Late last week, sci-fi fans who have been chomping at the bit to see the upcoming tentpole movie Dune were outraged. As part of its marketing blitz, Legendary Pictures, which is partnering with Warner Bros. on the film, announced that it will be releasing a collection of Dune NFT sculptures and digital paintings. Fans saw the move as hypocritical, given the environmental emphasis of Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel, and the sizable emission of greenhouse gases that results from producing NFTs, or nonfungible tokens.
The move—and the subsequent outrage it spawned—underscores how trend-jumping can sometimes go very publicly awry. It’s a lesson Hollywood needs to pay attention to as it dives headfirst into the NFT craze, seeing virtually every movie release as an opportunity to create digitally owned crypto collectibles. Digital files that are stored on a blockchain network, NFTs offer a unique digital certificate of authenticity that makes them impossible to fake. This exclusivity has driven demand for them in the worlds of art, sports, and entertainment.
Shortly after this story posted, Legendary issued this statement: “Legendary’s passion and focus is on bringing Dune to audiences and delivering fans the epic film event they deserve. Anything less than that mission feels counterproductive and not in service of the hard work of hundreds of filmmakers and cast involved in this groundbreaking project. To that end we’ve decided to suspend the Dune NFT program and look forward to seeing everyone in theaters soon!”
The problem, at least prior to the shift in strategy, was with Legendary’s decision to release the NFTs on MakersPlace, which sells NFTs minted on the Etherum blockchain. The latter is viewed as one of the crypto space’s worst offenders when it comes to environmental damage. Like Bitcoin, Ethereum is built on a system called “proof of work,” where people have to solve complex puzzles in order to add new “blocks” of verified transactions to the blockchain. This creates a more secure system, seeing there is no bank overseeing the transactions. But it also requires huge amounts of computer power. According to The Verge, Ethereum “uses about as much electricity as the entire country of Libya.” (Other estimates prefer comparisons to the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Oman.) Backlash against Ethereum’s energy usage has caused at least one digital platform, ArtStation, to cancel its NFT partnership with the blockchain.
The revolt among Dune fans is particularly passionate given the irony that Dune itself delves deeply into themes of environmentalism to the point that it’s considered a climate fiction pioneer. In Herbert’s novel, where denizens of the planet Arrakis must contend with a harsh desert landscape defined by giant sand storms, an ecologist named Kynes sets out to transform Arrakis into a lush, garden paradise. However, there is a cost to that transformation, leading to questions of human control over nature.
Introducing Dune: Future Artifacts, the digital NFT collection of works unearthed from the shifting sands of Arrakis. The first collection drops September 22nd on @makersplaceco. https://t.co/kdlxcIhd7r@dunemovie @HansZimmer @RealChalamet @Zendaya pic.twitter.com/hxO3OOlibO
— Legendary (@Legendary) September 10, 2021
No such consideration, apparently, was behind the decision to issue Dune NFTs. Soon after Legendary made its announcement, Twitter heated up as sci-fi scribes and fans expressed their displeasure. “Bold marketing choice lol,” wrote Daniel Orrett, creator of the sci-fi web series The Sojourn. “This is kind of like watching An Inconvenient Truth while [sitting] in a jacuzzi full of crude oil.”
Twitter user Simon McNeil weighed in thusly: “A Dune NFT is such a poor choice of medium/subject relationship that I don’t even know what to say.”
And then there was this from fan Andy O’Brien: “Hey Legendary 1. Read and understand the story of Dune. 2. Read and understand the entire room. 3. Don’t do this NFT crap.”
This NFT “crap” has turned Hollywood upside down in recent months, as studios, agencies, and streaming companies have salivated over the idea of unlocking a new revenue stream and marketing vein. Warner Bros., which is finally releasing Dune in theaters and on HBO Max next month following COVID-19-related delays, leapt into the business when it created blockchain collectibles around its summer tentpole Space Jam: A New Legacy. That collection was through Nifty’s, a crypto marketplace that bills itself as being more eco-friendly because it uses alternate blockchain networks that have a smaller carbon footprint. Legendary also released NFTs tied to Godzilla vs. Kong—though they were released on the virtual reality platform Terra Virtua, so there was no uproar.
The open-source project that runs Ethereum is currently addressing its environmental footprint by upgrading its system from a proof-of-work mechanism to a proof-of-stake model (read more about what that means here). The shift will improve Ethereum’s speed and efficiency so that it can process more transactions with more ease and thus cut down on emissions.
Ethereum 2.0 is set to be complete next year. Until then, companies that partner with the blockchain face a potential PR drubbing, as Legendary is finding. The film company has tried to rectify the mess by saying that it would purchase offsets for Dune NFTs, meaning it will buy credits that go toward greenhouse gas reduction projects. “We want to assure everyone that the Dune: Future Artifacts Collection will be offset using Aerial, a sustainability platform that calculates the carbon emissions based on associated energy use,” Legendary tweeted.
The move was perceived by Dune fans as, at best, an unimpressive attempt to save face. At worst, it was more blundering.
“There is no such thing as a ‘sustainable’ NFT,” tweeted comic book writer Zac Thompson. “You can literally just not make them.”