In case you have not heard, there is a movie called “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” coming out on December 18, 2015, and with a full two months to go before release, all sorts of people have worked themselves up into a lather in anticipation of this sure-to-be huge movie event. As a matter of fact, this particular film will be so huge that people are having fun speculating upon the size of the movie’s financial potential. So the question is, will “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” break box office records?
To keep things in perspective, the monster opening weekend is a relatively recent phenomenon. Thirteen years ago, in the summer of 2002, “Spider-Man” shocked the world by being the first movie to ever have a three-day opening weekend of $100 million or more ($114m, to be precise). Since then, the $100 million opening weekend has become the new barometer for a successful launch, with 31 other movies opening to that amount at a minimum, with 21 of those movies making more than $114m in just three days. It has gotten to the point where “Godzilla” can open at $93 million and somehow still be considered a disappointment. So what of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens?” How much does it have to open to in order to be considered a success?
At this point there are plenty of folks positing that the seventh film in this almost forty year old franchise will be the biggest opening ever of all time in the history of cinema. For this to be the case, it has some stiff competition. Back in 2012, just when we thought we had seen it all, Disney’s “Marvel’s The Avengers” had a $207 million opening weekend, which was simply obscene, especially since the previous record holder was the final installment of the very beloved Harry Potter franchise, which made $169 million in three days. And with that movie’s sequel “Avengers: Age of Ultron” coming out in May of 2015, the question of competition practically asked itself – “Which movie will have a bigger opening weekend?”
To maintain a personal spin, this question was posed to me specifically by a good buddy named Matt, who scoffed at my assertion that the Avengers sequel would have the bigger opening weekend, insisting that the new Star Wars would be the one to beat. And of course when he asked me this at the outset of the summer movie season, neither of us (nor anyone else, for that matter) predicted that the movie to beat would actually be “Jurassic World,” what with it’s $209 million opening. But for now we will just ignore this amazing financial and marketing feat and we will stick to the original question. By now we know that “Avengers: Age of Ultron” has come and gone, and while it did not match the success of its predecessor, it still opened to $191 million, hence becoming a box office disappointment only in relation to itself and nothing else. So now with one of the two film’s numbers finalized and in the books, the question posed is whether or not “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will open to more than $191 million.
Tickets for this movie went on sale a couple of days ago, and so many people tried to buy tickets online that movie theater website servers crashed, with Fandango announcing that pre-sales for this movie were far higher than any other movie before it, and IMAX announcing that the $6.5 million in single day ticket sales for all IMAX screenings was “record shattering.” (This IMAX metric doesn’t actually do our conversation any good because they were specifically talking about worldwide sales, and when people talk about “opening weekend” records, it is always in relation to North American box office returns, not worldwide, which is trickier to gauge due to platformed releases of movies, among many other things).
So with these news stories hitting the wire about Star Wars pre-sales, good old Matt decided to chime in on Twitter with the following:
Also Star Wars is going to destroy avengers @Crespodiso. What were u thinking????
— Matt (@MattIsCabin) October 20, 2015
Not like Matt is alone there. Over at The Verge they seem to think these pre-release metrics mean that an opening weekend north of $208 million is “easily in sight.” So I’ll tell you what I am thinking.
First let us consider release dates, which is a big factor. How big a factor? Big enough that film studios stake out opening weekends years in advance, laying claim to them like old gold rush miners, and the reason for this is because release date matters in a big way. Just take a look at this list of all time opening weekends, and you will see that 8 of the top 10 opening grosses of all time came out between the months of May and July, a.k.a. Summer, a.k.a. Blockbuster Movie Season, with only two Hunger Games movies bucking that trend. Also three of the top four openers all came out in the first weekend of May (all three of those movies also featured Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, which can not be discounted). And Disney, the same company behind those hugely successful Marvel movies, knows the power of the May movie opening, which is why they originally slated this Star Wars installment to come out in May of this year, and only pushed this back to December when director J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy begged for more time so they could finish the film properly.
“So what?” queries the Cheeto-breathed, Oreo-fingered uber fan derisively referred to as a fan boy. “Star Wars can come out any time of the year and will be huge.” Well, no, that’s not true at all. Not all opening weekends are equal, and box office history proves this. You know what is not included in that list of all time opening weekends? A December movie. Take a look at this list here – as opposed to the summer time, there are only ten movies that have ever opened to $50 million or more in the month of December, and this includes giant films like “King Kong” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, with the first of the three most recent “The Hobbit” movies claiming the top spot at $84 million in 2012. Even the highest grossing film of all time “Avatar” had an opening weekend of “only” $77 million. There is simply no precedent for a December movie to open over $100 million.
This is not to say that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will not have an opening weekend of over $100 million, and as a matter of fact I fully expect this movie to break this particular December-specific record. But when this movie manages to do some really amazing box office the weekend of December 18th, and it tops out around let’s say $150 million, or even closer to $175 million, don’t let a single person in the world tell you this is a disappointment or the movie under-performed, when in reality we will be talking about a movie making absurd amounts of cash during a time when such a thing is not deemed to be normal. Again, there’s a reason Disney wanted this to come out in May of this year, and they are in essence settling for a December release. They couldn’t push it back to May 2016 because they have a Star Wars “anthology” movie scheduled to come out in December 2016, as well as Episode 8 scheduled for May 2017, so pushing back Episode 7 any more than they already did would have thrown their whole multi-year release plan out of whack.
Really by allowing this movie to come out in December means Disney is going for the much easier record to break, which is the non-summer opening weekend record, belonging to “The Hunger Games – Catching Fire,” which opened to $158 million in November 2013. And Disney also knows that both of the highest grossing films worldwide of all time are December releases, as “Titanic” and “Avatar” had opening weekends of $28 million and $77 million respectively, and yet they are the only two movies to ever gross over $2 billion worldwide. This is because people went out and saw those movies over and over, and not just in one weekend like in the case of the original “The Avengers,” but over the course of several months, into the following January, February and March, and Disney knows that if they can’t have the opening weekend record, they might as well shoot for that “highest grossing movie of all time” record, which is actually far more impressive.
“But, but, but,” that emotionally-stunted, nostalgia-fueled, Lucasfilm acolyte chimes in again. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens will have the biggest and widest North American release of all time!” This will likely be true, with rumblings that Disney will put this out in somewhere around the neighborhood of 4,600 screens the weekend of December 18. And on top of that, AMC Theaters (one of the top two movie exhibitors in the country) plans to make a number of their theaters remain open for 24 hours on the initial day of release in order to be able to show this film around the clock. With that many showings, how can it not break every record imaginable?
Well quite simply putting something out on every screen does not automatically result in record grosses. Just look at the hugely popular “Twilight” series, a global phenomenon and financial beast of its own – even with hype and anticipation and a screen count of nearly 4,500, “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” had a $64 million opening weekend. Two “Harry Potter” movies, both “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “Shrek Forever After” all opened on somewhere between 4,200 and 4,400 screens, and none of them opened to higher than $91 million, despite the total market saturation. The closest analogy of all is that other Lucasfilm franchise that saw a hugely anticipated sequel released almost twenty years after the previous installment, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which was released on 4,200 screens and opened to an even $100 million.
“But,” that annoying nerd yells in our ears despite being so close we can smell the Doritos. “Crystal Skull sucked! Stars Wars will be good!” You mean good like the Star Wars prequels were “good?” First off, opening weekend business is more a reflection of marketing than anything else. The actual quality of a film has more of an impact on the following weeks, as word of mouth goes around and people find out from their friends whether or not the movie is decent. But opening weekend? The only thing that can be considered “good” right now is the marketing of the movie, which does has every all in a tizzy thanks to excellent trailers and other marketing stunts like that weird worldwide unboxing event that happened recently in which people breathlessly watched as Star Wars merchandise was debuted online. Sure we all want “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to be a great movie that we can watch and re-watch and enjoy, but quite frankly this could easily go the other way. Even when we all saw Episode 1 and Episode 2 and knew in our hearts that these movies were not very good, we all salivated over the trailers for Episode 3 and showed up in droves opening weekend. And it was…okay at best. How many people do you hear talking about those prequels in a manner resembling anything other than mockery? Maybe people who were literally children when they first came out look back upon them with fondness, but this is again fueled by nostalgia. So whether or not this new movie is good or not will have little impact on the opening weekend, but the film’s quality will factor in to the movie’s box office longevity. And really, for it to stick around in theaters for months and keep making money on a weekly basis, it only has to be “good,” not even “great.” Just give the people what they want without making a real cluster of it all and the fans will reward them with the repeated viewings they are already planning on making. But make a movie that disappoints, in which the trailers are infinitely better than the final product (which, as we all know, happens much more often than we would like), and watch those subsequent weekly grosses start dipping quickly. And at that point, you can have this movie on every screen in the country, if no one wants to see it, no one will see it.
Plus, let us note, that this biggest theater count ever statistic is not going to be that much higher than the other biggest wide releases ever. It is not like they are building new theaters to show this movie. There are only so many theaters in the country, and “Star Wars” literally can not have them all.
Yet with all of these metrics, all of this history, and all of this reasoned, thought out analysis, there are still those who see the hype and see nothing but dollar signs. Here is an article from The Hollywood Reporter, in which a $300 million opening weekend is predicted, and in which they posit that an opening weekend of less than this amount could be seen as a disappointment. Of course this $300 million number is pulled out of thin air, and there is no reason provided for it. Does THR know about plans to build 1,000 more theaters in this country? Did they hear about schools cancelling classes that week, and families cancelling vacations, and holiday plans being put on hold so that literally everyone can go see this thing? It doesn’t work that way, and again, when some jackass decides to tell you that anything less than smashing all records into oblivion will be considered a disappointment, do not listen to that person, for they are dumb, lest you allow their dumbness to contaminate you.
Meanwhile, you can find other, much more reasonable dissertations on the real box office potential of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” like this article from The Wrap, or this one from Forbes.com. How do these two pieces differ from the THR article and it’s $300 million opening prediction? By offering evidence to support their claims, using actual metrics, empirical data and a little common sense. But how can common sense prevail in the face of such a well thought out counterargument such as this:
— Matt (@MattIsCabin) October 20, 2015
Yes, it is indeed Star Wars. It will be huge. Maybe even the biggest of all time. If it ends up making $3 billion worldwide, I will be much impressed, as everyone should, for that truly will be an amazing feat of box office prowess and financial performance. But let’s just be reasonable about this, folks, and stop foisting undue expectations on something that is already guaranteed to be a huge hit. And also, why are people so overly concerned with these movies breaking records? Why do folks have personal stakes invested in something that is merely business. Disney just wants to bank. They paid over $4 billion for the rights to these films for a reason, and it is not because they are so benevolent and want to give us more Star Wars stuff out of the kindness of their heart. Much like how certain people (*cough NERDS! cough) put it on their own shoulders to see Disney’s “Marvel’s The Avengers” multiple times opening weekend and then celebrated it’s huge financial windfall, I simply don’t understand people who take so much joy out of giving one of the world’s biggest corporations even more money. Plus it’s not like Disney won’t be making a new Star Wars movie every single year from now until forever, you don’t need to “support” these movies as if there is a danger of them going away. They will be cranked out by the Disney machinery, and they will all make huge amounts of money, and then Disney will turn around and sell you merchandise based on these products, and people will just get sucked into a cycle of doling out their cash for the benefit of a huge company that sees them merely as walking, talking dollar signs. I’m not saying to skip these movies or not to enjoy them, but stop defining yourself via your love of something so corporate and greedy. Be a Star Wars fan, love the franchise, but do it within reason. You want to be a cheerleader for Disney? That’s fine, but realize you are essentially rooting for The Empire.