By Anthony D'Alessandro and Nancy Tartaglione
When Disney revives the long slumbering Star Wars franchise on December 18, The Force Awakens will take the global tentpole opening to a history-making high. How high? Many are already predicting a record $615M worldwide opening, and they have plenty of reason to be confident in that number. The first Star Wars in 1977 gave birth to the blockbuster era of filmmaking — and grosses.
As we come off a summer where Jurassic World set the record with a $524.4M global opening and a record $1B haul in 13 days — the fastest film to cross that mark — experts believe the seventh Star Wars film, a long-anticipated sequel to 1983’s Return Of The Jedi, will surpass the dinosaurs’ feat and recoup its estimated $200M production cost in historic time.
In a digital world where screen counts can be increased at a last moment’s notice to meet theater demand of walk-up business, a record opening of $300M stateside and $315M abroad is possible for Force Awakens. Insiders say that in any given 20-plex in December, Force Awakens will be on at minimum 10 screens. Like Jurassic World‘s success this summer, the key driving force to Force Awakens remains its multi-generational appeal. Disney has smartly planted the film in the year-end holiday corridor when families head to the cinema in bulk. The expectation is that Force Awakens will play in north of 4,000 theaters on at least 10,000 U.S. screens stateside and in every overseas territory. All except for China, which has a blackout period on Hollywood films during December. Both Furious 7 and JW played respectively on giant global screen counts of 14,687 and 23,886 in their first frames, with the latter including China.
If this seems like heady forecasting consider how big Disney has bet on a franchise that’s been dormant for 10 years. Typically, sequels and theme park plans follow in the wake of box office success. Disney is doing it the other way around. At D23 this month, Disney announced that two 14-acre Star Wars Lands at both Disneyland’s California theme park and Disney World’s Hollywood Studios are in the works. Upon purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012 in $4.06B, Disney promptly announced sequels and film offshoots. The first, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, about the events leading up to the 1977 film, will be released December 16, 2016. That is a signal that Disney is staking out the holiday season, and not summer, as Star Wars terrain. There is precedent for success for this strategy, namely all-time box office champ Avatar ($760.5M domestic B.O., $2.79B worldwide). James Cameron’s groundbreaking 3D saga launched during the 2009 holiday season, and, as one industry watcher put it, “nailed two financial quarters” back-to-back for News Corp. Disney is looking at the same outcome. Theaters will be delighted by the ringing cash registers. The only quadrant positioned to gripe will be the makers of Oscar-bait movies, who once thought of the holiday corridor as the place for their fare. If Star Wars dominates the screens, and conversation, will distributors continue to think year end is the place for prestige movies?
How do you compete with this? Disney recently held a Star Wars Celebration fan gathering in April which drew 60,000. Their first teaser trailer during Thanksgiving last year attracted 100M, between theatrical and online play. The crowd at Comic-Con was so enthused about the Hall H Force Awakens presentation, they followed Abrams through the streets of San Diego to a special outdoor symphony concert of the Star Wars music. Disney is further priming fans around the world with a global live Star Wars toy unboxing YouTube event taking place in 15 global locations including Sydney, Hong Kong, Berlin, Tokyo and New York the eve before Force Friday, September 4, when the new line of toys are dropping.
Across six films that racked up $4.3B, the Star Wars franchise traditionally played in the summer. When the first Star Wars opened on May 25, 1977, it changed the way that the major studios opened big budget films. Rather than play a big film out over six months before going wider, Star Wars proved that a studio could make more money, faster by going out in more theaters. Disney moving the Star Wars franchise to December with Episode VII this year and Rogue One next year is a ruthless and brilliant course that Darth Vader would find admirable. It’s akin to introducing a whale into a pond of minnows, as Oscar contending prestige fare populates the calendar at this time. By playing Force Awakens during this time, it won’t face any tentpole rivals like it would in the summer, shortening its play period, particularly as it heads into the desert January period.
As we’ve seen this summer with big holdovers such as Jurassic World, The Force Awakens is bound to have a Sith lord’s chokehold on No. 1 until the end of January, making it difficult for any wide release to ascend to the top spot. Between Avatar‘s opening on December 18, 2009 and the end of January, the James Cameron film held the top spot at the domestic B.O. for seven weekends in a row. That doesn’t necessarily mean that other films can’t breathe. The consensus stateside is that there’s plenty of screen inventory for Force Awakens and the seven other wide entries counter-programmed against, six of which are opening Christmas Day: Sisters, Joy, The Revenant, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, Concussion, Point Break, Daddy’s Home and Snowden. The reason why is because there’s so little ahead of Force Awakens: There’s only two wide entries prior to Force Awakens opening – Universal’s Krampus (Dec. 4) and Warner Bros.’ In The Heart of the Sea (Dec. 11) — and by the time the J.J. Abrams movie opens, most of the November titles will have played out. In addition, giving further hope for the competition, three Christmas releases broke out to big grosses when they went up against Avatar: Sherlock Holmes ($62.3M opening, $208M final domestic), Alvin & The Chipmunks 2 ($48.9M/$219.6M) and It’s Complicated ($22.1M/$112.7M). It’s a similar set-up overseas for Force Awakens in December with little competition. Fox’s The Peanuts Movie is going out around Christmas in the UK, Australia, Brail, France, Germany and Mexico.
Sources say that a China release for Force Awakens is bound to happen, however, the lead-up time is a plus for Disney so that they can re-establish the brand more there. Star Wars isn’t as well known like in other countries such as Japan, which was the No. 1 territory for the last trilogy: Phantom Menace ($110M), Attack Of The Clones ($78M) and Revenge Of The Sith ($82.7M). The first three films (Episodes IV-VI) were never released in China, while Episodes I-III cumulatively grossed $18.7M. To raise awareness for Star Wars, Disney played all six titles at June’s Shanghai International Film Festival. Further amplifying Star Wars to Chinese audiences, Disney cast local superstars Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen in Rogue One, a move that earned them national headlines in the Middle Kingdom. It’s not uncommon for a studio tentpole to delay its release in China. Furious 7 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 posted respective overseas openings of $250M and $314M without having China as part of its initial go-round. Overseas, the two highest-grossing Star Wars films are Phantom Menace ($549.3M) and Revenge Of the Sith ($466.7M) with UK, Germany, Australia, France and Italy being the series’ top territories.
The hyper projection for Force Awakens isn’t just prompted by the recent success of Jurassic World, but the exhibition landscape has made leaps and bounds in its advancement since Avatar played. The James Cameron film put Imax on the map as a catalyst for tentpole grosses, and the large format exhibitor plans to up its 800 screens worldwide to 920 by the time Force Awakens opens. In addition 420 deluxe premium large format digital venues which didn’t exist in 2009 are contributing an additional $400M to the domestic box office this year; those hubs will also goose Force Awakens gross. 3D, which repped 71% of Avatar‘s opening weekend B.O. at 3,500 screens, has settled to a norm this summer in the upper 40% range for big films such as Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road from 16,000+ screens. One factor which could crimp Force Awakens’ opening record could be its running time which is still to be determined. If the film goes from a two-hour running time to two-and-a-half, it could cut its showtimes down from 27 to 21 at an average multiplex. The last worry — which is one shared by any studio playing a major franchise — are millennials’ unpredictable nature to crucify a film on social media after seeing it on opening day.
However, given their fervent response toward Force Awakens online and at fanboy confabs, that doesn’t seem to be a problem. In the meantime, most distribution and exhibition executives are taking their Force Awakens record projections to Las Vegas.
Adds the exhibition president, “Less than four months and counting and nothing is broken so far. All the marketing by Disney is disciplined and methodical as planned. There are no terrible stories from the set. The cast is getting along and showing up at events. J.J. Abrams has a body language about him that’s positive. The story to me is that Disney and Lucasfilm are acting rationally, confidently and not cocky. They’re going about their business instead of reacting.”
Watch the Comic-Con behind-the-scenes footage: