepped foot out of the house. That said, stepping foot in a theater isn’t something I’m remotely enthused by right now, and given the lackluster box office returns from Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, I’m not the only one. Going to a highly anticipated movie certainly isn’t worth catching an infectious disease.
But as I noted above, Warner Bros. and other studios are opting to move their biggest films to other dates, rather than dump them onto streaming services. Mulan is a bit of an outlier, but look at the films that have hit VOD early, like Scoob, The Witches, and others — these aren’t films that were doing the above-and-beyond box office returns that justify megablockbusters. Streaming simply can’t make up that gap with such big films.
Dune moving to 2021 isn’t a surprise, because it appears that Warner Bros. is positioning the film as a new type of Star Wars: the type of blockbuster that can reliably hit theaters every couple of years and build up a larger world that’ll lead to more projects down the road. Dune is the first of a two-parter, and there are plenty of other books that follow in in the series. On top of that, it’s ordered a series, Dune: The Sisterhood, which appears to be based on one of Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s novels, which will continue to expand the world.
This type of franchise is something we really haven’t seen much of, outside of Star Wars and Marvel: a completely interconnected film/TV thing, and Warner Bros. certainly doesn’t want to blow their chance with a Tenet-sized blockbuster return for Dune. That would certainly torpedo its chances at continuing Dune as a major franchise.
On a programming note, what does this mean for New Worlds, the podcast that I’ve been working on for the better part of a year for this newsletter? Well, earlier this week, I plotted out an editorial calendar for Transfer Orbit, and gave myself a bit of a heart attack: the first episode’s release would have been coming up — fast. I’ve spent much of today working away at the teaser trailer for the podcast, which I’ve pretty much finished editing when the news came across the wire.
While I’ve recorded a number of interviews for the podcast and have a bunch more coming up, the delay means that I’ve got plenty of more time to work on this project. More time is always a welcome thing when it comes to research and history projects, especially in a medium that I’m just trying out for the first time. It’ll give me some breathing room for research and interviews, as well as marketing and all that jazz. So, looking at the calendar, it looks like I’ll be able to bump this to 2021 at some point.
But New Worlds wasn’t intended as just a podcast about Dune: I’ve envisioned this project as a bit of an anthology series about the deeper stories in how science fiction influences and inspires us, and there’s a new historical project on the horizon: Apple’s Foundation, based on Isaac Asimov’s novel by the same name.
I don’t know yet what this will look like for this project. It’s certainly going to happen, but whether that means a season about Foundation might come first or if I just drop Dune a bit earlier in the year, I don’t know. Foundation will require some more work, because I’ll have to go back to the drawing board to interview people.
At the very least, it’s a reprieve: it’ll give me more time to interview more folks, to practice my editing and audio skills, to line up music, and so forth. Stay tuned.
Let me know what you think — I guess this gives me more time to read up on the Dune sequels.