It’s been a year of unprecedented profit and countless box office records for Disney, but now it sends in its final and most scrutinized movie of 2019: Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the finale to the Skywalker Saga that began 42 years ago and formed one of the cornerstones for franchise filmmaking as we know it today.
Disney — as it always does with the event releases it now puts out multiple times a year — is trying to keep expectations relatively low with studio projections of at least $160 million from more than 4,300 screens. Independent trackers are officially projecting a $175-205 million opening, but multiple analysts who spoke with TheWrap say that a $200 million-plus result is extremely likely.
It’s been a long road to this moment, one that began seven years ago when Disney bought Lucasfilm from George Lucas for $4 billion and kicked into high gear in 2015 with the release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” a film that earned a then-record $248 million opening weekend and became only the third film ever to gross $2 billion worldwide.
“Star Wars” has since become a lucrative part of Disney’s franchise stable, but not without many bumps in the road. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” while a big success with $1.33 billion grossed, has polarized audiences. Just a few months later, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” became the most high-profile flop of 2018, creating headlines with its turbulent production and franchise-low box office numbers and leading Disney to shelf the idea of putting out a “Star Wars” film every year. Instead, Lucasfilm’s short term future involves using “Star Wars” for TV projects like the widely adored Disney+ series “The Mandalorian” and the developing Obi-Wan Kenobi series starring Ewan McGregor.
That means “Rise of Skywalker” will be the last theatrical “Star Wars” release until a new biennial trilogy with no director currently attached arrives in 2022. There’s no question that the turnout this weekend will be massive. The question is whether the word of mouth from reviews and opening weekend audiences will be strong enough to ensure that the film legs out through the holiday season.
“Every ‘Star Wars’ fan worth their salt is going to see it this weekend,” comScore analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap. “But there’s going to be a lot of competition this year like there was for ‘The Last Jedi.’ People like ‘Jumanji’ again, and ‘Cats’ is a wild card, not to mention the awards contenders that will be in theaters too.”
The good news for “Rise of Skywalker” is that the calendar is in its favor. When “The Last Jedi” came out, Disney had to release it 10 days before Christmas since Christmas Eve, a historically slow day for movie ticket sales, fell on a Sunday. This not only resulted in word of mouth peaking well before Christmas Day but also led to a steep second weekend dropoff of 67.5%. “Rise of Skywalker” will come five days before Christmas, meaning that even if word of mouth is less than stellar, interest will still peak when moviegoer turnout is traditionally at its highest.
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” sees the diminished Resistance prepare for one final strike at the First Order as Kylo Ren and Rey (Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley) prepare for their final showdown. All the while, a familiar evil makes his return: Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who survived his apparent demise at the hands of Darth Vader.
J.J. Abrams returns to direct from a screenplay he co-wrote with Chris Terrio. Returning cast members include John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Lupita Nyong’o, Joonas Suotamo and Kelly Marie Tran along with newcomers Richard E. Grant, Naomi Ackie and Keri Russell. Original trilogy stars Mark Hamill and Billy Dee Williams also return, with the late Carrie Fisher appearing posthumously as Leia Organa using unused footage from previous films.
Also releasing this week is one of the biggest gambles of the year: Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cats.” Universal is planning to release the film on 3,200 screens, with tracking projecting a $16-19 million opening.
For most films opening at the budget level “Cats” is opening with, that would ensure bomb status before a single person steps into a theater. The reported budget stands at $95 million for a film that features an A-list cast with musical chops, practical sets, and the same motion-capture technology used in “Avatar” to transform the actors and dancers into anthropomorphic felines.
But Universal is hoping that “Cats” will become a surprise hit similar to “The Greatest Showman,” a film that had a weak opening in the shadow of “The Last Jedi” but surprisingly gained steam with musical-loving moviegoers well into January. “Cats” features pop stars like Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson with big fanbases, which could create strong word of mouth among moviegoers looking for something musical and cheery. Just don’t expect too much help from critics. Based on early social media posts, their reaction has been neither positive nor negative…but complete and utter bewilderment.
But whether or not it becomes a hit for Universal, Dergarabedian says that movie theaters will gladly welcome a movie like “Cats.”
“Theaters don’t care about the budget, just that it brings people in,” he said. “Having more films like ‘Jumanji’ and ‘Cats’ will be important not just this weekend but also next month because they can provide a reliable source of turnout at the start of the year. That’s what January 2019 was so lacking in.”
“Cats” was directed by Hooper from an adapted screenplay he co-wrote with Lee Hall. It stars ballerina Francesca Hayward in her first feature film role alongside James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson and Ian McKellen.
Finally, Lionsgate will release their awards contender “Bombshell” wide at approximately 1,450 locations, with tracking projecting a $10 million weekend as Lionsgate hopes for the film to gain word of mouth among adult audiences as Oscar nomination day draws nearer. The Jay Roach-directed film stars Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson and John Lithgow as Roger Ailes in a retelling of the sexual harassment scandal that saw Ailes’ reign as head of Fox News come to a sudden end. Margot Robbie and Kate McKinnon also star in the film, which has a 61% Rotten Tomatoes score and two Golden Globe nominations for Theron and Robbie.