“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is the most anticipated movie in history, but can it translate that heat into the biggest opening weekend in box-office history in the dead of winter and the height of the holiday season?
The analysts are split on whether the J.J. Abrams-directed sci-fi saga, the first new “Star Wars” episode in more than a decade, can top the $208.8 million opening of “Jurassic World” over the summer. But nearly all surveyed believe it will come within striking distance.
Based on unprecedented levels of trailer views, advance tickets sales — likely up to $100 million at this point — and online buzz, a new record would seem a slam dunk for “The Force Awakens.” But this is the winter holiday season, not summer, and that makes a big difference. No movie has ever debuted to $100 million in December. The $84 million 2012 debut of “The Hobbit” is the top now.
For all the anticipation, Disney won’t even break a record with its rollout into 4,100-plus theaters in the U.S. and Canada. It’s not even the year’s widest, with “Minions” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 2” debuting in more locations.
One kink is “The Force Awakens” faces competition from Universal’s R-rated Tina Fey–Amy Poehler comedy “Sisters” and Fox’s kids film “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip,” which will be in 2,900 theaters and 3,600 locations respectively.
Disney is hoping the national weather forecast is on the money; it calls for most regions to be sunny or cold and clear this weekend. But inclement weather is always a threat this time of year, and roughly 400 drive-in theaters are closed for winter, which could be a factor in the record push.
Disney chose this date for a reason, however. With potential moviegoers distracted by shopping or traveling it doesn’t set up a great debut weekend, but it does position the film to take a run at becoming the highest-grossing in history. The two current leaders at the worldwide box office, “Avatar” ($2.7 billion) and “Titanic” ($2.1 billion) both opened in December, the former on the exact date six years ago.
“It’s all about the multiple,” Dave Hollis, Disney’s head of distribution, told TheWrap. He was using the industry term for the amount of money a movie makes in the weeks after its opening weekend and making the point that he’s hoping this will be a marathon not a sprint.
“As exciting as this opening is, we’re looking forward almost as much to that second week, which begins on Christmas Day,” said Hollis, who believes that week’s grosses will be on the same level as the first week’s. That’s mainly because around 15 percent of the nation’s students are out of school, and nearly all of them will be for the second weekend.
Neither “Avatar” ($77 million) nor “Titanic” ($28.6 million) had spectacular openings, but both had extraordinary staying power. “Avatar” made $75 million in its second weekend.
“Disney has made all the right moves on this one,” Exhibitor Relations senior media analyst Jeff Bock told TheWrap. “Broadening the ethnic base with diverse casting, putting females front and center in the marketing, keeping the plot secret and giving the stars of the earlier films a lot of the spotlight will all pay off.”
The reviews, which land Wednesday, will have a lot to do with whether “The Force Awakens” is simply huge, or something we’ve never seen at the box office before, Bock explained.
“If they’re really great, that fan base, which is like no other, is going to be super-motivated and not only evangelize but also come back for multiple viewings,” said Bock, noting that the young “Stars War” faithful were the original “fan boys.” “We never had action figures come out of movies until then,” he said.
“Really strong reviews will also mobilize people who don’t normally go to the movies over the coming weeks, the way ‘Titanic’ did,” said Bock. He believes the record’s survival may come down to the competition.
“Say ‘Sisters’ and ‘The Chipmunks Movie’ both do $15 million,” he said. “That’s $30 million that you can figure came right out of ‘Star Wars.’ I can definitely see that kind of swing making the difference.”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Bryan Burk and Abrams, who shared scripting duties with Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” John Williams composed the score.
The studio says the production budget on “The Force Awakens,” the seventh film in the franchise, was $200 million. It could be double that and still be a bargain for Disney, since it is kicking off a trilogy of new “Star Wars” films and spawning two spinoffs, one featuring Han Solo and another on bounty hunter Boba Fett that will drive billions in revenue from licensing and merchandise.
The rollout of “The Force Awakens” is also a testimony to the long-range vision of Disney CEO and Chairman Robert Iger, who in the midst of a recession guided his company’s pricey acquisitions of Pixar Animation, Marvel Studios and finally George Lucas‘ Lucasfilm, which owned the rights to the “Star Wars” franchise.