Did ‘Star Wars’ Fever Knock Out the Box Office?

Four wide openers flop and an awards front-runner sputters four days after a new trailer, start of advance sales for “The Force Awakens” set off frenzy among film fans

The Force was definitely not with the box office Friday. Could the frenzy over “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” be to blame?

This year is on pace to be the highest-grossing at the domestic box office in Hollywood history, but Friday was a big-time bummer. Four movies that opened nationwide bombed and a front-runner in the awards races, “Steve Jobs,” misfired in a major expansion.

For the weekend, Vin Diesel‘s “The Last Witch Hunter” is on pace to come in under $10 million, Bill Murray‘s comedy “Rock the Kasbah” will do less than $2 million and “Jem and the Holograms” may not do $1 million. “Steve Jobs,” the biopic about the late Apple Inc. founder, sputtered and will do around $7 million, well under the teen-millions distributor Universal had hoped for.

Even a “Paranormal Activity” movie tanked, just before Halloween no less, thanks to a protest by theater chains angry over distributor Paramount’s decision to experiment with an early video on demand release for the 3D finale in the series, “The Ghost Dimension.” The leaders were last week’s Nos. 1 and 2 films, “Goosebumps” and “The Martian,” and the overall box office was 17 percent behind the comparable weekend last year, when “Ouija” was No. 1.

This comes just four days after the start of online presales to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the next installment of the iconic Lucasfilm sci-fi franchise. It shattered advance ticket sales records on Monday for distributor Disney. A trailer for the film was dropped at the same time and it broke records, too.

With “Star Wars” dominating discussion for moviegoers nationwide ahead of its Dec. 18 debut, were distracted –or pinched– fans the reason the box office took such a hit?

Some people have a limited amount of money to spend on the movies, and might have invested it in “Star Wars” futures. It’s not unusual for advance ticket sales on a hot-selling film to affect the box office the week before it opens, but nearly a month out would be unprecedented. MovieTickets.com and Fandango reported presales more than eight times greater than those for the previous record-holder “The Hunger Games.”

Other factors, including Halloween parties and what seems like a glut of adult fare may have mattered just as much, and these weren’t well-reviewed films. “Jem and the Holograms” was the highest of the wide openers on Rotten Tomatoes with an anemic 20 percent positive.

“I actually think the slow marketplace has more to do with the over-abundance of films, and many of them are aimed at older audiences,” Paul Dergarabedian, Rentrak’s senior media analyst, told TheWrap Saturday. “That audience has a different way of consuming films, low and slow to use a cooking term, rather than fast and hot.

“Films like ‘Steve Jobs,’ ‘The Martian,’ ‘Bridge of Spies,’ ‘Crimson Peak,’ ‘Sicario,’ ‘The Intern’ and ‘Black Mass’ and ”Rock the Kasbah’ are all courting essentially the same audience,” he said. “That audience may be overwhelmed by the sheer number of options, but I doubt anyone is avoiding the movie theater because of a mass ‘geeking out’ over ‘Star Wars’ fever.”

That thinking is in line with that of industry insiders and rival studios, who believe that if “Stars Wars: The Force Awakens” delivers as expected and is a commercial juggernaut, it will provide a boost to the overall box office. That’s because an out-sized hit like that can bring new moviegoers into the market and sets off film buzz that benefits other movies. It also provides a strong platform for the preview trailers that will precede the blockbuster-to-be, and moviegoers will see other marketing materials for new films in theater lobbies.