Bound in sky blue cloth and marked with the number 5, the manuscript had lain dormant in a private collection for almost half a century. Between its covers is a doomed vision that the legendary filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky had described as “the coming of a God”: his plans to turn Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, Dune, into one of the most ambitious films ever made.
To execute his vision, Jodorowsky assembled a phalanx of celebrated artists, visual effects experts, illustrators, and designers. Pink Floyd agreed to do the music. Salvador Dalí would play the emperor of the universe (for a fee of $100,000 per minute of screentime). Orson Welles was to play the evil Baron Harkonnen. Even Mick Jagger signed on.
To sell the idea to Hollywood studios, Jodorowsky’s producers printed 20 luxurious volumes detailing the screenplay, illustrations, and designs in what he referred to as a “director’s bible.”
The studios passed, and Jodorowsky’s film was never made. (Dune, the novel, has since been adapted twice — a 1984 version directed by David Lynch and the first part of Denis Villeneuve’s two-part adaption, which was released this year.) Over time, the bibles, which attained almost religious status among reverential scholars and sci-fi obsessives, vanished from the public eye. Until this November, when number 5 came up for auction at Christie’s. Appraisers thought it would sell for about $40,000.
They were wrong.
The winning bid was $2.9 million, placed by Soban Saqib, a 25-year-old cryptocurrency nerd, NFT collector, and freshly minted millionaire from Woodland, California.
“This is pretty much my entire liquid net worth,” said Saqib, who goes by “Soby,” soon after the auction. “But I fronted the $3 million knowing that the community has my back.”
The community in question is TheSpiceDAO, a network of Dune-loving cryptocurrency enthusiasts — most of whom have never met each other in person — who hatched the plan to liberate the sacred volume from private ownership and make it available, in some form or another, to all the obsessives who have long dreamt of flipping through its pages.
“It’s almost like a jailbreak kind of situation,” Saqib said. One idea is to make an animated film inspired by the volume. Another is to hold frequent IRL viewings where enthusiasts can see it for themselves.
A 25-year-old staking $3 million on the promise that his internet friends will somehow pay him back may sound terrifying, but a day after the auction, Saqib seemed sanguine.
“I want to fulfill an unattained dream,” he said, explaining that he had been captivated by Dune when he first read it and was blown away by a 2013 documentary that detailed Jorodowsky’s ecstatic embrace of the project and the agony of his rejection.
A week later, TheSpiceDAO asked its members for $6 million — $3.8 million, after taxes and legal fees, to buy Jodorowsky’s bible, and another $2.2 million to make an animated film inspired by his vision. By the next day, the donations from thousands of friends, well-wishers, and perfect strangers totaled $12 million.
“I woke up this morning and my jaw dropped,” Saqib texted over WhatsApp. “I told you the community had my back!!!!”
A Decentralized Autonomous Organization, or DAO, is often described as an internet community with a bank account. TheSpiceDAO (initially called DuneDAO) came together two days before the Christie’s auction when one of Saqib’s friends realized the bible was on sale. They set up what amounts to a cryptocurrency version of a GoFundMe. Anyone who contributed funds became a member and got voting rights to decide how to proceed.
DAOs have been around since at least 2016. The first one — called The DAO – got hacked, but this has been a wild year for this new type of financial collective.
The 10 biggest DAOs currently hold almost $20 billion worth of cryptocurrency in their treasuries. In October this year, PleasrDAO revealed itself as the winner of a $4 million auction to buy an unreleased Wu-Tang Clan album. In November, 17,000 people organized themselves as ConstitutionDAO and raised $47 million in a week in an impressive but ultimately unsuccessful bid to buy a rare copy of the US Constitution.
A big reason for all this financial flexing is the dizzying appreciation in value of digital art such as NFTs and cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ether. Many holders of these currencies are suddenly dollar millionaires looking for investment opportunities for their newfound wealth.
In August this year, for instance, Saqib sold an NFT that looks a lot like LA Rams wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. He sold it to Odell Beckham Jr. himself for $2.7 million worth of the cryptocurrency ether.
The NFT was a CryptoPunk, meaning it was one of a set of 10,000 unique digital characters that have become valuable collectors' items. Saqib sold Beckham Jr. the 3,365th character in the series. Digital files can be endlessly replicated, so each CryptoPunk comes with its own nonfungible token, or NFT — a digital certificate of authenticity that contains the web address and ownership information of the “original” copy.
Cryptocurrency has been on a red-hot run this year. For example, the 888 ether that Beckham Jr. paid Saqib for his CryptoPunk was worth $2.7 million when it was transacted just back in August. It’s now worth almost $4.2 million.
“Most early crypto people aren’t elite investors,” said Charlie/Charlotte Fang, an artist and a member of Remilia, an avant net art collective whose members are also founder members of TheSpiceDAO. “They are just gamers and programmers who got into crypto because they were close to the technology.” As a result, cryptocurrency’s new millionaires often think of their wealth, and how they spend it, very differently than bankers and hedge fund managers do. This impulse seems to have informed TheSpiceDAO’s decision to purchase the Dune bible.
The plot of Dune, a sprawling series of six novels, follows the fate of many factions of an interplanetary civilization as they battle for control of a desert planet called Arrakis — the source of a mysterious substance called the spice, or melange. If there is one throughline to be found across all the sequels and prequels, it is the power of collective uprisings against the old noble houses grown decadent with ill-gotten wealth.
Much of the internet learned of Jodorowsky’s manuscript through a 2013 documentary called Jodorowsky’s Dune, which features long, hypnotic sequences of illustrations from the bible while the surrealist director speaks of his project in messianic overtones. The fact that Hollywood executives found Jodorowsky’s adaptation too far out for their tastes has only contributed to its aura.
“Because the film was not made, but because all this creation happened, it became more powerful and it got a life unto itself and it permeated the world and many aspects of our culture in an inexplicable way,” Frank Pavich, the director of the documentary, said this week.
Jodorowsky and his collaborators created a visual language that influenced a generation of Hollywood movies — most visibly, Ridley Scott’s Alien, which was written by Dan O’Bannon and designed by H.R. Giger, both Jodorowsky collaborators.
In the documentary, the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn describes a late-night dinner in Paris at which Jodorowsky pulled out his copy of the Dune bible and talked him through every scene.
“In a way I’m the only guy who ever saw Jodorowsky’s Dune,” Refn says. “I am the only spectator who has seen the movie and I’m going to tell you something — it's awesome!”
BuzzFeed News reached out to Jodorowsky through his social media accounts, his literary agent, and his family, but did not receive a response.
“Jodorowsky’s bible, this manuscript, it had gone from one private collector to another,” Fang said. “It had never seen the light of day. The only people to see it were Hollywood insiders, but the public has never seen it. It is a very strong, crypto-minded sensibility — decentralization, underdog story — to liberate it.”
Saqib’s path to liberate Jodorowsky’s bible began when he was a brown Muslim kid getting bullied in post-9/11 America. “I was the one who spent my time doing puzzles and reading books in recess while the other kids played,” he said. The Dune books draw much of their symbolism and world-building from Islamic and Middle Eastern cultures, something that Saqib said he identified with when he first read them.
Saqib and his parents lived in Woodland, a suburb of Sacramento, where his father worked minimum-wage jobs in everything from fast food to construction. The family had painstakingly put together a tire business by the mid-2000s only to see it flounder in the 2008 recession.
“Just when things were picking up, bankers decided to ruin the global economy,” he said. He was 12 years old at the time. In the long years of wage deflation that followed, Saqib found himself thinking deeply about “the system.” When he was 17, he wrote a change.org petition titled “Reforming fiat currency and the call for regulation of the Federal Reserve” addressed to Congress and the White House, and immersed himself in the world of online gaming, where many early cryptocurrency enthusiasts hung out. He bounced around California’s college system before dropping out, then did stints at emerging cryptocurrency businesses and investment companies, sometimes asking for payment in ether.
“In February 2017, ether was like 12 bucks to the dollar,” Saqib said. “I liquidated to send $1,200 to my parents. That would be worth over $400,000 today.”
Ether really started picking up toward the end of 2019 and has been on a rip ever since. Ether breached the $1,000 benchmark in January this year and stood at about $4,300 at the time this article was published. In March this year, Saqib cofounded a Bay Area gaming startup called Ex Populus. But Saqib’s dad still drove a truck at construction sites around Sacramento.
“Dude, I don’t even own a house, I rent. I need to buy a house for my parents,” Saqib said in a rare moment of what sounded like doubt. He hadn’t yet told his parents that he had splashed out $3 million at a Christie’s auction.
“I think I’ll tell my dad,” he said. “My mom — I don’t know if my mom will understand.”
A week after this initial conversation, Saqib texted to say he had finally convinced his father to retire.
Now that they have won the bid, Saqib and his associates must make good on their promise to bring the bible to the people and prove that their fundraising approach was not just a gimmick.
As things stand, Saqib still owns Jodorowsky’s bible but is in the process of transferring ownership to the DAO. Meanwhile, the copyrights for the bible’s contents are held by multiple artists and their estates. Jodorowsky is now 92 years old; Jean Giraud, or Moebius, the legendary French illustrator who did all the storyboards, died in 2012; H.R. Giger, who designed the creepy home planet of the House of Harkonnen, died two years later.
“We can’t just scan it and put it on the internet,” Fang said. But by raising the money as a DAO, Fang said they hoped to show the various estates and stakeholders that there is a massive online interest in making the bible more accessible to the public.
TheSpiceDao appears to have won over at least one influential skeptic. Last week, Pavich, the director of the Jodorowsky documentary, met Saqib while recording a podcast.
“I went in there skeptical, like who is this guy who spent all this money on this book?” Pavich recalled. “Is he a hedge fund manager or something horrible?” But he said he was struck by Saqib’s youth, his humble roots, and his personal journey and has agreed to try to put him in touch with Jodorowsky himself.
“To be 25 years old and to have figured out whatever he has figured out with this cryptocurrency and he’s not out buying Ferraris and, you know, being a moron,” Pavich said. “My impression of him is that he was coming from a very pure place.”
For Saqib, Dune’s parable of the power of collective world-changing, decentralized action sounds a lot like the new promise of cryptocurrency and blockchain.
“Dude,” Saqib said, “imagine if a generation of kids had grown up on Jodorowsky’s Dune instead of fucking Star Wars.” ●