Apple's Foundation vs Warner Bros.' Dune: An epic sci-fi clash of content distribution

It's Trantor versus Arrakis, as the fall of 2021 begins with an epic battle between two Hugo Award-winning science fiction adaptations and their respective content distribution mechanisms. While I wish them both well, my bet is on the world's most valuable digital ecosystem.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

The Protagonists of Dune (Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides) and Foundation (Leah Harvey as Salvor Hardin)

Warner Bros/Apple Inc.

On Tuesday of this week, all eyes were on Apple's "California Streaming" virtual event, during which this year's models of iPhones -- and iPads -- were unveiled to an awaiting public.

The new smartphones and tablets are destined to be big hits -- they have been, consistently, year after year, even with minor iterative improvements. But Apple's biggest news of 2021 isn't the iPhone 13 or the exciting new iPad Mini. In terms of new market penetration and risk potential, the big news will be the results of Apple's $1 billion investment in streaming media content for its Apple TV Plus service, which they announced in 2019.

A big chunk of that billion-dollar commitment will be their adaptation of Foundation, the first of three volumes in a series of classic Isaac Asimov science-fiction novels published in the early 1950s. In 1966, Foundation won the prestigious Hugo Award for All-Time Best Series.

Foundation is an epic story that details the fall of a vast galactic empire over 1,000 years of history, situated in a fictional universe with a large cast of characters. In addition to two prequels and two more sequels published in the 1980s and 1990s, Asimov wrote another series of novels, the Robot series, about a police investigator and sentient long-lived androids in a far-future Earth, which takes place in the same shared fictional universe as Foundation

Apple will be releasing the first two episodes of Foundation on September 24 on its Apple TV+ service. While nobody knows precisely how much money was spent on the 10 episodes of its first season, the director, David S. Goyer, has stated that "It's pretty up there. It was an ample budget. I will say this: On an average per hour, if you were to take two episodes and put them together, the budget is bigger than some of the movies I've done."

The production has employed over 500 people and is the largest-ever television or film production made in Ireland.

Foundation is considered such a seminal work of science fiction that it has influenced almost every modern and popular work and franchise in that genre, including Star Trek and Star Wars. It is the "OG" of hard, epic sci-fi. It is foundational, literally, for so much of what exists as Sci-Fi in popular culture.

This alone is newsworthy. But Foundation arrives just as another epic sci-fi property is also about to be released to the big and small screen -- Warner's adaptation of Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve. He was previously the director of Blade Runner: 2049 (2017) and Arrival (2016). Dune was produced on an estimated $165M budget, and that is not counting marketing costs, which are expected to be considerable, as much as $50M globally.

Dune is based on the 1965 novel by Frank Herbert, which tied for the Hugo Award for best novel in 1966. As with Foundation, Dune is part of a long, epic series of novels (most of which have been written by his son, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson) that spans 15,000 years of history, in an equally complex fictional universe with a large cast of characters. 

Dune has influenced many TV series and films, notably Star Wars, whose planet Tattooine is remarkably similar to the desert world of Arrakis that Herbert envisioned. Notably, Foundation heavily influences Dune itself, and Star Wars' imperial galactic city-planet of Coruscant is practically a carbon copy of Asimov's planet Trantor.

Dune has been released in several international markets -- in theaters -- this week. In the United States, it will be released simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters on October 22.

What we have unfolding, then, is the 2021 battle of Hugo Award-winning science fiction epic adaptations and content distribution mechanisms.

Which of the two is going to win?

While I would love to see an adaptation of Dune finally succeed, as a media franchise, it doesn't have an excellent track record because of the extreme difficulties in adapting the works and making the storyline palatable to the general public. 

Despite having spent millions of dollars, director Alejandro Jodorowsky failed to get his adaptation of Dune past the conceptualization and development stage in the 1970s. The first cinematic attempt, released in 1984 by Universal Pictures, directed by David Lynch, and produced by Dino de Laurentis, grossed only $31M box office on a $45M budget, so it was a major disappointment financially. Its second attempt as a miniseries on the Sci-Fi network also never garnered tremendous viewership. However, they were able to successfully adapt the second and third novels with a second miniseries. 

Denis Villeneuve's recent track record has not been so stellar either. While his talents to produce beautiful visual works of cinematic art are uncontested, from a financial standpoint, his movies -- as their budgets have expanded -- have not been huge producers. Blade Runner: 2049, which arguably had over three decades of pent-up demand as a sequel to a cult classic (which, itself, was not a financial success), had around a $150M budget, with about $40 - 50M in marketing costs, and only made $259M worldwide. His previous film, Arrival, was a critical success, but on a budget of $47M with a box office of $203M.

Dune is also only half of a movie. While Villeneuve shot about seven or eight hours of film, and the finished product is 2:35, only part of the book's story was filmed. Should the film prove successful, Warner will (presumably) greenlight the second part.

However, if Dune repeats Villeneuve's performance with Blade Runner: 2049, it will be a flop. Keep in mind that the film was released in theaters in pre-COVID times when it was much easier to get butts in seats. 

Despite having read all of the original novels, and some of Brian Herbert's prequels, I personally will not be putting my butt in a theater seat to see Dune -- I'll be watching it on a 70-inch TV from the comfort of my own home with a Sonos surround sound setup. Presumably, this will be weeks after I have seen the first several episodes of Foundation.

I don't know how much HBO, a subdivision of WarnerMedia (part of AT&T), paid for the rights to stream Dune or how much money it thinks it can make by incentivizing people to subscribe to their streaming service. I get HBO Max gratis because I spend enough money with my AT&T wireless contract, and I expect most of its users are in a similar situation. 

While this can be viewed as an internal cost-shifting issue, AT&T has already decided to sell all WarnerMedia's assets to Discovery Networks. So if Dune does well, Discovery has a hot property on its hands. If it doesn't? Well, it will make the accounting a bit more creative when the time comes for AT&T to unload that asset. It will also make the process of determining whether to go forward with a sequel and a potential TV streaming spinoff, The Sisterhood, that much more difficult when Discovery can no longer rely on AT&T's coffers.

Foundation isn't a sure thing for Apple

Because most people under 50 probably haven't even heard of the Asimov franchise, Foundation is completely unproven in that regard. And while Apple has done relatively well with Ted Lasso and For All Mankind, it has never made that kind of studio-level big-budget bet on content before.

Judging by the promotional trailers, Foundation looks breathtaking in terms of visual effects and acting talent. It makes much more sense to do this as a series than condense everything into a feature-length film. The overwhelming fan response to Disney's Star Wars-based saga The Mandalorian has already proven that episodic formats make a lot more sense for this type of content, particularly if they are being released weekly -- people keep coming back for more. 

Potentially, according to the director, there are 80 hours of television to be told to adapt all of Asimov's original books, not counting the Robots novels. 

While Dune's early reviews appear positive, there are already concerns that many supporting characters have been overlooked or have had their screen time drastically reduced, with the hopes that they will be more featured in the second yet un-filmed half. 

Apple has a unique position in the industry in that it has hundreds of millions of potential eyeballs to which to stream its content on its iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV devices. And while the company sells its Apple TV+ service piecemeal for a mere $4.99 a month, many may choose to obtain the service through the Apple One bundle, as I do, for as little as $14.95 a month. 

For Apple, Foundation and its other content investments are part of keeping customers in its ecosystem, a cost of doing business, a value add to what is already the most valuable digital content ecosystem. For Warner Brothers, Dune is a hope that you'll either continue to pour money into a dying and dated content distribution mechanism or jump onto their HBO Max service that is competing with others that have loads more original content, such as Disney, Netflix, and Amazon.

While I hope both do well, I know in my heart which one of these franchises has the best chance of success.

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