Denis Villeneuve Takes on WB
by Maurie Alioff – Québec Correspondent
(February 22, 2021 – Montréal, QC) Way back in 1998, when Denis Villeneuve’s first feature, August 23rd on Earth was released, the writer-director told me about his love for consciousness-probing fantasy, especially sci-fi. He had just completed a typically 1990’s relationship comedy, but he was dreaming about pictures like Blade Runner and Dune, which had been adapted from Frank Herbert’s epic novel by David Lynch, a Villeneuve hero.
No Québécois filmmaker, including Denys Arcand, Jean-Marc Vallée, and Pierre Falardeau, has achieved Villeneuve’s realization of dreams, not to mention scale of success “à l’extérieur,” or outside Quebec. In 1998, even he couldn’t have imagined he would eventually direct the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, a movie which followed 2016’s close encounter with aliens story, Arrival. Villeneuve’s Québec produced features Incendies (2011) and Polytechnique (2009), as well as the stunning short Next Floor (2008) were so visually brilliant and emotionally powerful, before you could say Sunset Boulevard, he had signed on to projects like Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015). His more modest, destabilizing film Enemy (2013) was a Canadian production.
For Villeneuve, getting his Dune visions onscreen was the ultimate adventure – a daunting one. David Lynch’s adaption in 1985 suffered from such lack of creative control, hostile reaction, and box-office disaster, Lynch has called it a “huge, gigantic sadness in my life.” He told a reporter recently he has “zero interest” in seeing Villeneuve’s version of the story.
After years of planning and working out Dune, Villeneuve is so delighted by the result, he considers it his best film. Naturally, he was eager for audiences to see the picture but more than understood why in the shadow of the Covid pandemic, Warner Brothers delayed theatrical release to October of this year. However, like other moviemakers, Villeneuve is furious that WB decided unilaterally that its high-budget, high profile films would also stream on HBO Max. Villeneuve has nothing against streaming as a mode of exhibition, but as an ardent devotee of cinema and the experiences it offers, he argues that pictures with huge canvases must be seen on huge screens. In fact, for him and many others, nothing can replace the communal experience of a darkened theatre.
In a Variety editorial, Villeneuve wrote, “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.” He also attacked WB parent company AT&T, which has been engaging in intricate manoeuvres to maximize the bottom line of its many divisions, which include HBO Max.
“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.”
Naturally, Villeneuve’s position has been backed by other directors including Judd Apatow, who has no link to Warner Bros, and Christopher Nolan, who does. Nolan told The Washington Post: “It’s a question of partnership and collaboration. They did not speak to those filmmakers. They did not consult them about what their plans were for their work. And I felt that somebody needed to point out that that wasn’t the right way to treat those filmmakers.”
Not only the moviemakers are outraged. Legendary Entertainment, a major financial backer of Dune might go after Warner Bros., worried that the HBO Max decision could damage the value of a franchise like Dune. In defence of the streaming move, Warner Media Chair and CEO told media, “I wish we could have had more time to speak to our partners and talent. We are very conscious of paying a fair price for the HBO Max 31-day distribution of the movie, and we think they’ll be happy to see how much effort we will put behind successfully launching these movies.”
No doubt, the HBO Max deal might have come into play even in a pandemic-free world. But Covid is a horrible reality that can’t be ignored. Understandably, Villeneuve believes that when the delayed theatrical launch of Dune happens next fall, the virus will be controlled enough for audiences to flock back to theatres. Hopefully, he’s right.
Villeneuve accepts streaming, but I’m sure concurs with Martin Scorsese, who wrote in an upcoming Harper’s article on Federico Fellini: “‘Content’ became a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode. It was linked, of course, not to the theatrical experience but to home viewing, on the streaming platforms that have come to overtake the moviegoing experience, just as Amazon overtook physical stores.”
Scorsese does acknowledge that he could never have made a picture like The Irishman without Netflix. Everybody who is old enough misses the great standalone theatres of the past. And nobody wants theatres to disappear. But how do movies find an audience in a world where technology has facilitated and improved home moviegoing? And going out to a film can be expensive and fraught with annoyances like fifteen minutes of dumb commercials and nacho munching blabbers in the multiplexes?
As for Dune itself, it’s obviously one of the most anticipated movies ever made, and hopefully it will fulfill expectations. But legendary, 92-year-old visionary Alejandro Jodorowsky, who once tried desperately to adapt the novel, is not sure. Although he admires Villeneuve and wishes him well, he told IndieWire: “I saw the trailer. It’s very well done. We can see that it is industrial cinema, that there is a lot of money, and that it was very expensive. But if it was very expensive, it must pay in proportion. And that is the problem: There [are] no surprises. The form is identical to what is done everywhere. The lighting, the acting, everything is predictable.”
You can’t judge a book by its cover. Can you judge an epic movie by its trailer?
Also see: Denis Villeneuve’s filmography.
Maurie Alioff is a film journalist, critic, screenwriter and media columnist. He has written for radio and television and taught screenwriting at Montreal’s Vanier College. A former editor for Cinema Canada and Take One, as well as other magazines, he is affiliated with the Quebec media industry publication, CTVM.Info. His articles have appeared in various publications, including Canadian Cinematographer, POV Magazine, and The New York Times.