It’s official, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the biggest blockbuster to ever bust blocks. As if compelled by Jedi mind tricks, audiences have been turning out to see J.J. Abrams’ latest addition to the Star Wars saga in previously unforeseen droves. By the time you read this, the movie will likely be inching past Avatar’s record-setting $760.5 million to have the largest domestic gross in history. (At the end of Monday it stood at $750.2 million, and is currently doing around $8 million per weekday.) It’s a feat achievable thanks to a magical cocktail of nostalgia, zeitgeist, and a lot of movie magic.
But is that magic sustainable? When Disney announced back in 2012 that it was acquiring Lucasfilm for $4 billion and would be producing new Star Wars movies, it was a phenomenon that set film-geek brains into overdrive. (Short version: Holy shit, the company that gave us the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to do the same thing with Star Wars.) Releasing the first shining star from that new universe over the holiday season all but guaranteed a massive turnout, and—in the parlance of the industry—boffo box office. Yet, it’s hard to imagine the franchise can keep that momentum, let alone top itself with each new Star Wars episode.
“To expect the next one would beat a $248 million opening weekend in North America is just crazy,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for Rentrak. “But saying the next installments are failures if they don’t break records like this one would be a completely misguided way to look at it. I don’t know that any franchise could keep up this kind of record-breaking momentum with each successive iteration.”
That’s because, Dergarabedian says, what happened with The Force Awakens is a “perfect storm of box office” wherein the nostalgia of old fans and the hopes of their kids (aka “new fans”) collided with a long holiday break and a lot of positive buzz. And while it’s a perfect storm that led to hitting Avatar’s domestic box office much faster than Avatar did (that movie took 48 weeks), it’s also nearly impossible to repeat.
To expect the next Star Wars movie to beat a $248 million opening weekend is just crazy. Rentrak analyst Paul Dergarabedian
But that won’t stop Disney from trying. And it’s got a good model to learn from: the Star Wars franchise, which will be buttressing its core “saga” movies (Episodes VII, VIII, IX, etc.) with stand-alone “anthology” movies like Rogue One, is following the path Disney cut with its Marvel flicks. “They’re using the exact same playbook as far as I can tell,” says Doug Creutz, a senior research analyst in media and entertainment for Cowen Group. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t.” In that model a second Avengers movie may not do quite as well as the first (which is to say it makes $1.4 billion worldwide compared to $1.5 billion), but when taken as part of the whole, everything comes out a relative winner. “If the new Star Wars movie is Avengers, then they’re hoping Rogue One is Ant-Man,” Creutz says.
The big issue for preserving box-office momentum will be keeping audiences interested. The Force Awakens, Creutz points out, was effectively “bulletproof”: as the first Star Wars movie in almost a decade, and the first one since the Disney acquisition, audiences were too curious not to see it. They kept coming back because it was exceptionally good, and that bodes well for future installments, but there may not be the same get-tickets-for-opening-day urgency to see director Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII or Colin Trevorrow’s Episode IX.
Luckily, The Force Awakens’ new cast—particularly Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega)—have proven really popular with new audiences, and one underserved demographic in particular. “One of the big criticisms before The Force Awakens was that Star Wars mostly appealed to guys and kids. It’s been able to do these huge numbers because that status quo is changing,” says Shawn Robbins, senior analyst for BoxOffice.com. “There have been a lot of women coming out to see these movies.” Women and new young fans could be what puts Force Awakens over the $2 billion worldwide box office mark (and help it beat Avatar’s nearly $2.8 billion worldwide BO take), but it could also keep numbers high for future installments, like the Felicity Jones-helmed Rogue One.
In order to bring in new audiences, though, a franchise has to remain fresh. That highlights one advantage the Star Wars franchise may have over the Marvel Cinematic Universe: it’s not entirely beholden to source material. Lucasfilm did away with a lot of the Star Wars Expanded Universe after Disney took over the franchise; that gives it a relatively blank slate with which to create new characters and stories. Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy (Who is the Star Wars version of Kevin Feige, if we’re continuing the Marvel analogy) can pick writers and directors with the same smarts that Feige does, while offering them a bigger sandbox to play in. It also allows Lucasfilm to provide something a little more original than the latest comic book or YA novel franchise.
But for now, there’s The Force Awakens, and it’s doing the box-office-record Kessel Run in a lot fewer than 12 parsecs. It’s not overtaking the Avatar $2.8 billion worldwide record yet, but it’s close, and the movie hasn’t even opened in China yet. Then again, while Avatar did really well internationally—it made more than $2 billion from international theaters alone whereas the new Star Wars movie has made $786 million so far—China might not buy enough tickets to push it over the top.
But if it does, and becomes one of three $2 billion movies in history (Titanic being the third), it wouldn’t be the first amazing thing The Force Awakens has pulled off. “I don’t know how much news gets to the Chinese public at large, but I would think that all this talk about the movie is creating a mythology of its own,” Dergarabedian says. “It’s a little more of a question mark, but I wouldn’t underestimate the power of this Star Wars in any market, anywhere.” Not even far, far away.