by Rebecca Ford, Pamela McClintock
J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens awoke to a record-breaking $57 million in Thursday night previews at the North American box office.
The previous champ was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ Part 2, the final film in the franchise, which earned $43.5 million in Thursday previews in July 2011. The Dark Knight Rises took in $30.6 million in 2012, and Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 took in $30.4 million, also in 2012.
The Force Awakens, directed by Abrams, began showing at 7 p.m. in thousands of theaters after months of anticipation, drawing a heavily male audience (71 percent), according to Rentrak’s exit poll service, PostTrak. Age-wise, 53 percent of Thursday night’s audience was over the age of 25, with the vast majority, 64 percent, between the ages of 18 and 34. Force Awakens is expected to broaden out as the weekend unfolds.
The Disney and Lucasfilm’s sequel, set 30 years after the events of Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi, is getting the widest December release of all time and will be playing in a total of 4,134 theaters by Friday.
The story centers on a young scavenger (Daisy Ridley) and a stormtrooper (John Boyega) who end up on a wild adventure. The reboot also stars Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong'o and Domhnall Gleeson along with original trilogy stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.
Prerelease tracking suggests Force Awakens will earn in the $180 million-$220 million range for the weekend. Many believe it will easily beat this summer’s Jurassic World ($208.8 million) to score the biggest domestic opening of all time; by just how much is the big question. December isn’t known for monster numbers because of pre-Christmas preparations (to date, the biggest December launch belongs to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with $84.6 million). Instead, movies can enjoy huge multiples over the year-end holidays, including the two top-grossing films of all time, 2009’s Avatar ($2.8 billion) and 1997’s Titanic ($2.2 billion).
Abrams’ film is opening simultaneously around the world (save for China, where it debuts on Jan. 9), grossing a stellar $14.1 million on Wednesday as it launched in its first 12 markets, eclipsing all previous Star Wars films.
Force Awakens is a critical darling, sporting a 95 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes as of Thursday afternoon. And 94 percent of those polled by Rentrak gave it a positive response, an unheard-of stat. In addition, 88 percent said they would definitely recommend it to a friend.
The two films that dared to open against The Force Awakens are Universal’s comedy Sisters and Fox’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. Sisters, starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, grossed $769,000 Thursday night after opening at 7 p.m. in 2,220 theaters. It’s expected to open in the mid-teens.
Watch the ‘Star Wars’ cast talk about their most surreal moments:
This post has been updated with new box-office totals.