The Quorum

Can DUNE expand its audience?

Get ready for the DUNE: PART 2 onslaught. Today we got a new poster and an image of a very bald Austin Butler. And the trailer is expected to drop tomorrow. Consider this the first big marketing salvo before the film’s November 3rd release.

DUNE exists in an unusual space in the tentpole universe. It has a sizable legion of fans, but it is dense and not as immediately accessible as franchises like FAST & THE FURIOUS, JURASSIC PARK, or TRANSFORMERS. Someone can watch FAST X and enjoy it without being too concerned about how the plot points from F9 carry over to the new one.

DUNE, on the other hand, relies heavily on world-building and narrative throughlines from one film to the next. In that sense, it shares more in common with BLADE RUNNER or even LORD OF THE RINGS. What remains to be seen is if DUNE: PART 2 will behave more like the LORD OF THE RING trilogy, which saw its grosses grow with each subsequent release, or if it will take a step backward at the box office like BLADE RUNNER 2049.

To be fair and for the sake of clarity, 2017’s BLADE RUNNER 2049 did gross more than the 1982 original. That’s true even when adjusted for inflation. But 2049 was an expensive misfire that made only $92M domestic and $268M worldwide on a $150M budget. That’s not a great return. Truth be told, both could be considered box office duds. But, whereas the original has earned a place in the cinematic canon over the years, the sequel has shown few signs of building that kind of legacy despite winning two technical Academy Awards (Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography).

On the other hand, not only did all three of the RINGS films earn a Best Picture nomination, but the third one in the trilogy took home the prize. That’s on top of the nearly $3B in grosses across the three films.

In terms of box office, DUNE looks more like BLADE than RINGS. It grossed $108M domestically and $400M worldwide on a $165M budget. Not bad. But not great either. But, it was released mid-pandemic day-and-date on HBO Max, which no doubt suppressed the theatrical grosses. Had it opened a year later exclusively in theaters, it likely would have made more. But how much more? Would it have hit half a billion dollars? It’s hard to say.

But the one truism to the DUNE property is that it has a vocal and rabid fanbase. It is a fanbase that, for the most part, would choose the big screen over the little one. In that sense, the theatrical upside may not have been much greater than it was, even if there was no pandemic or hybrid release.

And that therein lies the challenge. A casual DUNE fan is hard to find. Sure, some people checked it out on HBO Max. Many of them probably didn’t finish it. Or, if they watched the whole thing, they may not have fully understood what they saw. And without the casual fans embracing the first film, it will be challenging for the second one to expand the audience.

Few will come on board for two without having seen one. That means the only way to grow theatrical numbers for two is to get those at-home casual viewers of the first willing to shell out money to see the second in a theater. And given the density of the world-building, there may be few of those people.

If you subscribe to this argument, then DUNE: PART TWO is arriving in theaters on its back foot. Not only does it have to win back all of the fans who saw the first one, but to grow the audience, it has to attract those casual (and, in many cases, confused) viewers, or it needs to bring new viewers into the fold. That may be hard to do.

Currently, DUNE: PART TWO is tracking on the light side. The Quorum is currently tracking six tentpoles. Of those, DUNE scores lowest in awareness and interest. To be fair, it is the last of the six to release a trailer. So we will reserve judgment until we see how the upcoming trailer impacts the tracking. But DUNE is starting from a low starting spot, especially on the interest side.

In another week or two, we will better understand how DUNE is positioned. Until then, enjoy all the material.

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