“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and “Cats” open this pre-Christmas Friday. Rarely have two high-profile films opened head to head, particularly for Disney juggernauts — they’ve either scared off other openers, or saw only calibrated counterprogramming.
The “Skywalker” date makes perfect sense for the calendar-obsessed Disney, while choosing to go a few days in advance of December 25 is a bit riskier for “Cats.” Give credit to Universal for gambling with the long-delayed musical adaptation; its gross will be dwarfed by “Star Wars.”
“Skywalker” is the fifth “Star Wars” title since Disney took over in 2015, preceded by “The Force Awakens” (2015, $248 million opening) and “The Last Jedi” (2017, $220 million) as well as offshoots “Rogue One” (2016, $155 million) and “Solo” (2018, $84 million). “Force” and “Jedi” opened on the same pre-Christmas weekend.
Both films have seen fans’ social media reactions range from rapturous to mixed. However, while “Cats” reviews are still under embargo at this writing (they go live December 18 at 7pm ET), “Skywalker” has broken the wrong kind of record for Disney with the worst reviews of any “Star Wars” film since it acquired the franchise. It currently stands at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 54 on Metacritic.
The biggest films of 2019 beat expectations: “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” “Joker,” “It – Chapter Two.” However, this also was a year when several franchises fell seriously short including “Terminator,” “Men in Black,” and “Godzilla.”
“Skywalker,” by all accounts, will belong to the former category; we guess it will rise over consensus pre-opening estimates of $200 million for the first weekend, and vie with “Jedi” as second to “Force.”
Normally, a third time out risks a shortfall, particularly when previous results were sky high. But even with there is little sign that passion for the franchise is dimming. Even the divided opinion over Rian Johnson’s “Jedi” shows how intense the fan interest remains.
Then, with the synergy that awes and frightens the competition, the debut of “Mandalorian” on Disney+ and the fixation on Baby Yoda makes “Skywalker” something to see right away. The biggest single takeaway from the company’s taking charge of the franchise is that they are making it like Marvel: multiple subsets, with constant variations to satisfy eager fans.
Trilogies’ third films vary in response. Some bomb, like “The Godfather Part III.” “Star Wars” and “The Hobbit” had their best-grossing entries first, but the final “Lord of the Rings” was the series’ biggest. This year’s “Avengers: Endgame” also soared.
Four years ago, “Force” revitalized the series, with a record number of seats and showtimes to create what was then a record opening weekend of $250 million. More is possible — “Avengers: Endgame” opened to $357 million — but the calendar factor limited “Force” and could do the same for “Skywalker.” Being this close to Christmas can restrict audience interest. Still, the impetus to be part of the communal experience and avoid spoilers could propel this to the higher end of estimates. (Internationally, $250 million is predicted, with dates opening Wednesday and nearly everywhere by Friday).
At press time, “Cats” reviews remain embargoed. But its lack of awards traction — indeed, Universal missing some awards deadlines — suggest they won’t be great. “Sweeney Todd” opened on the same weekend in 2007 to $9.7 million. Musicals “Les Miserables” and “Into the Woods” both debuted on Christmas Day, the go-to date for films with maximum adult appeal, which paid off with first-day grosses over $15 million for both.
The “Cats” model might be 2017’s “The Greatest Showman,” which became a massive success after a modest start. It opened to just $8.8 million, but audience interest held its theaters (the last screenings were in June 2018) and it went on to gross $174 million domestic and $435 million worldwide.
That’s the opposite of what “Skywalker” will do. It also gives it a head start over adult-oriented “Little Women” (Sony), “Just Mercy” (Warner Bros.), the expansion of “Uncut Gems” (A24) and the animated “Spies in Disguise” (20th Century Fox).
Will it work? Opening weekend estimates for “Cats” are $15 million-$20 million, which would be good for the date. With a $95 million budget it isn’t cheap, but it also has major worldwide awareness as well as the untested film draw of Taylor Swift.
“Bombshell” (Lionsgate) goes national after a decent platform debut. The Fox News sexual harassment retelling, with strong SAG nomination support, also positioned itself ahead of Christmas. Last year, Dick Cheney biopic “Vice” went Christmas Day and earned just under $20 million in its first full week. Expect this to be bigger, with the weekend in the range of $10 million.
All told, with “Jumanji: The Next Level” (Sony) looking at $25 million-$30 million for its second weekend, and”Frozen II” (Disney) over $15 million, the weekend’s full take could come to over $400 million. That would put a major dent in the over-$600 million lag from 2018, and suggest that the ultimate shortfall will be around 3%-4%.