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Forecast: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'... Will Box Office Records Feel the Force?

by Brad Brevet
 

 
December 17, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has finally arrived. Audiences across the globe now have a chance to experience the first Star Wars film in over ten years and anticipation couldn't be higher. Star Wars changed movies forever when the saga began back in 1977 and this newest installment enters a marketplace where the industry itself has changed, several times over, in the 38 years since we all began to feel the Force.

The film landed on Wednesday in 12 international markets, generating $14.1 million including $5.2 million in France, $2 million in Italy and another $1.7 million in Sweden. Force Awakens arrives in 32 more international markets today, including Germany, UK, Russia, Australia, Korea, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico with Japan and Spain opening day-and-date with the U.S. release on Friday.

As for that U.S. release and the world market overall, things have even changed since 2009, the last time Christmas Day fell on a Friday and a film called Avatar began its journey to becoming the highest grossing domestic and worldwide release of all time. The Force Awakens aims to best both those records and then some. Let's take a look at its chances.

The Force Awakens was already breaking records before a single frame was exhibited. Disney originally estimated it would open in 3,900 theaters, that total has since jumped to 4,134, a record number of theaters for a December opening. It has also broken advanced ticket sales with $100+ million (approximately $55 million of that attributed to the film's opening weekend), besting the $25 million set by previous record holder The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. Online ticketing service Fandango.com, which experienced technical difficulties as soon as advanced tickets went on sale, is reporting record ticket sales, with Force Awakens breaking Fandango's record for the most tickets sold for any film during its entire theatrical run.

Records such as these offer a glimpse at what's to come, as we put under the microscope an unprecedented release that's nearly impossible to predict. You'll need more than two hands to count the number of records Force Awakens is looking to break as the domestic opening weekend record of $208.8 million, set earlier this year by Jurassic World, is only one of them. Here are a few to consider:

* Midnight only
** Holiday is defined as the first Friday in November through New Year's week or weekend.

Many of these records come into consideration when predicting the film's opening weekend, beginning with the Thursday preshow number, a number that has changed meaning over the last several years. As noted above, when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 broke the record with $43.5 million from 3,800 theaters at midnight screenings, they were just that, midnight screenings. The Force Awakens, however, will begin screening at 7 PM on Thursday in a large fraction of its 4,134 opening weekend theaters. Midnight showings accounted for nearly 48% of Deathly Hallows 2's record opening day of $91 million and with theaters already selling out Thursday screenings of Force Awakens, it stands to reason that record will fall. Fan fervor over Star Wars is no less than the excitement for that final Harry Potter film.

So how big will Friday be? For starters, no film has ever made $100 million in a single day. For Force Awakens this seems like a possibility with Thursday preshows counting for Friday's number. Thursday preshows for Jurassic World brought in a mere $18.5 million from 3,229 theaters, which resulted in an $81.9 million opening day. Comparatively, Avengers: Age of Ultron grossed $84.4 million on its first Friday, which included $27.6 million from Thursday screenings, but its 33% drop on Saturday sunk its chances at a $200+ million opening weekend. Jurassic World earned its opening weekend record by holding on very well over the following days.

Let's say for a second Force Awakens becomes the first film to bring in $100 million on Friday. If it follows Jurassic World's Saturday and Sunday drops (15% and 17.9% respectively) we're looking at a $254.7 million weekend. If we performed the same calculations based on Age of Ultron's weekend drops (33% and 11%) we're looking at a $226.5 million opening. Both break the current opening weekend record as well as the per theater record, a record that is significant.

December has never had a film open higher than $100 million, or a single day gross higher than $37.1 million for that matter. This is the time of year where people are spending time with families as they take time off work and spend time with their children on break from school. The opportunity to see a new movie is spread out over time, eliminating the summertime "need" to see a movie on opening weekend. No matter how big Star Wars opens, it's these factors that suggest it is almost guaranteed to have great legs, just as Avatar did in 2009 when it opened on the same weekend and dropped a mere 1.8% over Christmas weekend. Right now only one fifth of all schools are on break while next weekend we're looking at 100% of all children being out of school. This, along with holiday travel and last second shopping, could result in slightly softer numbers for this weekend than had the film opened during the summer months.

If you're looking for another reason as to why Star Wars may not break Jurassic World's domestic opening record you need look no further than the current, monthly record holders. Looking at all twelve months, American Sniper shows the largest percent increase over the previous record holder as its $89.2 million opening was a 115% increase over Ride Along. Should Force Awakens match that increase as it relate's to The Hobbit's December record you're looking at a $181.9 million weekend. In fact, only three times has a monthly record been broken by a percentage that would give Force Awakens the record:

  • January '97: Star Wars (Special Edition) - $35.9M opening, 250.6% increase over From Dusk Till Dawn
  • July '91: Terminator 2: Judgment Day - $31.7M opening, 157.6% increase over European Vacation
  • August '01: Rush Hour 2 - $67.4M opening, 152.6% increase over The Sixth Sense

In short, it's difficult to not only break records, but even more difficult to break records by a large margin. And yet, Star Wars: The Force Awakens may very well be the most anticipated film of all-time and given the nature of our "give it to me now" culture, predicting an opening weekend record doesn't seem risky or difficult. Predicting just how big it will be is a different story.

Working in the film's favor is the fact it will be playing in over 3,300 3D locations, on a record 392 IMAX screens, on 451 Premium Large Format screens and in 146 D-Box locations. The higher ticket prices for all of these locations along with the swath of positive reviews (just in case you were on the fence) only work to the film's benefit, especially when it comes to predicting how much it will make per theater.

The $48,855 per theater record set by Jurassic World is probably the most significant number we have to work with. Jurassic World opened in 4,274 theaters and the fact Star Wars is opening in 140 fewer already helps up that average. To break the record Force Awakens will need to average over $50,510 per theater, we're predicting a $55,899 average for a record-breaking $231 million opening. This number is based on a $95M Friday, $71.2M Saturday (25% drop) and $64.8M Sunday (9% drop). The biggest difficulty, making for what will be the largest margin of error, is just how many screens it will be playing on in each of those theaters and how many times per screen.

Beyond opening weekend, the average multipliers in 2014 and 2015 were 3.15 and 3.01 respectively. For films opening in 4,000+ theaters that drops to 2.91 for 2014 and 2.57 in 2015. However, the average multiplier for the top opening weekends of all-time climbs to 3.24 and if you look at the two films that opened over $200 million, Jurassic World and The Avengers have 3.12 and 3.01 multipliers, which sets something of a baseline. All things considered a 3-3.5 times multiplier seems a safe approximation. This would put the overall domestic gross at $693-808.5 million, which means Avatar's all-time domestic record of $760.5 million is in some jeopardy.

Internationally it's tough to predict, though Disney isn't holding back, going day-and-date in all major international territories other than China, where the film opens on January 9. To that point, Jurassic World opened with a record $316.1 million internationally, which included over $99 million from China. However, the previous record holder was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 and it didn't open in China until a couple weeks after its initial release and it managed a $314 million opening internationally. So go ahead and expect a record breaking opening internationally and across the globe with anywhere from $575-650 million worldwide.

The weekend isn't all Star Wars, though you'd be hard-pressed to argue otherwise. Fox is releasing Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip into 3,653 theaters and Universal brings the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler comedy Sisters to 2,961 theaters. Neither is likely to make too much of an impression on the box office, though the more they make the more the overall weekend tally grows and that $266 million opening weekend record for the top twelve is challenged.

Road Chip is likely to take the #2 spot, though this is a franchise that stumbled a bit with Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked back in 2011 as it's opening weekend dropped 52% compared to its predecessor. With a large number of animated films having been released recently there's hardly any pent up demand for more animated antics, at least not from a franchise that appears to be on life support. Another 52% drop would see the film bringing in $11 million, but we'll go a bit higher at $12.7 million in the name of holiday cheer.

Sisters is a little more difficult. When Jurassic World broke the record earlier this year Spy still managed $15.6 million opposite it in its second weekend, proving there is room for comedy opposite the big, bad blockbuster. Fey and Poehler have proven a strong comedic duo with Baby Mama opening with $17.4 million back in 2008, but the lack of competition makes for a difficult comparison with that title. Otherwise, Fey has managed to stay in the spotlight, the duo was wonderful at the Golden Globes in recent years and reviews of Sisters have been solid, but an opening around $11.1 million is our target number, though it could prove much higher as a solid bit of counter-programming.

As for the rest of the top ten, Star Wars captures such a wide breadth of the movie-going audience its likely most will fall a bit sharper than the competition did when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey set the previous December opening record in 2012. However, like with the Star Wars prediction, it's tough to nail down exactly how this weekend will shake out. That said, weekend predictions are below.

  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens (4,134 theaters) - $231,090,000
  • Alvin and the Chipmunks The Road Chip (3,653 theaters) - $12,790,000
  • Sisters (2,961 theaters) - $11,100,000
  • The Good Dinosaur (2,755 theaters) - $6,700,000
  • Creed (2,433 theaters) - $5,570,000
  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (2,653 theaters) - $5,480,000
  • In the Heart of the Sea (3,103 theaters) - $5,310,000
  • Krampus (2,370 theaters) - $4,040,000
  • The Night Before (1,235 theaters) - $1,980,000
  • Spectre (1.225 theaters) - $1,940,000

Discuss this story with fellow Box Office Mojo fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @boxofficemojo and author Brad Brevet at @bradbrevet.



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