Cinema struggles

Navigating the sea of blockbusters: why is Dune such a risky film to make?

Sci-fi bestseller Dune is about the scarcity of resources in space. The most precious and sought-over resource in modern cinema, though, is the chance to be seen

Photo by Warner Bros.

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Long read

Alex Kurtis

On paper, Dune has all the attributes to be an outstanding film. With help from acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve, Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel has finally been comprehensively realised on the big screen (David Lynch’s attempt in the 1980s was admirable, just not the film Dune superfans would have hoped for). The only catch to Villeneuve’s adaptation is that it is only half a film, despite promotional material tricking most into believing it to be a standalone flick. Until recently, there was no guarantee that there would be a ‘Dune part two’, box office figures and reviews would have to be considered before a second could receive the green light. 

From the creator of such films as Sicario, Prisoners and Blade Runner 2049, an all-time great composer in Hans Zimmer, and an all-star cast including Timothée Chalamet, Javier Bardem and Stellen Skarsgard; it would be hard to argue that Dune is not worthy of franchise status. The material for sequels and spin-offs exists in plenty too. Dune is the highest selling sci-fi novel of all time, with a whole six-book series to pull inspiration from. From a creative standpoint, the potential for failure appears exceedingly low.

The problem Dune faces at the box-office comes down to a simple truth; blockbuster movies are no longer huge ‘events’, and therefore can no longer be wholly relied upon to secure huge box office numbers. Of course there are exceptions to the rule; Bond’s most recent outing in No Time to Die was a box office hit, even if does trail considerably behind previous incarnations such as Skyfall. It could be argued the saturation of blockbuster movies has made viewing them optional. Of course, choosing to see a film in the cinema was always optional, but the attention a blockbuster commands no longer holds the same gravity.

For most production companies, creating a high budget action film with no pre-existing franchise links is a huge risk in today’s cinema climate. Even with a director like Christopher Nolan at the helm, success is never guaranteed, as exemplified with his most recent film Tenet struggling so much as to make a loss at the box office. Whilst he does succeed more often than not with commercial successes such as Inception and Interstellar, perhaps it is not surprising that his most lucrative films are his depictions of Batman in the ‘Dark Knight Trilogy’.

Disney may be partially at fault for the declining interest in blockbuster movies. The ridiculous profit margins they can pull from Marvel, Lucasfilm and many of their other production companies allows them to continue releasing films almost monthly (Disney had 12 major releases in 2021, despite much of the entertainment industry suffering from the effects of the pandemic) with bigger and bigger budgets. 

Streaming is of course a detriment to Dune’s cinematic conquest, the growth of sites such as Disney Plus having caused cinema attendance to plummet. The money that is able to be funnelled into television means Dune has competitors both in the cinema and on the home screen. High production value shows such as The Mandalorian almost equal the grandiose spectacle of their cinematic counterparts, giving even more freedom of choice over where to invest our time and money.

Disney can comfortably spend $200m on a movie or TV show for some of their most irrelevant side characters because the familiarity, merchandising and profits from elsewhere will not let these projects fail, no matter how bland the product is. Perhaps the most striking example of this was the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, which is currently listed as the seventh most expensive film ever made (when adjusted for inflation). Even with the franchise firepower of Star Wars, Disney lost money at the box office and the film was considered a major flop. If this were Dune, the loss would be drastic for its production company (Legendary Entertainment) and the likelihood of taking a risk on such a film again would plummet.

Yet Star Wars is still a flagship enterprise for Disney, with eleven shows currently in production for release over the next few years. The monopolisation of the blockbuster movie by Disney makes high budget movies a routine production for them, yet a serious risk for other production companies. The saturation of the market makes it far harder for one $200m movie to stand out next to the other. Yet if nine of those ten films are owned by a singular company, with your film being the stray, no matter what the source material or pedigree of creative horsepower, your film will always be at risk of underperforming.

Unfortunately there is no real solution to this problem; there is no financial fair play in the entertainment industry as there is in sports. Disney themselves are so dominant there is almost no higher power that could impose a spending cap on them. In the case of modern cinema, capitalism certainly does not breed innovation. When Disney make something some would consider a ‘risk’ such as their Disney Plus show Wandavision (although different in concept, by the end it does revert to typical Marvel tropes), it should be considered that it is of no significance whatsoever how the show performs; it can be subsidised by their many other releases that year. The freedom to branch out is a right that is almost exclusive to them. 

The struggle to adapt Dune is very simple: it must be a box office success. Pouring $165m into the film is completely necessary to compete with the high quality production value of Disney’s blockbusters, but unlike those films, the return on the investment is critical, and has been made a lot more difficult by the increased competition. It is not entirely impossible to break the mould with a fresh idea; low budget examples include the wildly original and viral Squid Game, its budget equating to only 14 percent of something like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a Marvel spin-off show starring two of its most uninspired characters. But there is no risk in these disruptive low budget shows; funding a project like Dune is problematic as the film is overwhelmingly unfamiliar, uncompromising and occasionally uncomfortable. Even with hundreds of millions of dollars, amongst the billion dollar traffic, there is no guarantee you will even be seen.