Dune‘s commercial prospects have elicited speculation ever since Legendary and Warner Bros. announced a new adaptation of the 1965 novel five years ago. Past performance may not be an indicator of future results, but the 1984 film version directed by David Lynch was a bomb, and the director of this Dune, Denis Villeneuve, was coming off a bomb of his own, Blade Runner 2049. A pandemic delay of nearly a year as well as a simultaneous release in theaters and on HBO Max doubled concern for Dune‘s financial well being.
Then on the Tuesday after opening weekend Legendary announced that Dune Part II has already been green lit, which certainly creates the impression that Dune, a masterfully composed yet esoteric epic, is a hit. But is that really the case? Without any official data from HBO Max, we turned to box office results and a collection of third-party metrics to get a better read on the film’s success or failure.
Let’s start with the movie metric that never goes out of style: box office gross. Just as Spice Melange is the most valuable resource in the Imperium, ticket sales are Hollywood’s great equalizer.
Prior to its release, Dune was tracking for a domestic opening between $35 million-$40 million. It finished the weekend with $41 million. As of this writing, it has earned more than $223 million worldwide. Is that on par for a typical $165 million budgeted picture? (The pandemic obviously doesn’t help.)
“The actual domestic debut was frustratingly indecisive,” Scott Mendelson, box office pundit at Forbes, told Observer. Mendelson compared Dune‘s box office with other action extravaganzas, some disappointments, some not: “$41 million is bigger than the three-day number for Alita: Battle Angel, it’s better than the over/under $18 million openings of Jupiter Ascending and Valerian. If you argue COVID takes about 15 percent of the normal box office, then it’s still on par with The Meg and Mad Max: Fury Road. However, we don’t know what its legs will look like.”
In a best case scenario, Mendelson sees Dune earning around $110 million domestic. If it dives in its second weekend, then we’re probably looking at $85 million in the U.S. Based off these early numbers, the film is tracking at between $360 million and $410 million worldwide by the end of its run. “If it tops $400 million, that’s a moral victory,” he said.
Even if Dune doesn’t wind up turning a profit, there’s strategic utility in Warner Bros. and Legendary green-lighting a sequel. “The franchise doesn’t end on a massive cliffhanger, it’s easier to sell a DVD/Blu-Ray box set and it becomes a lot easier to sell TV extensions of the franchise to audiences on HBO Max with a successful two-part series rather than a one-and-done,” Mendelson said. “History shows that if audiences show up and enjoy a Part I, then Part II is likely to earn even more money.”
Google Trends measures internet search traffic. Importantly, it is not an indicator of viewership, merely the online interest surrounding a given topic. As such, it’s more of a suggestive tool.
Dune compares quite favorably to the biggest blockbusters of the year. Among Marvel’s Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Sony’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and WB’s Godzilla vs. Kong, Dune is generating even more U.S. search traffic thus far.
The same trend applies when swapping out additional successful blockbusters such as No Time To Die, F9, A Quiet Place Part II and Halloween Kills.
The ongoing online conversation surrounding the film leads directly into our next metric.
Diesel Labs examined audience engagement trends around the premieres of the four biggest simultaneous theatrical/streaming releases of 2021: Godzilla vs. Kong, Space Jam: A New Legacy, Halloween Kills and Dune. (Note: Disney+ Premier Access films are not considered here, as they were only available with an extra fee on top of the platform subscription).
Dune stands fourth among this group in terms of Diesel’s engagement metric. However, it saw steadier sustained discussion following the premiere than the other three movies, which all experienced rapid drops after release. Engagement picked back up again earlier this week, something that did not happen for the three other films.
It’s also worth noting that of these films, Dune has the least established on-screen IP. Halloween Kills and Godzilla vs. Kong are the latest installments in long-running franchises while Space Jam: A New Legacy is a standalone sequel to a 1996 film that draws on Looney Tunes characters nearly a century old. Dune isn’t starting cold—you could call it a reboot of David Lynch’s 1984 flop or the Sci Fi Channel’s 2000 miniseries—but it doesn’t have a generations-spanning franchise building it a runway either.
Reelgood is an extensive streaming guide that tracks every TV show and movie available online, serving as a search engine for SVOD libraries. The service boasts upwards of 2 million U.S. users, which helps to provide a composite of domestic digital viewership based on user interest.
Based on the opening weekend streaming engagement share, Dune enjoyed the best debut of any day-and-date release in 2021 thus far with 12 percent. This topped fellow blockbusters Reelgood tracked such as Marvel’s Black Widow (Disney+ Premier Access), WB’s Godzilla vs. Kong (HBO Max), Universal’s Halloween Kills (Peacock) as well as Best Picture-winner Nomadland (Hulu).
It’s a pretty simple formula: you put Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya front and center, the nation pays attention. It’s the natural order of things.
Whip Media’s TV Time tracks U.S. viewshare among streaming services. TV Time is a global community of 19 million users with 2.5 million daily users tracking TV series and films.
Dune was the most-watched film in Whip Media’s streaming movie ranker last weekend (Oct. 22-Oct. 24) based on user interest, claiming the top spot from Halloween Kills. Dune was also the most-anticipated movie for the month of October among TV Time users.
Rankings are determined by movies that are currently available on streaming services (as part of standard subscriptions) with the greatest share of views in the given time period among a balanced panel of U.S. users of the TV Time app. Dune‘s following, which is measured by TV Time users who expressed an intent to watch a show or movie, was 2.5x larger than other major releases such as No Time To Die and Venom: Let There Be Carnage heading into its release. It also lapped other high-profile titles such as Halloween Kills (9x) and The Last Duel (13x).
Again, not too shabby.
Samba TV measures selected opted-in smart TVs through its automatic content recognition technology. This accounts for 28 million devices in the U.S. According to their data, 1.9 million U.S. households watched Dune in its opening weekend on HBO Max. (HBO and HBO Max total 45.2 million U.S. subscribers combined.)
This puts Dune‘s streaming debut viewership between Space Jam: A New Legacy (2.1 million) and Zack Snyder’s Justice League (1.8 million). For further context, here are the three-day opening numbers for this year’s day-and-date releases (discounting Disney+ Premier Access), per Samba TV.
Mortal Kombat (3.8 million)
The Suicide Squad (2.8 million)
Wonder Woman 1984 (2.2 million)
Space Jam: A New Legacy (2.1 million)
Dune (1.9 million)
The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (1.6 million)
The Little Things (1.4 million)
Halloween Kills (1.3 million)
Tom & Jerry/Those Who Wished Me Dead (1.2 million)
The Many Saints of Newark (1 million)
In The Heights/Cry Macho (693,000)
Judas and the Black Messiah (653,000)
Compared to its no additional fee same-day compatriots, Dune‘s HBO Max performance is reminiscent of recent New York Yankees teams: solid but unspectacular. However, there exists an inverse relationship between the box office and Samba TV’s streaming performances. The more money a film generates in its opening weekend at the box office, the smaller the HBO Max audience is in Samba TV’s measurements.
Mortal Kombat earned just $23.3 million in its opening weekend while generating the largest streaming debut of any WB title this year. Godzilla vs. Kong drew an impressive 2.6 million U.S. households during its first three days of availability (Wednesday-Friday) and $28 million in its three-day opening weekend. Space Jam 2 earned $32 million in theaters and 2.1 million on HBO Max.
We need to take a wait-and-see approach with Dune‘s box office performance. Though it is slightly out-performing expectations thus far, it’s possible that availability on HBO Max could undercut its domestic longevity. But the important factor is that Dune Part II is now set up to out-gross Part I as a theatrical exclusive and anticipated conclusion.
On the streaming side, no third-party metric is perfect. But gathering several data points what emerges is that Dune is attracting a high level of engagement as compared to other same-day releases this year. We may not have official viewership stats straight from the source, but enough separate analytics firms suggest Dune is indeed a streaming success.
Overall, it has brought honor to House Atreides.
Movie Math is an armchair analysis of Hollywood’s strategies for big new releases.