By Pamela McClintock
The Force is back, and it’s stronger than ever.
J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens shattered numerous box-office records over the weekend, grossing $238 million in North America — the biggest opening of all time, not accounting for inflation — for a global launch of $517 million.
The previous biggest domestic opening was this summer’s Jurassic World with $208.8 million. Worldwide, Force Awakens scored the second-biggest start of all time behind Jurassic World ($524.9 million), which had the advantage of opening day and date in China. Force Awakens doesn’t debut in the world’s second-largest moviegoing market until Jan. 9.
“Our sole focus has been creating a film that delivers that one-of-a-kind Star Wars experience, and director J.J. Abrams, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, and the Lucasfilm team have outdone themselves,” Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn said in a statement.
Force Awakens’ international haul was $279 million, the No. 3 opening of all time behind Jurassic World ($316 million) and the final Harry Potter film ($314 million). It came in No. 1 everywhere, save for South Korea and Vietnam.
The movie’s stunning performance sets a new standard for how much the North American box office can expand when the right movie comes along, and puts even more pressure on Hollywood studios to eventize their tentpoles. It’s also a critical victory for Disney, which paid George Lucas $4 billion for Lucasfilm in order to get its hands on the Star Wars franchise.
Abrams’ movie, buoyed by nostalgia, glowing reviews and an A CinemaScore, obliterated the previous December record set by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which debuted to $84.6 million in 2012. Moreover, overall revenue hit an all-time high, crossing $300 million for the first time ever. Mid-December isn’t known for big opening numbers, since many consumers are distracted by pre-Christmas preparations.
At this rate, there’s no telling how high Force Awakens will ultimately fly in terms of box-office revenue, since films over the year-end holidays can see huge multiples. James Cameron’s Avatar opened to $77 million on the same weekend in 2009 on its way to becoming the top-grossing film of all time with $2.79 billion in global ticket sales, including $760.5 million domestically. And on the weekend before Christmas in 1996, Cameron’s Titanic took in a mere $28.6 million on its way to grossing $2.19 billion worldwide.
Other records broken by Force Awakens in North America include widest December release of all time (4,134 theaters), biggest Thursday-night previews ($57 million), biggest single day and biggest opening day ($120.5 million), first film to cross $100 million in a single day, fastest film to $100 million and $200 million, top theater average for a wide release ($57,568) and biggest Imax opening ($30.1 million). And Force Awakens came close to taking the record for biggest Saturday from Jurassic World ($69.2 million).
Overseas, Force Awakens also made history in a raft of key markets, including the biggest opening weekend in the U.K. ($48.9 million), Germany ($27.3 million), Australia ($18.9 million) and Russia ($12.3 million) And it was the second biggest in a handful of countries, including France ($22.7 million). And Imax’s international debut was a record $17.9 million for a global debut of $48 million.
In North America, the film skewed male (67 percent), according to Rentrak’s exit poll service, PostTrak. Force Awakens — featuring a strong female heroine — is expected to broaden out in the coming days. The majority of ticket buyers were between the ages of 18 and 24 (33 percent) and 25 and 34 (29 percent). Overall, 47 percent is under the age of 25, and 53 percent over.
Disney’s exit surveys showed a different demo breakdown, with males making up 58 percent of ticket buyers, and females, 42 percent. Those those between the ages of 26 and 34 made up the largest chunk of the audience (26 percent), followed by those between the ages of 35 and 49. Adults turned out in force (71 percent), followed by families (42 percent) and teens (9 percent).
Regular 2D screenings prevailed (53 percent); 3D screenings, 47 percent (that includes Imax runs with 12 percent).
Abrams’ sequel/reboot, set 30 years after the events of Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi, features a strong female heroine in Rey, a young scavenger played by newcomer Daisy Ridley. Rey and a renegade stormtrooper (John Boyega) band together in challenging a rising evil that includes a new planet-killing laser cannon. The film also stars Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong'o and Domhnall Gleeson along with original trilogy stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.
The other two films daring to open nationwide this weekend, Universal’s raunchy, R-rated comedy Sisters, starring Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler, and Fox’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, weren’t entirely destroyed by Force Awakens, although their grosses were subdued.
Alvin 4, nabbing an A- CinemaScore, came in No. 2 for the weekend with $14.4 million from 3,653 theaters. That’s the lowest start of any title in the franchise; the last installment debuted to $23 million. However, Road Chip has a shot at earning close to $100 million all in domestically, since it’s the only new family offering heading into Christmas stretch.
Sisters placed No. 3 with $13.4M from 2,961 theaters after receiving a B- CinemaScore. Fey and Poehler’s other comedy together, Baby Mama, opened to $17.4 million in April 2008. Just as Alvin 4 has the advantage of being a family play, Sisters has the advantage of appealing to females, who made up a striking 76 percent of the opening-weekend audience.
New offerings at the specialty box office included Sony Pictures Classics’ Oscar player Son of Saul, Laszlo Nemees’ harrowing holocaust drama that won the Grand Prix at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. The movie is Hungary’s submission for the Academy Awards for best foreign language. Opening in three theaters in New York and Los Angeles, the movie grossed $38,891 for a location average of $12,964.
Adam McKay’s The Big Short, another awards player, continued to see good results in its second weekend, grossing $350,000 from eight theaters for a location average of $43,750 and cume of $1.3 million for Paramount Pictures.