This is something I posted on Reddit a little while back, and since the film in question is just around the corner, I thought I’d post it here:
There seems to be the expectation among movie fans that the all-time box office crown, which of course currently belongs to Avatar at $2.79 billion worldwide, is something the new Star Wars film should and inevitably will take. While I’m not here in an attempt to slow down the hype train, I am trying to insert some numbers and historical precedence into the conversation. Sorry in advance for the essay.
Let’s just lay out the top 10 movies of all time for reference’s sake:
- Avatar – $2.79 billion, $760.5 million domestic
- Titanic – $2.19 billion, $658.7 million domestic
- Jurassic World – $1.67 billion, $651.2 million domestic
- The Avengers – $1.52 billion, $623.4 million domestic
- Furious 7 – $1.51 billion, $351 million domestic
- Avengers: Age of Ultron – $1.40 billion, $459 million domestic
- Harry Potter 7 Part 2 – $1.34 billion, $381 million domestic
- Frozen – $1.27 billion, $400.7 million domestic
- Iron Man – $1.22 billion, $409 million domestic
- Minions – $1.15 billion, $334.3 million domestic
Movies that go on to break the all-time box office record have always been originals at the time of release, never sequels, and they’re almost always groundbreaking in some way, hence the unusually strong word of mouth that propels them to such heights. Movies like this, the sequels to said groundbreaking films, will make a lot of money, but to put things into perspective: the difference between the top two movies would be enough money to be a Top 50 all-time picture. The difference between #3 and #1 would be a smidge out of the all-time Top 10. Clearly, the gap between the two movies at the top and the rest of the field is almost insurmountably large.
Now let’s look at previous Star Wars films and how they fared. For a more realistic barometer, I’m mostly going to be referring to the prequel movies. I know we all hope that these films will be in almost every way more like the OT, and they could be, but in terms of box office numbers, or, more accurately, tickets sold and tickets per capita, those original three are virtually unreachable, especially in the case of A New Hope. Those were different times; there were fewer things with which to occupy your time, home movies were either non-existent or just being introduced into the market, and Star Wars and what it brought to the table were newer then, more exciting, more zeitgeist-capturing.
I’m going to address this from a number of different angles. First, I’m going to adjust the opening five days of each of the prequel movies (they all opened on a Wednesday, while TFA opens on Thursday night, or essentially Friday) into what a projected domestic opening weekend for TFA would be like if it were as popular as the prequel movie in question was when it opened. I’m going to be adjusting for inflation and population (tickets per capita).
Here are those numbers:
Phantom Menace First Five Days: $105.6 million
- Tickets Sold: 20.9 million
- Population Adjusted Tickets Sold: 23.9 million
- Inflation Adjusted: $173.2 million
- Population Adjusted/Inflation Adjusted: $198.3 million
Attack of the Clones First Five Days: $110.2 million
- Tickets Sold: 19 million
- Population Adjusted Tickets Sold: 21.1 million
- Inflation Adjusted: $157.7 million
- Population Adjusted/Inflation Adjusted: $175.1 million
Revenge of the Sith First Five Days: $158.4 million
- Tickets Sold: 24.7 million
- Population Adjusted Tickets Sold: 26.7 million
- Inflation Adjusted: $205.1 million
- Population Adjusted/Inflation Adjusted: $221.2 million
Of course, all of these opened in May, a month that lends itself to more front-heavy pictures. December, when TFA is being released, is not known for breaking opening weekend records. Movies released then do, however, have something else going for them: longevity. Avatar (released in December) famously made less than 10% of its eventual record-shattering domestic haul on its first weekend; it stayed at #1 for seven weeks straight and within the Top 5 for 13 weeks. While I don’t expect TFA to have quite those legs, I certainly think it will outperform the prequel movies in terms of weekend multiplier (basically how many of a movie’s “opening weekends” it makes in its domestic B.O. lifetime), save perhaps for The Phantom Menace, which despite being in a front-heavy month, still managed to pull an astounding 4.1x weekend multiplier (if again, you count its first five days as an opening weekend). I believe that those numbers are more a testament to the goodwill the franchise had and the anticipation for the movie that permeated American culture at the time than they are to the movie’s quality.
Taking that into account, and the fact that no movie has ever breached the $90 million mark in December (the record is $84.6 million, made by the first Hobbit film), I’m going to estimate that the incomparable cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars will allow the movie to “only” reach a near-record-doubling $165 million its opening weekend. This number comes from the fact that, while I believe the film will surpass all of the unadjusted opening five day numbers of its predecessors, it won’t pull in quite as many tickets per capita considering the time of its release.
Now let’s apply multipliers. The first Hobbit film, which fed off the large fanbase of another immensely popular fantasy film franchise, had roughly a 3.58x weekend multiplier. If you apply those very healthy legs to my projected opening weekend for TFA, you end up with a $591 million domestic total, which is obviously very good and would place it in the Top 5 all time.
What if the movie has even better legs, like, say, American Sniper, which had a roughly 3.9x weekend multiplier? Well, again using the projected opening weekend, that would bring TFA’s eventual total to $643.5 million, solidly in fourth place all time, and only ~$7 million from that coveted “highest-grossing film not made by James Cameron” title.
What about that Phantom Menace multiplier? 4.1x gets us to $676.5 million.
Now, just for shits and giggles, lets say that TFA is as popular on its opening weekend as the prequels were, despite its comparatively disadvantageous opening date. Let’s average out the number of tickets per capita and see what kind of take we’d get:
Averaged prequel films first five days’ takes into 1st weekend of The Force Awakens
- Average Tickets: 21.5 million
- Average Population Adjusted Tickets: 23.9 million
- Average Opening Weekend Inflation Adjusted: $178.7 million
- Average Opening Weekend Infl./Pop. Adjusted: $198.4 million
Let’s apply some legs calculations to those numbers:
- Hobbit model: $710.3 million
- American Sniper model: $773.8 million
- Phantom Menace model: $813.4 million
So, if TFA nearly breaks $200 million on its opening weekend, which is, again, unheard of in December, and is as leggy as American Sniper or Phantom Menace, it will break Avatar’s all-time domestic B.O. record. That’s a lot of things that have to go right for it.
And that’s not even taking the international numbers into account.
As sacrilege as it might be to say, Star Wars isn’t quite as popular worldwide as it is in the USA. It’s still one of the more popular franchises of all time, mind you, but you need only see that two of the films are in the top 10 all-time domestically while none are in the top 15 all-time worldwide to understand that, while popular, the films don’t have quite the same draw. Or at least they haven’t in the past.
The international box office market is growing rapidly. China is adding a dozen theaters a day. Studios used to be very content when their successful blockbusters grossed 40% of its worldwide total overseas. Nowadays, you have movies like Transformers 4, Furious 7and Avatar setting the bar for international percentages (78%, 76% and 73% respectively). Even with those numbers, if a current movie grosses over half its worldwide total overseas, it can be considered a success (that is, if its domestic take were satisfactory).
The most popular a Star Wars film has been overseas in terms of box office percentage was 55% (Revenge of the Sith). What if TFA matches that franchise record number andbrings in a spectacular near-$200 million opening weekend domestically and has the fantastic legs something like The Phantom Menace?
After all that, your worldwide total for TFA would be $1.81 billion, still $380 million fromTitanic and over $1 billion from Avatar. But like I said, the international market has grown. Let’s give TFA a (generous) 70% overseas percentage and punch that in with the aforementioned optimistic numbers. Even with that franchise record-shattering show of overseas popularity, and the unheard-of opening weekend numbers, and astounding legs, the film still falls short of Avatar at $2.71 billion (albeit by “only” $70 million this time).
All this to say that a lot of things have to go right for Star Wars to even break the Top 3 films of all time, let alone become the #1 film in history. Is it possible? Of course! Is it likely? Simply, no. All I’m trying to do here is temper the expectations that might lead to undeserved disappointment if the film “only” makes, say, $600 million domestically and $1 billion overseas, for 4th-best ever. All I hear from my friends and people online is “How is this film not going to be the number one movie of all time?”, and that kind of talk isn’t likely to die down the closer we get to its release. When I try to answer reasonably, I get chastised for not being a “true fan” or not understanding how huge Star Wars is. I’m a diehard fan. Star Wars catalyzed my love for film. I understand the cultural impact the films have had. It’s just facing a huge uphill battle in its quest to be #1.
But hey, like Han said, “Never tell me the odds.” It’s possible. If any franchise can defy predictions, for better or worse, it’s this one.
TL;DR – TFA will definitely make a shit ton of money. Will it make the most? Probably not, but still possible. Don’t be disappointed if it’s only Top 5 and not #1.