On Force Friday, the massive global “unboxing” event, we entered the final stretch before the premiere of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens as movie merchandise hit the shelves. Sales of The Force Awakens merch are expected to break records around the world. As the hype machine continues to ramp up, media outlets are beginning to prognosticate about the inevitable box office bonanza that Episode VII will create when the film is released on December 18th. Deadline Hollywood makes a staggering $615 million worldwide opening prediction, which many media outlets – but not all – are echoing. Forbes, in particular, argues that these astronomical opening weekend projections are setting the movie up to fail, given the fact that no other film released in December has opened anywhere close to that figure. And there are a number of other films opening in the same frame that could impact Episode VII‘s haul.
Regardless of opening weekend figures, the total gross worldwide take for The Force Awakens is expected to be somewhere between $1.2 and $3 billion. Citi recently advised its clients that their analysts predict that Episode VII will generate $1.75 billion in ticket sales. And Morgan Stanley’s Benjamin Swinburne predicts that The Force Awakens could bring in $1.95 billion – or more.
The basis of these bullish predictions, at least in part, is the incredible performance of Jurassic World, which became the fastest film to cross the billion-dollar mark a mere 13 days after its release in June and is now the third highest-grossing film of all time. While big numbers from a summer blockbuster aren’t surprising, it is worth noting that in a Fandango poll from the end of 2014, Jurassic World came in at number five on the list of most anticipated films in 2015. Number one on that list was The Force Awakens.
So how much money do I think Star Wars: The Force Awakens will actually make? We all know what Yoda said about trying to predict the future, but sometimes it’s fun to try anyway. I’m going to rely heavily on figures from Box Office Mojo to make my case.
The last Star Wars film, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, opened to $108 million domestically in May ten years ago. Ticket prices are up about $1.70 on average since then, plus premium formats like 3-D and IMAX boost sales figures, so let’s be generous and tack on another 25%. That gets Episode III to about a $172 million opening weekend in today’s movie ticket sales environment. We also have to consider the date. December is a good month for movies, but it’s not the summer. The closest comparison in recent years would be Avatar in 2009, which was a sci-fi film that sold a lot of premium format tickets (3-D) and opened in December to the tune of $77 million on opening weekend domestically. Good, but not Star Wars opening numbers. The biggest December premiere to date is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which opened to $84.6 million in 2012. Still, no December premiere has come close to the opening weekend performance of Episode III.
Now, I firmly believe that Episode VII will outperform Episode III‘s opening, but by what percentage? Jurassic World opened to $208 million earlier this year, setting the benchmark for the biggest opening of all time. Can we predict that Episode VII will do better than that? It does seem unlikely, especially for December when movies just don’t open big, as the Forbes article is correct to point out. However, I’m guessing midnight premieres (or Thursday night showings, which are becoming the norm) will be a big deal with Episode VII, which will probably give it a significant bump in terms of opening weekend numbers. Many, many people will want to be part of the first showing of the new Star Wars film. Remember how people camped out for days to be the first to see Episode I? We could see 15-25% better numbers compared to the Jurassic World opening, but that’s still only in the $250 million range. That’s being highly optimistic that people turn out in droves to spend beaucoup bucks on a movie a week before Christmas, but, honestly, I believe they will. The Force Awakens is going to be big, especially big for December, but I don’t think it will be quite as massive as Deadline Hollywood predicts.
My prediction is that The Force Awakens will bring in $214,541,977 domestically in the first three days of release. That’s a ridiculously specific figure (which includes the release date of the original Star Wars), but it doesn’t matter. The point is that Episode VII will post the biggest domestic opening of all time, edging out Jurassic World but still far below Deadline Hollywood’s $300 million domestic prediction. But even if The Force Awakens doesn’t break the opening weekend record, it still has a good chance of becoming the highest-grossing film of all time. And if it does break that opening record, Episode VII is all but guaranteed to become the biggest film of all time. Because December.
There’s a reason why Disney chose December 18th to open The Force Awakens. The top two highest-grossing films, Avatar and Titanic, opened that same weekend. Movies that open in this frame tend to have legs as people re-watch them over the holidays with family and friends. Big December premieres continue to make money through the holidays and into the relatively slow month of January. Avatar, which opened on December 18th, the same day The Force Awakens is set to open, was the number one film at the box office for eight weeks in a row. And Avatar‘s second weekend was almost as big as its first. It held off Sherlock Holmes (and two other wide releases) to keep the top spot. Sherlock Holmes, by the way, is the seventh-highest December premiere, but it still took second place on its opening weekend against Avatar.
In terms of revenue percentage, most movies drop to about half their opening weekend sales in their second weekend out. Jurassic World, the fastest film to a billion, still dropped 49.5% in its second weekend of release. But get this: Avatar, the most obvious predictor of how The Force Awakens is likely to perform, only dropped 1.8% in its second weekend. That means that in its second weekend of release – which includes Christmas Day, by the way – Avatar retained 98.2% of its audience. More importantly, Avatar‘s $77 million domestic opening was only 10% of its total revenue. It seems entirely possible that The Force Awakens could see a similar relative curve on its revenue percentage as the weeks go by. Think about it: there are now three generations of Star Wars fans. (Those who saw the original in theaters, their kids, and now the kids growing up on Clone Wars and Rebels.) Even after the die-hard fans see it opening weekend, they’re going to want to go again with their parents, kids, and grandkids over the holidays. The opening weekend of The Force Awakens could very well represent only 20% of its total revenue.
Another factor in the discussion is that, honestly, domestic box office gross isn’t the be-all and end-all that it once was. Studios are increasingly banking on worldwide performance to account for more than half of a major picture’s box office take. It’s worth noting that the last three Star Wars films have made more overseas than they made domestically. For example, Episode I posted a 44.8% domestic/55.2% worldwide ratio. In the case of Jurassic World, the ratio currently stands at 39.2% domestic and 60.8% worldwide. For Avatar, the ratio was 27% domestic and 72% (!!!) worldwide. If The Force Awakens ends up with a 35/65 percentage split, which seems reasonable, given my proposed $214 million domestic 3-day opening at 20% of its total domestic revenue, it could very well come in at $2.9 billion worldwide when all is said and done. That figure would earn The Force Awakens the title of highest-grossing film of all time.
The hype for the premiere of The Force Awakens, if Force Friday is any indication, is going to be unbelievable. Remember, last year it was the most anticipated film, and after the trailers and the breathtaking presentation at San Diego Comic-Con, the anticipation certainly hasn’t diminished. If the reviews are positive – let’s say they match J.J. Abram’s 2009 Star Trek film’s 95% Fresh Tomatometer score – The Force Awakens will have no trouble drawing crowds to the theater. If the reaction from the opening is good, fans will put the word out on social media, and more and more people will flock to the movie theater after the premiere, not wanting to miss the experience of seeing the movie on opening weekend.
According to the National Organization of Theater Owners, there are approximately 39,368 indoor screens in 5,326 sites in the U.S. as of December 2014. In recent years, the widest releases have opened in between 4,200-4,400 theaters, with The Twilight Saga: Eclipse holding the record at 4,468. I don’t think we’ll see that number go much higher, maybe to 4,500, but that’s about the limit. However, given what I predict will a very high demand for first showing tickets, we could see The Force Awakens break records for the most individual screens used to show a film’s opening. It’s all up to Disney to get the movie on as many screens as possible, but I have a feeling we’ll see entire multiplexes devoted to showing the premiere of Episode VII. We’ll know more once advance tickets for the premiere go on sale – giving us yet another record that The Force Awakens could break.
Regardless of box office performance, The Force Awakens is certain to be a major money-maker for Disney. MarketWatch analyst Nigam Arora predicts that Episode VII‘s release could boost Disney’s stock by as much as 25% if all goes well. And if the success of Force Friday proves anything, it shows that The Force Awakens doesn’t need to break box office records to be a financial victory. Macquarie Securities analyst Tim Nollen predicts that film-related merchandise sales could bring in as much as $5 billion for Disney, far more than the film is expected to make at the box office.
But enough of my speculation. How do you think Star Wars: The Force Awakens will do at the box office? What are your predictions? Will you be there on opening night? And how many times do you plan on seeing the film? Sound off in the comments below!