Goodness knows there has been a lot more going on this year, and that is worth keeping in perspective. But as a fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune (and even some of the subsequent books!) looking forward to seeing what director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) could do with his well-pedigreed film adaptation, I have been on quite a journey this year, first reacting to the earliest promotional images from its set, then enjoying its trailer in September, then being crestfallen after learning that its release would be delayed almost an entire year. (It would have come out next week, alas.)
After that most recent news, I openly wondered whether mass moviegoing would survive as a phenomenon until next October with theaters kept in their strange limbo. This was before Warner Bros. announced that next year all of its theatrical releases would simultaneously be available on HBO Max, WB’s affiliated screening service via their shared AT&T ownership. As Kyle Smith noted earlier this week, this move, made apparently without any of WB’s talent being informed, has made at least some of them — notably, theatre-experience proponent Christopher Nolan, whose Dark Knight trilogy and Inception have been major hits for the studio — quite angry. Nolan essentially believes that his work and that of others at the studio, which he sees as properly belonging to a movie theater, has been turned into an advertisement for a streaming service against their will.
Now, Villeneuve himself has weighed in, at film-trade publication Variety. And he sounds about as angry as Nolan:
I learned in the news that Warner Bros. has decided to release “Dune” on HBO Max at the same time as our theatrical release, using prominent images from our movie to promote their streaming service. 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. 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. With HBO Max’s launch a failure thus far, AT&T decided to sacrifice Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 slate in a desperate attempt to grab the audience’s attention.
Warner Bros.’ sudden reversal from being a legacy home for filmmakers to the new era of complete disregard draws a clear line for me. 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.
Villeneuve goes on to argue that, while streaming services are obviously an important and growing aspect of modern entertainment consumption, the theatrical-viewing experience remains paramount, and that he went about creating his Dune adaptation with the intent that it would be viewed in theaters. The business model Hollywood has operated on for a while may be changing. And I may be unrepresentative in still wanting to see movies, especially ones grand in scope and scale, in theaters. But I agree with Nolan and Villeneuve here — and not just because I want to see Dune in a theater.