Such a dramatic delay would hopefully allow for theatrical audiences to turn out in droves to see the sci-fi epic, directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049”) on a reported budget of $165 million. Then earlier this month, the studio’s parent conglomerate, WarnerMedia, threw a wrench in those plans by announcing that each Warner Bros. film slated for next year would be released simultaneously in theaters and on the company streaming service, HBO Max.
WarnerMedia’s move took the industry by surprise, setting off stars and directors who intended for their work to be seen on the big screen, along with financiers like Legendary Pictures who rely on those box-office returns. Chalamet’s implied support of the production company amid the debacle marks the most prominent instance of an actor chiming into the debate. A small number of affiliated filmmakers have done so explicitly, be it Warner Bros. stalwart Christopher Nolan or Villeneuve himself.
Because as convenient as it may be to watch these movies from your couch — unless you happen to have Roku, in which case, tough luck! — the artists behind them tend to argue it’s in the audience’s favor to see them in theaters. Nolan’s “Tenet” opened Labor Day weekend with numerous cineplexes still closed, and Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman 1984,” the first simultaneous HBO Max release, certainly won’t come close to doing pre-pandemic numbers with a Christmas Day slot.
The same might be true of Warner Bros. titles slated for early 2021. But surely, with vaccinations likely reaching the general public by later in the year, fall releases such as “Dune” would be facing different box-office odds.
That’s Villeneuve’s argument, anyway. The Oscar-nominated director wrote in an op-ed for Variety that he learned of his film’s fate in the news and traces the blame back to AT&T and Time Warner’s merger. The simultaneous releases on streaming platforms are a clear attempt to undo the damage done to the HBO Max brand by its botched launch in May, he stated, and “with this decision AT&T has hijacked one of the most respectable and important studios in film history.”
“There is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here,” the filmmaker continued. “It is all about the survival of a telecom mammoth, one that is currently bearing an astronomical debt of more than $150 billion. Therefore, even though ‘Dune’ is about cinema and audiences, AT&T is about its own survival on Wall Street. … Filmmaking is a collaboration, reliant on the mutual trust of team work and Warner Bros. has declared they are no longer on the same team.”
“Dune” takes place amid an intergalactic feudal empire and follows Paul Atreides (Chalamet) after his noble father (Oscar Isaac) accepts stewardship of a dangerous desert planet, the sole source of a powerful space drug referred to as “the spice.” It’s the sort of sweeping sci-fi saga that begs for an immersive experience, and that Villeneuve — despite widespread praise for the craftsmanship of “Blade Runner 2049,” particularly regarding his partnership with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins — referred to in the op-ed as “by far the best movie I’ve ever made.”
Warner Bros. hasn’t responded to The Washington Post’s request for comment on his remarks. CEO Ann Sarnoff implied while announcing the studio’s plan that it would be temporary — “No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do,” she said — but failed to expand on why the company decided against evaluating each release on a case-by-case basis.
Villeneuve is one of 17 filmmakers with projects affected by the HBO Max deal, including returning Warner Bros. directors such as Clint Eastwood (“Cry Macho”), Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix 4”) and Jon M. Chu (“In the Heights”), as well as first-timers like Lisa Joy (“Reminiscence”) and Shaka King (“Judas and the Black Messiah”). The sound design of films like “Dune” and “The Matrix” is engineered to be heard in theaters, as are the vivid colors and choreography of “In the Heights,” an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical. When it was initially delayed a year, Chu tweeted his support, saying that it “didn’t take 10 years to get made only to be left in half empty theaters w/out the crowd it deserves!!”
In a recent interview with The Post’s Geoff Edgers, Nolan, who has been making movies with Warner Bros. for nearly two decades, criticized the studio for announcing the streaming plan without first consulting with the creative teams behind the output.
“They didn’t speak to the filmmakers, they didn’t speak to the theater chains,” he said. “They didn’t speak to the production partners on the films. That was the reason I was speaking up.”
Most of the directors have kept mum on the decision — and either declined or failed to respond to The Post’s request for comment — but pushback continues to build behind the scenes. The Directors Guild of America sent Sarnoff a “sharply worded letter” and demanded a meeting to address the plan’s issues, according to the Hollywood Reporter. (Union representatives also declined to comment.) Legendary Pictures, which also produced “Godzilla vs. Kong,” is reportedly contemplating legal action to force an exclusive theatrical release.
Beyond the immediate backlash lies a deeper concern: What does this shift to streaming, however temporary, signify about the future of filmmaking? And of blockbusters in particular?
The first question isn’t a new one — the relationship between streaming services and institutions like festivals and awards bodies, for instance, has been tenuous in the past. Directors including Steven Spielberg have spoken against the Netflix distribution plan, though he later clarified that his qualms were more about ensuring “the survival of movie theaters” and less so with the company itself. Martin Scorsese leads a pack of acclaimed directors who have released films on the platform, a choice he backed not necessarily from an artistic perspective but from a practical one.
“In order to show a film, you have to have a film,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter around the release of crime epic “The Irishman.” “This was a real offer and it made sense. The trade-off is this: an exhibition. But it’s still in theaters. While it’s being streamed it’s still in theaters.”
Netflix gave Scorsese the money to fund his passion project, as it did with Steven Soderbergh, who made “High-Flying Bird” and “The Laundromat” for the platform. He told The Post’s Ann Hornaday last year that the latter is “the perfect example of something that I think doesn’t get made [anymore] at a studio,” arguing that the companies are veering toward a blockbusters-only business model at the expense of films with midrange budgets and perhaps less of a wide appeal.
Some might argue that, by prematurely applying its streaming plan to an entire year’s worth of Warner Bros. films, the studio has now turned its back on those blockbusters, too.
Soderbergh — who just released “Let Them All Talk,” his first of two films for HBO Max — theorized to the Associated Press that “somebody at Warner looked very dispassionately at what’s happening and refused to make rosy assumptions about what a vaccine means and the effect it will have on moviegoing in 2021.” But he added that, from a studio’s perspective, large-scale theatrical releases are “really not worth doing” if the venues aren’t able to fill to capacity.
“Blockbusters are not going away,” he said. “Anybody who thinks the studios have somehow lost faith in people going to the movies, no. When you make a movie that blows up at the box office, that’s just too lucrative to ever abandon. They would love to have movies in theaters now. They’re just trying to figure out what to do with these assets that are sitting on the shelf, getting stale.”
Villeneuve might have a few suggestions.