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Top 10 Takeaways: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Sets Records with Historic Opening; What Other Records Will It Break?

Top 10 Takeaways: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Sets Records with Historic Opening; What Other Records Will It Break?

The Force awakened, indeed.

Disney provided an estimate of $238 million for the weekend (including Thursday evening shows). They may be low-balling the figure with the purpose of reporting a higher actual tomorrow that will cause a new set of articles and additional press attention. What their initial figures, both domestically and world-wide, warrant is already enough to recognize this as something completely different from other recent record-breakers.

Two other brave new films, the fourth “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie (20th Century Fox) and another R-rated female comedy, “Sisters” (Universal), took on “Star Wars” with enough response to grant their distributors a sigh of relief. But with four more wide studio releases set for next Friday, with expansions and high-end limited runs all vying for precious screens, some of the older films counting on bolstering their bottom lines with holiday gravy may find themselves sitting at the kiddies’ table doing the best they can with less.

The Top Ten totaled about $291 million. That makes it the best weekend of the year, and (at least unadjusted) the top weekend ever (all films together will approach $300 million).

Context: In 2014, the pre-Christmas weekend was the 30th best for the year. Yes, this one is mostly “Star Wars” grosses. But it is a positive sign that the two new films coming in the next two slots combined grossed $27 million, not much down from last year when a similar two openers did $32 million, facing the strong but not remotely as competitive debut of the final “Hobbit” film.

Opening

1. Star Wars – Episode Seven: The Force Awakens (Buena Vista) NEW – Cinemascore: A; Criticwire: B+; Metacritic: 81; Est. budget: $200 million
$238,000,000 in 4,134 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $57.571; Cumulative: $238.000,000
2. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (20th Century Fox)  NEW – Cinemascore: A-;  Metacritic: 34; Est. budget: $60 million
$14,400,000 in 3,653 theaters; PTA: $3,942; Cumulative: $14,400,000
3. Sisters (Universal)  NEW – Cinemascore: B; Criticwire: C; Metacritic: 54; Est. budget: $30 million
$13,420,000 in 2,962 theaters; PTA: $4,531; Cumulative: $13,420,000
4. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Lionsgate) Week 5; Last weekend #1
$5,650,000 (-50%) in 2,653 theaters (-998); PTA: $2,130; Cumulative: $254,439,000
5. Creed (Warner Bros.) Week 4; Last weekend #4
$5,085,000 (-50%) in 2,433 theaters (-1,069); PTA: $2,090; Cumulative: $87,900,000
6. The Good Dinosaur (Buena Vista) Week 4; Last weekend #3
$4,232,000 (-59%) in 2,755 theaters (-851); PTA: $1,536; Cumulative: $96,546,000
7. Krampus (Universal) Week 3; Last weekend #5
$3,780,000 (-55%) in 2,371 theaters (-548); PTA: $1,594; Cumulative: $34,811,000
8. In the Heart of the Sea (Warner Bros,) Week 2; Last weekend #2
$3,465,000 (-69%) in 3,103 theaters (no change); PTA: $1,117; Cumulative: $18,600,000
9. Diwale (UTV) NEW
$1,875,000 in 268 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $6,996; Cumulative: $1,875,000
10. Bajirao Mastani (Eros) NEW
$1,660,000 in 304 theaters; PTA (per theater average): $5,461; Cumulative: $1,660,000

The Takeaways

Why ‘Force Awakens’ is a real record breaker

All our comparative grosses to past films are adjusted to 2015 ticket price levels. These numbers are approximate, but are vastly more accurate gauges of comparative strength, and consistent with our past coverage. “Records” in movie box office are often really not; in the case of “Force Awakens” they are, and should be set apart from what is often claimed for other movies.

READ MORE: Why ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Will Break Opening and Christmas Holiday Records. 

Over the last 20 years, with the rapid increase of quality multi-screen complexes and ticket price increases (78% since the biggest hit during that time period, “Titanic,” before getting into premium pricing for 3D, IMAX and other presentations), the record, in unadjusted numbers, for best opening weekend has been broken at least ten times. But most of these have been incremental increases, particularly in terms of actual attendance. The raw number that “Force Awakens” topped at $238 million is $30 million —about 14% — above “Jurassic World” just last June, which edged out “The Avengers” barely from three years earlier (though with slightly fewer tickets actually sold). At something around 22 million tickets purchased, this is a best-ever result.

But the achievement is greater than that. It is better than “Jurassic World,” which had the advantage of summer playtime. It is double the best opening for any film a pre-Christmas weekend — a list of all-time-great grossing films like “Titanic,” “Avatar,” and both the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” series—even with adjustments. And perhaps most impressively, more so in an era of somewhat plateauing grosses, it is the biggest percentage jump in the record (adjusted) than any other increase in the past two decades.

To put this in context, the number of people who attended the film in three-plus days is somewhat more than half the 38 million expected domestic airline passengers over the 17 days of the holiday (and keep in mind that travel, particularly this weekend, is considered a rival to movie going). It didn’t set every record: “Jurassic” had a better first Saturday (with somewhat less competition for seats, while “Force” had virtually unlimited capacity its opening night Thursday, and benefited from a much higher intensity of initial interest, but had bigger initial same weekend competition otherwise).

Where does it go from here?

“Avatar” sold only about a third as many tickets six years ago, and ended up with an incredible 9.5 times multiple for its entire run. It barely fell its second weekend (similar to this year, Dec. 25-27, optimal for maximizing attendance). Don’t expect the same small drop to happen here. But a second and third weekend over $100 million, and much bigger weekdays in between guarantees that this will top $500 million by Jan. 3 (day 17 of the holiday period) and likely by a whole lot more. And then plenty more after that.

Enough to top “Titanic” and its over $1.1 billion adjusted total? Probably not. But it’s not impossible. And “Avatar,” adjusted $811 million, could be vulnerable.

One film though that likely it can’t top is the original “Star Wars.” That film, in 1977 and later reissues, has accumulated nearly $1.5 billion in domestic gross. But here’s how remarkable the Lucas empire relaunch is. The one film, at least in the sound era, to outgross it is “Gone With the Wind” (roughly $1.8 billion). That film was made 38 years before we first were transported to a galaxy far, far away. No one in 1977 seriously considered a new film to compete with the original’s legacy. Yet the same 38 years later, Disney, J.J. Abrams and team have managed to do that with their new addition to the series to a degree that manages to surpass already high expectations.

One other record not yet set is opening weekend worldwide. “Force” sits at $517 million, just short as of now of “Jurassic World.” But the asterisk is huge. Unlike “Jurassic,” “Force” has not yet opened in China (the government forbids new non-Chinese films from opening over the holiday; they get it on Jan. 9). Had it done so, it likely would have blown away the international record by even a bigger margin than the domestic one.

What This Means for the Future

One of our ongoing themes is encouraging studios to expand their horizons to broader release times for their top films. The pre-Christmas weekend is not negligible, but many of the behemoths mentioned above had lower initial grosses and then hung around for the holidays and beyond. As a result, nearly all of the biggest total grossers since 1975 (“Jaws” issuing in the modern summer time wide release blueprint) have been far away from Christmas.

Clearly that is now changed forever. It doesn’t mean that summer will slacken off. The ability of studios to parcel out their top films so they don’t cannibalize each other, plus the much larger number of weekdays with elevated audiences beyond the narrow band, will continue to get preference. (Curiously, the next two “Star Wars” releases are set for Memorial Day 2017 and 2018. Disney would be best positioned to claim this territory for Christmas if production schedules —”Episode VIII” is shooting now —allowed for changing.)

“Star Wars,” despite all the appeal of the Marvel, D.C. Comic, Pixar and other top franchise series, has reinforced for a third go-round, that it stands ahead of the rest. That it happened under new management is a crowning achievement in Disney history.

On a more macro-level, despite the success of several more domestic-audience stand-alone successes, this “Force Awakens” gross, coming atop the “Jurassic World” and other familiar titles, is going to make the studios even more attuned to similar event films. (As of now, only four of 2015’s biggest non-animated films— “The Martian,” “Fifty Shades of Gray,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “San Andreas”— were non-sequels, and “Gray” was greenlit as a series of films). When Disney can spend $4 billion just to buy Lucasfilm before spending a penny on production and marketing, then those who regard the tried and true, even if expensive, to be the best bet have had their argument reinforced.

An ironic note, the director who along with George Lucas created the modern Hollywood era, Steven Spielberg, parted ways after a recent production relationship with Disney (including “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies”), as a new DreamWorks/Amblin/Participant/Reliance combine pacts with Universal, the other huge success this year. Spielberg seems no longer inclined to chase such box office benchmarks, as he pursues more sober-minded subjects. 

What the Other Openers Did

Two other wide releases braved the Wookies in the room, figuring on counter-programming to kids (“Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip”) and women (“Sisters”). In the case of “Alvin,” Fox actually moved up this date after initially looking to avoid the franchise they originally created. (Fox is the sole brave studio with two wide releases over these two weeks, with the initially limited “The Revenant,” as well.) 

The result is by far the lowest opener of the “Alvin” series. But it has been four years since the last (third) entry, and it’s typical for such standard issue animated franchises to get creaky. Fox intended to open on Wednesday, as the extra five days (Monday and Tuesday will be strong with school off) will give them somewhere over $20 million early gross, not all of which would have been captured later.

“Sisters” starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler scored a 79% female attendance. The usual expectation is that women are even more preoccupied than men in the days before Christmas (and might be dragged into kids’ films). R-rated films, including comedies, aren’t rare at Christmas, but one aimed mainly at women is a different approach, with some risk. Universal plopped “Trainwreck” on a prime summer date with a less-known lead (Amy Schumer), R-rated, and got a $10 million first weekend to blossom into a $110 million hit. That film went up 3% its first Saturday, while this was off 2%. But this has the holidays ahead, though with more competition, led by the also women-centric Jennifer Lawrence comedy “Joy.”

It’s too early to predict the fate of either. “Alvin” has a reasonable $60 million pre-marketing budget, “Sisters,” though without the chipmunks’ international pull, carries a thrifty $30 million price tag. But it is hard to argue with either studio about their release date decisions, thus far.

The Christmas Holdover Battle

Tomorrow is the most brutal day of the year in the battle between theaters and distributors, with the former wanting to maximize every seat and showtime, the latter trying to keep older, more marginal films on screen to add to their totals. In some cases, winning makes the difference between profit or loss, and boosts visibility for awards’ voters, many of whom do pay attention to screen presence.

Lionsgate has the easiest case with “Mockingjay.” It’s the highest-placing of the older films, and they have no new film to open. They have the precedent of past years sticking around and doing good ongoing business, although in less intense years. Their one problem is that the final franchise entry continues to lag. This weekend showed a gross of $5,650,00. Last year it was almost $7.9 million. The finale fell 50% this year (hardly surprising of course) compared to 38% in 2014. The movie is playing on more than 500 fewer screens this year. Expect the bulk of these to hold, at least until Weinstein’s “The Hateful Eight” New Year’s expansion, but also don’t be surprised to see some split scheduling going on, possibly with “The Good Dinosaur,” should Disney permit.

Warner Bros. potential roadblock (they have “Point Break” opening on Friday) was solved by the disastrous continued showing of Ron Howard’s whaling saga “In the Heart of the Sea” only two weeks into its run, which dropped 69% from a bad start. There may be some mixing and matching, but expect theaters to tell Warners that if they get a second movie played, it will be “Creed.” It actually had the best Top Ten hold (though down 50%) and for the first time, as anticipated here two weeks ago, jumped ahead of same-day opener “The Good Dinosaur.” Some of its potential audience could go to Will Smith’s “Concussion,” but look for “Creed” to push ahead to possibly $120 million before done, a rare recent success for Warners—label New Line partnered with MGM.

Disney’s “Dinosaur,” battered by family-friendly “Star Wars” and “Alvin,” fell 59%. It is the first of the 16 Pixar films to not reach the $100 million mark (adjusting to current prices) by its fourth weekend. Disney should have such a problem. They have plenty of “Star Wars” screens they might insist, at least for matinees, go to “Dinosaur,” which of course has good reason to stay on screen through Jan. 3. Last year, both their own “Big Hero 6” and Fox’ “Penguins of Madagascar” held on to over 2,000 screens despite the similar weekend grossing less than what “Dinosaur” did.

“Krampus,” down 55%, still has a shot at complexes with an abundance of screens, though likely only for split shows. The two Indian films in the Top Ten hold in place at their relatively few locations.

The rest of the fight will be for a range of awards contenders, some down from their peak (“Spotlight” and “Brooklyn,”) some expanding (“The Danish Girl”) and scattered others trying to hold on to a few hundred dates including some big multiplexes. It will be a mixed bag, but they will be in the mix.

READ MORE: Arthouse Audit: Oscar Frontrunner ‘Son of Saul’ Debuts as Sole Specialty Non-VOD Entry 

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