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What ‘Dune: Part 2’ spicing up the box office means for the future of movie theaters

Between “Oppenheimer” and “Dune: Part 2,” audiences are proving they’re willing to shell out a lot of money to see movies in premium formats like IMAX. Will theaters adapt or stay the course?

Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atrides in a screen capture from a Dune 2 scene.
“Dune: Part 2,” the second part of Denis Villeneuve’s sci fi epic, is the early breakout hit of 2024. Credit: Warner Brothers Picture

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one thinking about spice, sandworms and desert landscapes. “Dune: Part 2” continues its box office domination, as the science fiction epic approaches the $500 million mark, having already barreled past the entire box office take of its 2021 predecessor, “Dune: Part 1,” since being released on March 1.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal novel has become the first must-see movie of 2024. It also offers a potential glimpse of where Hollywood and movie theaters might be headed, says Steve Granelli, associate teaching professor of communication studies at Northeastern University.

Following hot on the heels of 2023’s Barbenheimer-fueled box office blowout, “Dune: Part 2” is further proof that “a lot of the death knell pieces about the industry that were written a few years ago were a little shortsighted,” Granelli says. 

“Dune: Part 1” was released day and date in theaters and on the streaming platform then called HBO Max (now, just Max), a common pandemic-era strategy that hampered its box office potential while ensuring more people could watch it. At the time, that strategy created a lot of anxiety around the future of movie theaters, Granelli says.

Now, the doom and gloom that surrounded Hollywood during the COVID-19 pandemic has somewhat faded. According to CNBC, the U.S. domestic box office could hit $10 billion by 2026, a benchmark the industry hasn’t hit since 2019.

Headshot of Steve Granelli.
The success of “Dune: Part 2” in IMAX is an indication of what kinds of movies and experiences are driving audiences to theaters right now, says Steve Granelli, associate teaching professor of communication studies at Northeastern University. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In the wake of “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” a success story like “Dune: Part 2” proves yet again that audiences still want to watch movies in theaters. It just takes a particular kind of movie to get people into seats.

“If theaters are going to keep driving people to the theater, then it has to be for an experience that they’re only going to be getting at the theater at that time at that date as soon as possible, not two months down the road,” Granelli says.

Making a movie into a must-see event is far from new. But with movies like “Oppenheimer” and “Dune: Part 2,” studios have capitalized on the trusted reputations of their auteur directors, the spectacle of the films themselves and, more recently, enhanced screening formats like IMAX.

With its taller aspect ratio and higher resolution, IMAX has been known as a top shelf screening option for years. With that, comes a much higher ticket price. But increasingly, enhanced formats like IMAX are driving audiences to the theater in greater numbers.

Due in large part to the success of Academy Award-winner “Oppenheimer,” 2023 was the second-highest grossing year for IMAX in the company’s history. It raked in $1.06 billion worldwide from movies playing on its large format screens, according to Variety.

“Dune Part 2,” which, like “Oppenheimer,” has been marketed as a must-see theatrical event, also benefited from this audience interest. About $100 million of the more than $500 million “Dune Part 2” has raked in is from IMAX screenings. But even films like “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” that aren’t being pitched as must-see IMAX experiences are drawing crowds. About 35% of the $204.6 million the animated film earned in its first five days alone was from large-screen and 3D formats, according to Universal Pictures.

Granelli says “Oppenheimer” and “Dune: Part 2” show how IMAX has become just as much about fandom as it is about the picture and sound quality of the movie.

“Maybe now … part of my fandom is not only did I see it opening weekend, I saw it in the best format possible, in IMAX on opening weekend, and I got the souvenir bucket,” Granelli says. “Eventizing the film is kind of like reifying the true fans, giving fans another way to display their fandom.”

Is IMAX the way forward for movie theaters at a time when spectacle seems to be the driving force for audiences? There is clear demand from audiences, studios and filmmakers. But Granelli says the real question might be, if they build it, will they come? If theaters add more IMAX screens, a costly prospect for any theater chain given the size and technical specifications necessary to do so, will audiences meet the demand?

It might already be happening, slowly but surely. The number of IMAX screens has expanded from 1,529 locations in 2019 to 1,615 locations in 2023, according to Variety.

It’s been a boon for some theater chains, like B&B Theatres in Missouri, according to Reuters. Premium formats like IMAX now account for about half of B&B’s ticket earnings, compared to 30% pre-pandemic. Given ticket prices for premium formats are about $5 to $7 higher than regular tickets, that’s a huge win for theaters and studios. 

But Granelli warns that it might still be too early to tell whether IMAX is the future of theatrical releases. There are real estate, cost and logistical challenges for theaters to consider when adding more screens. It also takes a certain kind of film and director to make full use of IMAX, he says.

“It’s a budget issue, number one; it’s a scale issue, number two,” Granelli says. “There are things that a cinematographer has to take into account when they know it’s going to be presented in an IMAX theater versus when it’s not. … The stories that are going to be told that fit well on that screen are not the ones that are easiest to make.”