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We’re ‘Dune’ it again

Editor in chief Sean Scott explores “The Movies” as an experience and how the film industry is battling against streaming after attending a reissue of “Dune” in theaters.
Editor in chief Sean Scott explores “The Movies” as an experience and how the film industry is battling against streaming after attending a reissue of “Dune” in theaters.

It’s a Wednesday night, and the Imax theater in the West Chester AMC is packed with hundreds of people.

No one is there to see the scant offerings of 2024 so far or the holiday holdovers (pun intended) of last year. There’s definitely no one interested in “Aquaman 2,” though some are undoubtedly Jason Mamoa fans.

No, everyone has gathered for the one night only reissue of Denis Villenueve’s 2021 masterpiece, “Dune.”

This is a movie made to be seen in theaters. The scale is massive, the visual effects weighty. Hans Zimmer’s score and Greig Fraser’s cinematography demand to be heard and seen in the largest format possible, surrounding the audience.

Sure, a not-insignificant portion of tonight’s audience is probably there for the promise of an extended preview for the soon-to-be-released “Dune: Part Two,” which, by the way, didn’t actually play — thanks, AMC. But the real treat is really getting to experience “Dune” the way it was intended.

Three years ago, I would’ve found this turnout almost impossible.

I’m a self-professed skeptic when it comes to the future of the theater industry. 2019 clearly stood out as a high-water mark for movies (at least in terms of box office returns) even before the pandemic crippled the industry mere months later. Disney alone had seven billion-dollar movies, a feat I doubt any studio will come close to anytime in the near future.

That same year, Apple TV+ and Disney+ both launched, and Peacock and the streaming service formerly known as HBO Max were on the horizon. The future of film had never looked so dismal, cramming best picture nominees onto phone displays instead of the 50-foot screens they deserved.

Fast forward two years and the painful recovery of the box office from COVID-19 was limping along when Villeneuve’s “Dune” premiered in October.

While “Dune” was my most anticipated title of the year, both because of my love of Frank Herbert’s books and for what Villeneuve accomplished with “Arrival,” I would describe my hopes for a sequel at the time as very low.

Despite occupying a similar place in science fiction as “Lord of the Rings” in fantasy, the mass appeal of “Dune” is undeniably smaller. “The Fellowship of the Ring” boasts 2.78 million ratings on GoodReads to “Dune’s” 1.3 million — not exactly a flattering comparison.

Against the odds, the film hobbled along past $400 million worldwide. I admit that even with the COVID caveat, I would’ve preferred $500 million to call it a success. As it was, such artistic achievements as “Venom: Let there be Carnage” and “Sing 2” beat the film at the box office.

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And yet, Warner Bros greenlit “Dune: Part Two.” One month out from the sequel’s premiere (finally), and the anticipation feels huge this time around. As of right now, I would put its box office hopes around $650 million, a major increase from part one, and “Dune: Messiah,” my favorite book in the series, is already in the works.

What changed?

Well, aside from the obvious waning of the pandemic (or at least people’s attentiveness to it), theaters finally seem to be putting up a decent fight against streaming. The past year in movies will forever be remembered for two things. First, the death of superhero movies as guaranteed tentpoles. Second, Barbenheimer.

For years, directors and actors have been begging audiences to see their movies in large formats. But when the biggest offerings in theaters month after month are MCU movies, and streaming services offer us the same characters at minimal pricing in shitty show format, there’s no longer a reason to go to theaters.

Barbenheimer finally reaffirmed the importance of "The Movies" as an experience. Of course you have to see “Oppenheimer” in the largest format available. Of course you need to get dressed up and make a whole day out of watching “Barbie” with your friends. Movies are made to be a communal experience, not something you sit on your couch and throw on at 2:30 p.m. on a Wednesday when you’re bored and sad (no judgment, though).

With “Dune: Part Two,” it looks like audiences are willing to buy in. Warner Bros has abandoned its day-and-date strategy of letting movies premiere in theaters and on streaming at the same time, encouraging fans to catch the film in theaters or risk missing out on the conversation. The star power of Zendaya, Timothee Chalamet and Florence Pugh undoubtedly helps as well, and why wouldn’t you want to see the sand worms as large as possible?

Thanks to schedule changes by studios in the wake of the writers’ and actors’ strikes, 2024 is pretty light overall on butts-in-seats movies. Reissues like “Dune” certainly help though, and I expect we’ll see more anniversary-type movies trying to fill the space.

Hopefully Hollywood can learn from 2023 instead of panicking about what’s sure to be a down year and put more money into the theatrical experience going forward.