Can Star Wars: The Force Awakens top the $760 million domestic gross of James Cameron’s Avatar to become the new domestic box office champion? Grab your calculator, and let’s dive in!
With a whopping $238 million opening weekend (according to Sunday estimates), the biggest on record by a healthy margin, the next speculative question becomes how far the film can go in America. In short, are we looking at a new domestic box office champion? As of now, the four biggest movies of all time are The Avengers ($623m off a $207m weekend), Jurassic World ($652m off a $208m weekend), James Cameron’s Titanic ($658m with a 2012 reissue) and James Cameron’s Avatar ($760m off a $77m opening weekend). If The Force Awakens has anything resembling legs, a $600m domestic total is probably in the cards.
But whether or not J.J. Abrams catches up to James Cameron becomes a matter of what kind of film this is. Is The Force Awakens a somewhat conventional “big” December release with a massive head start? Or is it a standard summer tent pole that just happened to drop at the end of the year?
The two biggest grossing movies of all time opened on this same weekend and had relatively leggy runs, with Titanic taking advantage of a somewhat barren early 1998 slate to run the tables off a $28 million opening weekend for around four months. Avatar had comparatively more competition (The Book of Eli, Dear John, Alice in Wonderland) but made so much money so quickly that it soared past Titanic’s original $600m domestic total in just over six weeks.
If there is an Achilles’ Heel for The Force Awakens, it is the sheer amount of “big” movies dropping in January. Putting aside the deluge of Christmas releases (Concussion, The Big Short, Joy, Point Break, Daddy’s Home), January sees fifteen new wide releases including such biggies as The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, 13 Hours, Ride Along 2, The Fifth Wave, The Finest Hours, and Kung Fu Panda 3. January 29th alone sees five new releases, which means you’re going to see some screen bleeding by that point by sheer force of the amount of product that needs to find a home.
But The Force Awakens opened with so much money off the bat that it doesn’t need to be all that leggy to take the title. Having said that, the opening weekend was so front-loaded (it made less than 2x the Friday number with 24% of its whole weekend occurring on Thursday) that we may be looking at something of a quick-kill blockbuster. Under normal circumstances, I would see that 1.97x weekend multiplier for The Force Awakens and say it had no chance to catching up to Titanic let alone Avatar and that it would be thrilled to match The Dark Knight ($533m). But this is December, and December releases are all about taking advantage of these last two weeks of the year when most of the kids are out of school, and many parents are off work for the holiday break. It stands to reason that any number of regular moviegoers decided to hold off on the weekend rush knowing it would be more convenient to take themselves or their kids to a weekday showing when the kids were off of school anyway.
And yes, the rock-solid word of mouth will create repeat viewership among the hardcore fans, at least in the short term. That is why I am not inclined to presume that it’s going to be as front-loaded as a traditional Twilight sequel even though it had an opening weekend similar to such. But let’s just run the numbers just in case. A Twilight finish (around 2.1x that opening weekend) gets The Force Awakens to $500 million domestic to make it the sixth biggest movie of all time not adjusted for inflation.
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A 2.25-2.35x finish (think Spider-Man 3, The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, or Avengers: Age of Ultron) gets it to between $535 million and $559m domestic, good for fifth place. Even a 2.88x finish, akin to The Dark Knight Rises, gets it to $692m which puts it behind only Avatar. If we’re looking at conventional summer openings of this nature, let’s check out some recent record-breakers in the middle of the summer.
The Dark Knight opened with $158 million over a painfully frontloaded (2.3x) opening weekend but did $66m over the first three weekdays and turned into a leggy sensation to close out the summer. It earned $533m in the end, a strong 3.37x multiplier. Such a total puts The Force Awakens just over the $800m mark. The Avengers made $623m off a $207m debut weekend, which was a 3.01x multiplier and would give The Force Awakens a “mere” $716m domestic total. And then we have Jurassic World, which earned $652m domestic last summer off a $208.8m weekend for a 3.12x multiplier, which would give The Force Awakens a “missed it by that much” $743m domestic total. And keep in mind those last two were considered well-liked and leggy blockbusters in the heart of the summer.
The good news for the Star Wars sequel (aside from the fact that it’s already a huge hit even if it doesn’t clear $500m domestic) is that there aren’t a lot of movies that opened on this weekend (or the previous weekend) in December that didn’t have the legs necessary to push a $238m debut weekend past $800m domestic. A performance like The Chronicles of Narnia ($65m/$291m) gets it past $1 billion domestic and a run like Tron: Legacy ($44m/$172m) gets it to $930m. A performance like I Am Legend ($77m/$255m) takes it to $790m. A run like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ($84m/$303m) takes it to $858m. And a run like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug ($73m/$258m) ends up with $841m.
The Wednesday openers are trickier to compute, so I’m intentionally leaving out Lord of the Rings movies, King Kong, and The Battle of the Five Armies. They all did around 3x their five-day debuts. And in case it needs reiterating, I’m not expecting anything resembling the legs of Titanic or even Avatar. A $238m debut weekend offers different variables than a $28m weekend, period. But, and this is a huge but, we’re also looking at an opening weekend that is almost 3x larger than any prior December debut.
A lot of the demand was met this weekend. This isn’t Night at the Museum opening to $30 million and legging it to $250m partially due to a lack of similar options. This one will be at $250m+ today. Does the sheer size of the debut weekend, along with the comparative front-loaded nature of such and the fact that late December and all of January will be absolutely drowning in new movies, cancel out the fabled December legs to just enough of an extent that it ends up with a sad, shameful $600-$700m domestic gross?
Moreover, and here may be the magic element we need to take into account, there isn’t a lot of “surprise” factor in play this time out. There is no sense of discovery with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Fans wanted a good Star Wars movie; they got a good Star Wars movie. They’ll potentially worship the ground it walks on for a few weeks and then we’ll move on as we always do. This isn’t the unexpected glory of Titanic or the “I had no idea it was going to be like this” 3D wonder of Avatar.
Now all of this is just fun with math, especially until the first ten days are charted accordingly. I wish I could say I knew what the final domestic total would be, but this is uncharted territory, with a major summer movie blockbuster tent pole pulling a summer-size opening in the middle of December. But here’s a secret: It doesn’t matter, at least not to Disney and its shareholders. Walt Disney and Lucasfilm have already made a Star Wars movie that has proven the sheer strength of the brand, combined with the Disney seal no less, and they have delivered a crowd-pleasing blockbuster entertainment that has gotten the fans and general audiences back onboard for at least the next few installments.
The important thing is that the picture opened well and that it was well-received. Heck, even if it collapses we’re still looking at a near-$500 million domestic total. And if it does collapse or it just doesn’t quite catch the James Cameron two-some, it will be because the demand was met and there were other movies to see, not because the consumers were dissatisfied with the product. I don’t think we’re looking at a $1 billion domestic grosser nor do I believe that the $2.7 billion worldwide Avatar record is in much jeopardy. But it’s anybody’s guess as to whether or not Star Wars: The Force Awakens can become the first non-James Cameron film in eighteen years to become our newest domestic champion. This should be fun.
Of course, should Walt Disney come back this afternoon and pronounce that the final figures were larger, well, the match changes accordingly.