IMAX sees box office surge

Big, big screen format suits Warner Brother’s new sci-fi blockbuster


Rebecca Ferguson stars in Dune which proved a big IMAX hit in China

Frank Herbert’s landmark 1965 sci-fi novel Dune was first adapted into a film in 1984 but director David Lynch was so unhappy with the cut he disavowed it. Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky also had hopes of turning the book into a 10-plus-hour cinematic saga featuring Mick Jagger and Salvador Dalí but production never began. So when Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve decided to put his stamp on the sci-fi classic, with an outsized budget of $165 million, there was anticipation and anxiety in equal measure.

Thankfully for Villeneuve, his labour of love paid off. Since its release in the US in late October, Dune has been largely positively reviewed. The film has grossed $225 million worldwide, enough for Warner Brothers to announce a sequel to be released in 2023.

Set on faraway planets in the distant future, Dune tells the story of the Atreides family as they relocate to the desert planet Arrakis (also known as Dune) to manage the harvest of a very important export called melange. But their time on Arrakis quickly becomes dangerous, and after they are betrayed by one of their own, the young Paul Atreides (played by Timothee Chalamet) and his mother (Rebecca Ferguson) have to seek help from the planet’s native people who live among the dangerous sand dunes.

But the story of a teenage boy in the desert has failed to strike a chord with audiences in China. Nine days into its local release the film had collected Rmb200 million ($31.24 million) at the box office, compared to the latest James Bond film No Time to Die, which raked in Rmb160 million during its opening weekend.

“Taking into account the unprecedented all-star line-up and the big budget of the film, such box office results obviously won’t satisfy the producers,” Xiao Fuqiu, a film critic based in Shanghai, told the Global Times.

Word-of-mouth online is mixed. “What an ultimate cinematic experience! The design details are full of surprises. The film is indeed an excellent prelude. Even the deliberatery anti-climatic ending did not cause the film to feel long and overextended,” one audience member gushed.

Others were less excited. “The whole story is cumbersome and dull. By the second half of the film many started checking their phones,” another observed.

“I’m not sure why a story that can be explained from start to finish in 10 minutes needs to be stretched to 150 minutes long,” one disgruntled cinemagoer complained.

Some even compared Dune to the hit Chinese 2019 sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth. “When it comes to substance, I think Dune doesn’t stack up against The Wandering Earth,” a netizen wrote dismissively.

Critics reckon that cultural differences help to explain why many Hollywood sci-fi films have flopped in China. “For domestic audiences, Dune and other artistic sci-fi blockbusters present certain cultural barriers, just like [Villeneuve’s last film] Blade Runner 2049. Besides, most audiences in China had no preconceived notion of the historical significance of Dune; not many of them were aware of the collaboration between Villeneuve and Hans Zimmer [Dune’s music composer; he also worked on 2049]. As a result, a Hollywood film that does not have the usual trappings of a blockbuster, and without the support of excellent word-of-mouth, will only be enjoyed by very few fans,” Entertainment Unicorn opined.

But no matter, those sci-fi fans who did want to enjoy the all-encompassing cinematic effect of Dune have flocked to watch it on premium-priced IMAX screens. According to the Canadian large-screen movie company, thanks to the Villeneuve epic, IMAX China made Rmb33 million the first weekend the film opened, accounting for 23% of box office takings even though the IMAX format makes up less than 1% of the country’s screens.

Overall, October was a record month for IMAX China. In addition to Dune, The Battle at Lake Changjin also helped the large-screen technology provider rake in ticket sales of Rmb250 million last month, surpassing the previous IMAX monthly record of Rmb196 million set in 2020.

Meanwhile, Lake Changjin – a Korean War film about Chinese troops fighting American forces (see WiC559) – exceeded Rmb5.5 billion ($860 million) in box office takings last weekend, rendering it the highest-grossing film worldwide in 2021. The movie is China’s second highest-grossing film in history behind Wolf Warrior 2, which took Rmb5.7 billion.

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