'Dune: Part Two' rides great reviews, starry young cast to $81.5 million debut

Movie theaters were looking for a savior and "Dune: Part Two" is delivering on the promise. Armed with sandworms, big-screen spectacle and the star power of Timothée Chalamet, Denis Villeneuve 's science fiction epic stormed the North American box office this weekend, earning $81.5 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.Internationally, the movie earned $97 million, bringing its global debut to $178.5 million.

Mary Parent, a producer on both "Dune" films, hailed it as "a really extraordinary and special film."

"It was made for the big screen and it feels like it's being received as a cinematic event," she said.

The "Dune" sequel is the first major hit of 2024, and one that was sorely needed by exhibitors.

Although there have been holdovers from December that have continued to earn, like "Wonka" (also starring Chalamet) and the Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney romantic comedy "Anyone But You," the box office is in a bit of a drought. In the first two months of 2024, no films have crossed $100 million domestically. The highest-earning movies have been "The Beekeeper," "Bob Marley: One Love" and "Mean Girls."

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Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and his nephew Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (Austin Butler) plot to defeat Paul and maintain their hold on Arrakis in “Dune: Part Two."
Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and his nephew Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (Austin Butler) plot to defeat Paul and maintain their hold on Arrakis in “Dune: Part Two."

"Dune 2" rode a wave of great reviews (94% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) into a marketplace that was essentially free of competition. The film played in 4,071 locations in the U.S. and Canada, where audiences gave it a CinemaScore grade of A.

Men made up 59% of opening-weekend ticket buyers and 64% were older than 25.

"It really captured the marketplace," says Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution. "It's a cultural moment globally."

Premium large format screens like IMAX and 70mm accounted for 48% of the business. It marked a March record for IMAX, which made up $18.5 million of the overall take.

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Originally planned for an October 2023 release, Warner Bros. bumped the movie to March amid the Hollywood strikes that would have prevented its starry cast of Chalamet, Zendaya and Austin Butler from doing the promotional circuit. The global promotional tour has been on hyperdrive for about a month, driving conversations with buzzy interviews, the viral sandworm-inspired popcorn bucket and eye-popping fashion moments from the stylish young cast – peaking with Zendaya dressed in vintage Mugler as a silver cyborg in London.

Goldstein noted there was "a lot of debate" about whether or not to release the movie during the strikes, but they knew that they needed the cast to "fully realize the movie."

"You don't make movie stars any place other than theaters," Goldstein says.

The first "Dune" opened under complicated conditions in October 2021. It was one of the last films of the studio's divisive plan to simultaneously debut its major movies in theaters and on its streaming platform. And yet it still earned more than $40 million in its first weekend and went on to gross $400 million worldwide.

"Denis Villeneuve is up there with Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker whose name alone inspires people to go to the movie theater," says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore.This weekend, he added, "moves the needle in a big way."

Going into the weekend, the box office was down about 20% from the same point last year (when "Avatar: The Way of Water," a 2022 release, was lifting everything). The closest equivalent this year is "Wonka," still a hit, but not as big as "Avatar 2." After the opening of "Dune," the deficit will be closer to 13%.

"It shows how important one movie can be to the overall health of the industry," Dergarabedian says. "But this is not a one-hit wonder for March. It's a momentum business."

Warner Bros. will be back in short order with another big film, in "Godzilla x Kong" at the end of March, followed by "Furiosa" in May, the "Beetlejuice" sequel in September and the "Joker" sequel in October.

"This is our year," Goldstein says. "Exhibitors are fighting for their lives but we can be clever and collaborative with them to keep our business relevant to audiences."

Final numbers are expected Monday.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Dune: Part Two' dazzles with $81.5M debut at weekend box office