Dune director takes fire at HBO Max release plans, as legal action looms

dune story
(Image credit: Chiabella James/Warner Bros.)

Things are heating up in Hollywood, with Dune director Denis Villeneuve joining a chorus of criticism against Warner Bros for deciding to launch its entire 2021 slate of movies on HBO Max, on the same day as they release in theaters.

Villeneuve penned a furious and heartfelt article for Variety, criticizing a decision he reportedly learnt about "in the news", clarifying just how little filmmakers were consulted on the distribution plans for their works.

The famed director behind Prisoners, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, and the upcoming Dune adaptation – set to release in 2021 – largely aimed his ire at Warner Bros.' parent company AT&T, saying it had "hijacked one of the most respectable and important studios in film history".

"There is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here," he added. "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."

Directors, assemble!

The comments come shortly after Tenet director Christopher Nolan similarly blasted the move, saying that "some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”

Dune producer Legendary, too, reportedly has plans to launch a legal battle against Warner Media regarding the decision.

The movies set to same-day release on HBO Max include Dune, The Matrix 4, The Suicide Squad, and Mortal Kombat.

Villeneuve's essay is worth reading in full, as an attempt to keep some semblance of big-screen cinema alive in an age rushing faster and faster into streaming-first distribution.

Dune was initially meant to launch in 2020, but delayed to October 2021 – by which time public safety measures around cinema experiences could well be entirely different, with vaccines starting to roll out across the world.

"Streaming services are a positive and powerful addition to the movie and TV ecosystems," argues Villeneuve. "But I want the audience to understand that streaming alone can’t sustain the film industry as we knew it before COVID. Streaming can produce great content, but not movies of Dune’s scope and scale. Warner Bros.’ decision means Dune won’t have the chance to perform financially in order to be viable and piracy will ultimately triumph."

"Warner Bros. might just have killed the Dune franchise," he added.

Why though?

It's a thorny topic, given many still feel unsafe gathering in enclosed spaces for several hours – and the move feels a bit pre-emptive, given the arrival of vaccines in some countries. In Villeneuve's case specifically, the October 2021 release date feels so far off that lumping it in with earlier-releasing films seems careless.

The move effectively spells the end of the theatrical release window, though, joining the likes of Netflix in ensuring streaming customers can access lower-res, smaller-screen versions of big-budget films from day one. It may be good for streamers, for sure, but might end up costing us a big chunk of movie theaters who are unable to stay in business in the long term – as well as depriving films like Dune the chance to draw in cinema-goers and be viewed as intended.

There is a quality concern here – movies made for the small screen, whether they're smart TVs or smartphones, can't really recreate the same scope, scale or detail as films made for theaters. What need is there for 8K IMAX cameras, when most are watching on 4K, HD, or (shudder) SD screens?

Whichever side you land on, the blanket move on all 2021 movies, and alleged lack of consultation for filmmakers involved, doesn't look set to make Warner Media (or HBO Max) any friends.

Henry St Leger

Henry is a freelance technology journalist, and former News & Features Editor for TechRadar, where he specialized in home entertainment gadgets such as TVs, projectors, soundbars, and smart speakers. Other bylines include Edge, T3, iMore, GamesRadar, NBC News, Healthline, and The Times.