The impending release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens triggers one major question on the minds of movie aficionados and box office analysts: what determines the film’s success? How do we measure if the movie proves to be a phenomenal victory for the Disney studio, or simply another blockbuster? Comparing this film to other major titles can enlighten us on what differentiates a profitable major release from a financial sensation.
Avatar stands as the highest-grossing film of all time domestically in the United States. Adjusting for inflation, only 13 films stand above it, including the original Star Wars from 1977. Why mention Avatar? As different as these two properties may appear in style and tone, their similarities make the 2009 hit worth mentioning.
For one, their opening weekends in the United States are akin (one week prior to Christmas). Both films come from respected directors. James Cameron, long known for his work on previous domestic record holder Titanic and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, brought new audiences into his immersive environments through the advent of Avatar‘s Pandora.
Similarly, J.J. Abrams, director of The Force Awakens, has a strong brand through reinventing the Star Trek franchise. Additionally, both Avatar and Star Wars: The Force Awakens placed much pressure on their respective studios to deliver based on buzz, budgets, and blown-up expectations. Each of the films’ cast contained a mix of newcomers and well-established performers. Pandora and the many environments within the Star Wars universe intend to envelop viewers. The list of similarities goes on and on. Now we wonder if Force Awakens, with so many of the same elements in play, can reach those same numbers.
As much as I want to believe it will eclipse Avatar‘s domestic box office figures, I question its capacity to do just that.
Avatar represented that force of nature that comes along maybe once in a decade. The IMAX and 3D screenings certainly assisted that film in its ability to rake in more revenue, premiering at a time when 3D was at its popularity apex. But that was six years ago. Prior to Avatar representing the highest-grossing film of its decade – yes, though most of the money was earned in 2010, it still debuted in 2009 – Titanic was the star of its decade (the 1990s). We are more than halfway into the 2010s. Is Star Wars: The Force Awakens indeed that film? Perhaps.
What The Force Awakens holds in its favor is a recognized and generally beloved brand that appeals to numerous demographics. Yet not everyone loves Star Wars. Saddled with poor reviews, the first two films of the last trilogy caused many viewers to lose their allegiance in the force. Revenge of the Sith brought “a new hope” to some that classic characteristics had not disappeared from the franchise.
In the decade since, the two animated television series have generated a fanbase of their own. Children now associate Star Wars with these shows and their family members have exposed them to the cinematic experiences. Disney’s growing, yet slow, expansion of the franchise into the theme parks has also allowed the brand to remain strong and relevant. These factors will help The Force Awakens to a major extent. Some moviegoers, though, simply do not care for science-fiction or could allow prior distaste with some of the films to dissuade them from catching the newest entry. That’s too bad. But this is how Hollywood and moviegoers operate.
The release date will substantially help Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It arrives after the Thanksgiving fare and allows for those movies to die down. Yes, no less than six wide release movies debut around Christmas. They may serve as some counter programming. Alas, they will likely search for scraps. I feel comfortable in assuming the movie will earn more than $170 million during its opening weekend, if not closer to $200 million. Only a few movies have accomplished that feat. One was Jurassic World, which stunned everyone with its incredible early earnings that sustained for weeks afterward. No doubt Force Awakens can match that, right?
The movie also has the privilege of no major films of that scale following it for months. The next “big thing” would be Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice at the end of March. Essentially, the end of December and the first three months of 2016 are Force Awakens‘ for the taking. That worked for Avatar after all, as only Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland stalled its business. Until that weekend, Avatar‘s percentage change from weekend to weekend dropped no higher than 32 percent. If the new Star Wars can match that trend, even just similarly, the box office earning possibilities are endless. Again, I only wonder how it can replicate the biggest movie in the past 17 years.
Is $600 million or $650 million total domestically within reach for Force Awakens? Had it not been for the surprisingly quick decline for Avengers: Age of Ultron, I may have felt more confident in the idea of staying power. As I said, the film lacks competition, so that will help. But until Jurassic World arrived six weeks after Ultron‘s opening, the Marvel pic had already earned more than 90 percent of its domestic total. To reason that Jurassic World crippled Ultron would be a false statement. I thought Ultron would make $600 million, much like its predecessor. Ultron‘s more mediocre reviews may have accounted for the earnings dip, along with a mix of superhero fatigue and lack of novelty compared to the 2012 original Avengers. Does Star Wars: The Force Awakens suffer from the same issue, though?
No movie akin to Star Wars, in regards to theme, has emerged to reach the scale of the George Lucas franchise. Remember Jupiter Ascending? Neither does most of the general public. Science-fiction adventure is a hard genre to interpret with mainstream appeal. Tomorrowlandis another prime example. Branding means nearly everything these days, and that will significantly help Force Awakens. Disney absolutely needs this to score well with critics, audiences, and ultimately, with final earnings.
Cinderella, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Inside Out led to 2015 marking another great year for the studio. Only one film, however, has been hyped to such a major extent. Star Wars: The Force Awakens should earn $500 million domestically with no difficulty, and perhaps even $600 million, but higher than that is anyone’s guess. I would like to be surprised and see it reaches Avatar-level numbers here in the United States, but I refer to comparable titles and situations to stay cautiously optimistic.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, without a doubt, will be a hit for Disney. It will help overall box office numbers for 2015 and, subsequently, the early part of 2016. It will be a blockbuster and, chances are, it will be a phenomenon in many circles. If the stars align and audiences the world over embrace what the movie offers, the film’s success will more than justify Disney’s costly purchase of Lucasfilm three years ago. This movie epitomizes the foundation of a new saga in the world of Star Wars, once in which spin-off films, sequels, theme park attractions, merchandising, and other entities will characterize millions of children’s memories and experiences. Well, those of children and countless more millions of adults around the world.
Share your thoughts of how much you think Star Wars: The Force Awakens will earn!
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth on the first and third Thursdays of each month on Geeks of Doom.