Hours before the initial U.S./Canada shows were to start at North American theaters for Disney’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,”Fandango announced that tickets sold so far have already exceeded those bought in the entire run of any other film in the history of the non-exclusive service: $100 million. (And this despite the upcoming pre-Christmas weekend not normally being considered ideal for opening top blockbusters.) These advance sales alone suggest a record breaking pre-Christmas opening (though a portion of these sales are for showings after this weekend). Expectations for the three days plus Thursday are hovering around the $200-million mark.
Christmas for the movie business is unlike any other period of the year. Summer reigns as the home of the biggest blockbusters. Since the dawn of the modern wide release opening era, 21 of the 25 biggest releases have opened in the May to August period. Christmas, though it is an intensely lucrative season, only pops during the short intense stretch starting Dec. 25 (irrespective of the day of the week) through either January 1 or the last Sunday after (or Monday if New Years falls on a Sunday). That’s a brief window, even if every day in that period plays like a Saturday.
Since the potential grosses are so high, it is the only time of the year when all of the major companies, plus several specialized ones, open new films. When an anticipated blockbuster opens in the summer, usually most other companies avoid the opening week and place their biggest films some distance apart. That’s not possible at Christmas, where even with increased audiences films easily cannibalize each other.
The narrow window for the best grosses means the most fierce competition for screen and seating space. (Hence Disney’s “Force Awakens” knocked out Weinstein Co.’s 70mm roadshow opening of “The Hateful Eight” at LA’s Cinerama Dome.) A top summer film often has a much better chance of corralling more capacity than even the biggest one at Christmas, certainly beyond the first week before the holiday. The result has been for studios to place their biggest films at times other than Christmas. (An added risk is the lurking fear in many parts of the country that a wintry blast could curtail irreplaceable business.)
So “The Force Awakens” enters the picture as something of an anomaly. But where it gets weird, if you look back over the past 20 years, the two biggest films of all (using ticket-price adjusted grosses to provide an accurate and level comparison) the two biggest were actually Christmas films. And both opened on Friday, December 18, the same as “Force Awakens,” except without the Thursday component. “Titanic” is the third biggest grosser since 1975 (only the first “Star Wars” and “E.T.” are bigger; “Avatar” is sixth biggest in the last 40 years). And last year the weekend before Christmas was only the 30th biggest of the whole year, showing the date’s normal relative weakness.
The biggest (adjusted) December opener for the three days is “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” ($110 million), with “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” just behind at $100 million (though with a Wednesday opening it had grossed $170 million by the end of pre-holiday Sunday). The first “Hobbit” movie is actually ahead of “Avatar”‘s debut ($88 vs. $84 million), while “Titanic” — hurt by its length and far fewer screens available in 1997— is only the ninth best pre-Christmas weekend opener over the last 20 years.
The problem with the pre-Christmas date, particularly when the calendar places the week before Friday at or around the 18th is that coming this close to Dec. 25, many people are traveling, shopping, partying or otherwise occupied with the full knowledge that just ahead will be plenty of days for moviegoing. So the instinct to go immediately is at its lowest ebb right about now.
So enters Episode VII of the “Star Wars” saga, still the biggest film of the past 40 years (its adjusted total gross in its initial release is nearly $1.2 billion, with re-releases nearing $1.5 billion). Let’s stay on the conservative side and say its gross by Sunday night is $170 million (equal to “LotR:RotK” after five days). What would that suggest for its total gross? (Keep in mind that “Force” is helped by its shorter running time than these earlier juggernauts and other than “Avatar” is the only one with 3D ticket supplements adding to its haul.)
The second weekend (the Monday through Thursday will be helped by school holidays but hurt by even more outside distractions) for a big release, particularly when Dec. 25 falls on a Friday (the best possible date for exhibitors) often holds up very will. “Avatar” fell only 2% its second weekend. “Titanic” incredibly rose 24% (each of its next four weekends actually was better among its likely never to be repeated 15 weeks at #1).
Even a well-received “The Force Awakens” will still sustain a bigger-dropping Christmas weekend, mainly because of its higher opening. But it could easily be way over $200 million (perhaps a lot) before Dec. 25. So if it fell a third — let’s say from the lower estimate, about $120 million the second weekend — it would be over $300 million by Dec, 27. The weekdays during this period usually come close to the prior weekend, so add a low-end $100 million, and $400 million and counting before another strong weekend (“Avatar” dropped only 10% in its third) and you get $500 million by the time January 3 comes and the holiday is over.
Granting this is educated guessing, the context is important. The record for a film opening around the weekend before Christmas, adjusted, through the weekend of or after New Years is $390 million (“LotR:RotK”), ahead of “Avatar” at $369 million. “Titanic” was only at $280 million (that film had massive sold out shows. “Avatar” by that point had done about half of its eventual business, “RotK” 75%. “Titanic” was just getting started. It did nearly three quarters of its initial run gross after the holiday, fueled by more availability but also massive repeat business.
“The Force Awakens” is much more of a typical summer blockbuster than a Christmas one, which makes figuring out its trajectory more complicated. It should be way more front-ended than most holiday season smashes. An opening weekend over $150 million is unprecedented by some distance, $200 million is phenomenal, and above that staggering (the all-time adjusted record was set earlier this year by “Jurassic World” at $208.8 million); only three films total have surpassed $175 million, all of course within the summer period (May-August). And then many of the top days are still ahead. And after the holidays, assuming some repeat business, even more.
This is going to be a day-to-day race, with each new one giving new data to suggest what follows. And keep in mind: the strength of “The Force Awakens” could end up hurting all the other films out there, leading to a very one-sided holiday rather than the usual spread-the-wealth kind that usually occurs. But expect the records to start rolling out as early as tonight. The question is will they continue beyond the opening. The best gauge won’t be the three day number, but the 17 days one (through January third). If that is a record (very likely), then this will indeed be one of the biggest hits of all time, even with adjusted numbers.