An Irresistible Force Awakens the Box Office
By John Hamann
December 20, 2015
Disney also used IMAX cameras to shoot The Force Awakens, released it in 3-D, and created incredible buzz prior to opening by using advanced ticket sales information to paint it as a success before it opened. All of these things helped, but at the end of the day the result is all about the rabid fanbase, people who only seem to get more rabid as the decades wear on.
Disney used the oldest trick in the book to get people out to theatres this weekend. They made a good movie that was embraced by a fan base that had been abused by the George Lucas prequels. They embargoed reviews perfectly. By waiting until Wednesday to hold critical notices back, they kept spoilers contained, meaning that the experience was likely ruined only for a very few. RottenTomatoes has 255 reviews listed already, and only 13 are negative, giving it a fresh rating of 95%. That's the way Marvel's Avengers did it as well, creating an almost perfect product for the salivating masses - serving up a film with a 92% fresh rating. The Cinemascore came in as an A, and some key segments of the audience gave it an A+ - including women and the under-25 set. I believe that had the reviews not been there, we would have seen a lower opening. Instead, we have a record breaking weekend, and a future that looks really, really good for The Force Awakens over the Christmas season.
Bob Iger must be feeling fantastic right now. When Disney's chairman bought LucasFilm for $4.1 billion in 2012, eyebrows were raised at the purchase price due to the questionable future of the franchise. Combined, the George Lucas prequels earned about $2.5 billion worldwide against production costs of about $350 million and marketing costs likely in the $250 million range. With these numbers, one might think payback on $4.1 billion would take forever. Then, JJ Abrams showed up, and after rebooting the Star Trek films successfully, he had another daunting task to complete.
With this opening weekend, and early reports of a worldwide take of $517 million (slightly less than Jurassic World's $524 million), a $2 billion worldwide gross for the first film is completely possible. Estimates for merchandise sales for 2015 range between $3 and $5 billion (including the holiday season). Therefore, just through merchandising and Star Wars VII box office returns alone, it's going to end up surpassing Disney's investment by 50% by the time the money is all counted - and that doesn't even account for merchandise sold over the last couple of years. Disney's $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar in 2006 has netted $6.3 billion in worldwide movie ticket sales, and his $4 billion acquisition of Marvel in 2009 has netted $7.5 billion in worldwide movie ticket sales. This is the Midas touch if we've ever seen it before.
Yes, there were other films released this weekend. Finishing second this weekend is unfortunately Alvin and the Chipmunks: A Subtitle I Had to Look Up (The Road Chip). Despite Star Wars, Alvin and the Chipmunks was still able to open to $14.4 million this weekend from 3,653 venues. That's a fairly steep step down from the last film, Chipwrecked, which debuted to $23.2 million, but that one wasn't playing against the biggest opener in history. The Fox release should easily make five to six times this amount, which should give it a finish of between $75 and $85 million. Add another $200 million from overseas, and we will likely see more of these, like them or not.