Weekend Forecast for December 18-20, 2015
By Reagen Sulewski
December 17, 2015

I told you not to taunt the Empire!

So this is the weekend we've all been waiting for – the release of the latest entry in a decades old franchise, beloved by the young and old alike, with funny creatures and a cultural legacy of its own. I'm speaking, of course, of the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks film.

Okay, okay, stop throwing things. Of course, we're talking about the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the latest in the horribly subtitled tradition of this franchise. Ever since the announcement three years ago that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm for the bargain basement price of $4 billion, people have been awaiting this moment. While that would have been a great price for the merchandising alone, it naturally led to the thoughts of more movies. And how could they not – as it's probably the most valuable IP in film, with the possible exception of the entirety of the Marvel Universe.

I'll actually be discussing very little of the plot of the film itself in this column, for the reasons of a) you probably are already familiar with it as much as you need to be and b) it's largely irrelevant to the film's performance. It's a new Star Wars film, and what it's about isn't going to change your mind about it. What is important is the people behind it, which crucially includes J.J. Abrams, and does not include George Lucas, who has been rather politely shown the door, thanks for the notes *rip*. So now we find ourselves in a remarkable similar situation to 16 years ago, with the first new Star Wars film in over a decade, a Jurassic Park film holding the box office record, and a recent ramp up of (high-end) box office opening weekends. If boy bands were popular again, I'd be prepared to call it spooky.

And while, after the prequels, Star Wars fans have shown some enthusiasm for new films sans-Lucas and are quite glad to be rid of him (not that I blame them, but that's gratitude for you), it's created one rather large mass-forgetting, as history repeats in other ways, including the largest exhibition of begging the question that we've seen in some time.

Essentially the argument goes like this (stop me if you've heard this before): Star Wars is the biggest, bestest franchise there is, so whatever the record is at any one time, that is the mark that Star Wars will beat. If you may recall, this was the same thing that was said around the time of the release of The Phantom Menace, when the Lost World's two-year old $92 million four-day total was taken as a given to be beaten, let alone its $75 million three day total. With hype ratcheted up to epic proportions, the nerds decided to start doing touchdown dances before they had scored, and basically told people to stay away by saying that they were going to buy up all the tickets. Theaters threw in 24/7 showings for the first weekend in anticipating of the throngs... which ended up with a $64 million start, albeit with a then-record first day of $28 million. This would be the first evidence than general appeal is better than the specific, but perhaps not the last.

There was of course the problem of the movies themselves, which took some time to be seen for the exercises in mediocrity that they were, though they were still able to limp home to finish the trilogy with a decent box office. Fans were more than happy to say goodbye to Lucas, but let us not forget that *at the time*, fans had zero reservations about how great the films would obviously be, and even professional critics, scared into submission by throngs of fans or just sucked in by the novelty, gave the film strong reviews – its Rotten Tomatoes score was in the 90s upon release, though it's since sunk below 60. Grains of salt are at the ready for reviews of this film, as anything compared to a steaming plate of garbage is going to get a good review.

This is the primary reason I don't particularly need to know how good the film is or isn't – while it's almost certainly better than The Phantom Menace *is*, it can't be better than people thought The Phantom Menace would *be*. We've already seen what maximum hype and fan involvement looks like, and it's sort of scary to most people. Star Wars fans are taking this a referendum on their standing within the nerd community, and while they likely are kings of that particular heap, it doesn't beat appealing to absolutely everyone, and not pushing out non-hardcores.

The hype pump has been primed this time by similar things – endless presales, 24/7 screenings, and merchandising up the wazoo, plus testimonials from all involved, the return of original characters and actors, J.J. being a being a better director, great reactions from the premiere... it's all true – and it's all irrelevant, since none of this was any different from The Phantom Menace's release. Indeed, now there is at least a niggling doubt in the back of a lot of people that a Star Wars movie *could* be bad, which is not anything that any true fan considered possible in 1999. Seriously, I remember the hate mail from last time.

A bigger issue, and the majority of the reason that it won't break the all-time record for an opening weekend is the opening weekend itself. The week before Christmas has become a fairly popular one for releasing tentpole films, though not because of the weekend itself. Rather, it's because of what comes after it, the bonanza of box office otherwise known as Christmas Week, where everyone has the chance to see multiple films, and weekdays act like Sundays for box office. This comes at a slight cost, in that opening weekends are suppressed. There's not much coincidence in the fact that the last two all-time box office champs are December releases that rode what was seen as pedestrian opening weekends to enormous final totals.

This is because movie going habits are primarily dependent on time. That's why things like Halloween night and July 4th being on a Saturday are such murder on numbers – they pull people away who don't get a second chance to watch a movie, or when they do, see a different one. This coming two weeks is the opposite, with everyone having extra time and going back again and again over the week. Part of this behavior will be exhibited by people putting off their viewing of Star Wars until they're with families. While the die-hards will be out in force for the Thursday evening screenings (something that didn't exist then, as opening night has crept from 12:01 a.m. Friday to 7 p.m. Thursday), the crush of pre-sales will front load like few other films before. No one's trying for a screening on Sunday as their first viewing if they're truly passionate. Additionally, passionate dollars spend the same as spur-of-the-moment dollars, which is why Jurassic World was able to surprise so well this summer, and why it's likely to retain that title.

The best comparison for the release of this movie is the final Harry Potter, which was aiming at going out with a bang, rather than reviving a franchise, but it's similar behavior. That's still the current one-day record holder, with $91 million, even four years later. However, that's not the all-time weekend record holder as you may have noticed, as fans rushed to get in their one-last experience in the Harry Potter world (or so they thought, but never mind that). A tremendous fall-off occurred on the Saturday to less than half of the Thursday-Friday combined number – though it's unfair to judge it in that fashion. Essentially, Warner Bros got people to show up early and push their viewing to the start in a fan event. That's more or less what we're going to get here, and it's what we got with The Phantom Menace, which saw more than a 50 percent drop its second day and was down about a third from its opening day on the first Friday. Which is why the one-day record could fall without it getting all that close to the weekend record.

Some data has started to roll out, with pre-sales records falling, and comparisons to Jurassic World (+20%) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (+100%) being released – but right away the non-linearity of that data should be jumping out at people. I mean, you expected the pre-sales of Star Wars to beat Jurassic World, didn't you? I sure hope you did, since the dinosaur epic didn't really capture people's attention in earnest until about two weeks before release. The Star Wars hype-train's been chugging along the track for a couple of months and that it's only winning by that much is, well, it's not guaranteeing a win.

With that sort of history in mind, here's what will likely need to happen for a record. An opening day of at least $100 million (with $30 to 40 million in overnights) needs to happen, followed by a decent hold to $57 million, then a mere 10 percent drop to $52 million, which gets it juuuust over the Jurassic World mark. While we've seen estimates as high as $300 million in click-baity articles, industry professionals and rival studios have dared to go as high as $220 million – though bear in mind that there's more than a little mind game going on there, as they put up numbers they think it won't hit in order to make Disney defend a lower number.

Tracking at this level – and really, anything over $125 million – becomes a bit of a dart throwing exercise. When you're trying to fill every theater to capacity, you get into logistics, and these massive days become more and more difficult to match. If any of those three days falters (I expect the Saturday to be the biggest issue), then the record will stand. What its final box office total will be after the opening weekend is still an open question, as we've never had quite such a large film open over this time. Will it follow normal December rules, or will it simply exhaust its audience (don't give me the repeat audience argument – that same one was made in 1999 as well) in one big swoop? Time will tell. But other franchise or franchise-like films in this position have ranged from 3.5 times the opening weekend for the objectively terrible second Hobbit film, all the way up to almost 10 times for Avatar, with the 4.5 times of Return of the King being a more realistic target. It's a favorable, albeit not optimal calendar configuration, with Christmas Day falling on a Friday, and the lead film the last time we had this one was... Avatar. So, fireworks are certainly possible.

And now we get to the big reveal, if you've stayed with me this long and haven't started angrily penning a hate screed towards this site. While I fully expect massive numbers for this film, I also expect it to be a slightly more extended run, as the confluence of factors in its release keep it below the weekend record. With around $95 million on “opening day”, $46 million on Saturday, and $38 million on Sunday, it should come in with a $179 million three-day total – more than doubling the previous December record by the first Hobbit movie, but leaving it a little less than 15 per cent behind the record. A record is still possible, but I'm betting against it. Really, Disney could have easily assured a record weekend if they wanted it, but the smarter play is the longer view, and switching from the May release to December will likely pay off.

Expect a heavy emphasis on the international number, which could approach $500 million thanks to a wider simultaneous rollout than we've seen in the past, as well as heavy, heavy pushes into Asia as those markets grow, and which had been mostly untapped for previous theatrical releases. Of course this is all a drop in the bucket compared to merchandising, as BB-8s and the like fly off the shelf to the tune of what some are estimating at a cool $5 billion. Just this year. Go look at the second paragraph again and you'll see why this was such a great deal for Disney. There's a reason George Lucas owns a large portion of central California, and it ain't because he's such an awesome filmmaker. This weekend is pretty much an afterthought in comparison.

And now, a couple of other movies that open this weekend and will make some money. The aforementioned Alvin sequel, this time called The Road Chip, sees the ever diminishing returns of this franchise reach new lows. With Dave (Jason Lee, probably desperately looking for some easily breakable morals clause in his contract) dating a new girlfriend with a thoroughly jackass kid and about to possibly propose to her, Alvin and company believe they're about to be tossed to the curb. Because getting rid of talking, singing, sentient rodents is a thing you would do. Anyway, it's off to the highway, and some PG-rated antics, paired with bowdlerized versions of pop songs played at 78 rpm. While the recent discovery that slowed down Chipmunk songs actually sound like brilliant pieces of sludge-rock was a bit of a revelation, this isn't anything quite so subversive. The opening weekend of the last unnecessary sequel dropped in half compared to the previous entry, and I wouldn't be shocked to see that, or even worse, with about $11 million.

With regards to Sisters, let me preface this paragraph with this information first – I think Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are two of the funniest people in Hollywood, with no qualifications on that statement. That said, Sisters looks like one of the least funny productions since, well, Baby Mama. Something about putting these two good friends together does not seem to reach the heights that it should, and this tale of two women returning to their childhood home for one last bash before it's sold hits so many anti-comedy buttons that you wonder if it's not a bit of a prank. When John Cena is the funniest part of your comedy trailer, you've got issues. While this perhaps has a chance to build over the holidays, I'm looking for a weak start of $10 million.

It's all going up against a slate of returning films that amount to not much this weekend, starting with The Hunger Games finale, which squeaked out a fourth straight win over In the Heart of the Sea. Obviously that's coming to a screeching halt, but should still be about $7 million this weekend, as will the Ron Howard whale movie. The Good Dinosaur and Creed should each grab about $6 million in the same period.