(Lucasfilm)

"Star Wars" and the jump to box office hyperspace: A closer look at the numbers behind the movie's rapid success

In current dollars, "The Force Awakens" just passed "Avatar" to be the highest-grossing film—can it keep going?


Nico Lang
January 8, 2016 9:04PM (UTC)

Well, that was fast. While box office analysts predicted that ‘The Force Awakens” would eventually top “Avatar” as the highest-grossing movie ever (in current U.S. dollars), what’s astonishing is how little time it took J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars” reboot to climb to the top. Released in December 2010, “Avatar” spent a staggering nine months in theaters before the film finally topped out at $749 million; that figure climbed up to $760 million after “Avatar” was re-released in a “Special Edition” format. But “The Force Awakens” managed to beat its total gross in an unbelievable 20 days.

According to box office estimates just released by Disney, “The Force Awakens” has now amassed $764 million in its just first three weeks in theaters. That sum bests gargantuan blockbusters like “Titanic,” “The Avengers,” and “The Dark Knight,” the Christopher Nolan Batman sequel that became the third-highest grossing movie ever (again, without inflation) after its 2008 release. Following Heath Ledger’s untimely death, it’s hard to underestimate the cultural impact of “The Dark Knight.” One of the great crime dramas ever made, Nolan’s superhero opus was—to say the least—a big fucking deal. “The Force Awakens” outearned “TDK” after just over a week in theaters.

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After premiering on December 18, Episode VII has broken nearly every box-office record in its sight; in addition to shattering the opening weekend record—both domestically and abroad—“The Force Awakens” has also posted the best second and third weekend draws in history. Even when adjusting for inflation (aka the changes in ticket prices over time), the film is closing in on the Top 20—ahead of generation-defining touchstones like “The Godfather” and “The Graduate.” (Note: I’m not saying “The Force Awakens” is a better movie than either of those films. It isn’t. It’s just earned more money.)

The all-time adjusted record will likely remain untouchable. “Gone With the Wind,” which was re-released multiple times after its initial bow in 1939, has grossed $1.7 billion—a feat that’s unimaginable in today’s film marketplace. (For reference, that’s a little less than three times what “The Avengers” made during its entire run.) However, it’s an open question just how close “The Force Awakens” can get to that mark. Currently, “The Force Awakens” is tracking 48 percent ahead of “Jurassic World”—which would put it on track for a final gross of around $964 million. That would put Episode VIII at 9th on the inflation-adjusted list, seven spots behind the 1977 original.

But right now, there’s a bigger question that has to be on the minds of every single Disney executive: Can “The Force Awakens” outpace its tracking numbers to become the first movie to gross a billion dollars domestically? (It’s already pulled in $1.57 billion worldwide.) There’s every reason to think it absolutely can. Whereas “Jurassic World” regularly dropped 50 percent in between weeks, “The Force Awakens” is proving to be incredibly solid. Buoyed by repeat viewing, the film is posting incredibly strong week-to-week holds, falling just 33.2 percent during its second week in theaters.

The only setback is that—now that schools around the country are back in session—its declines are bound to be a bit more drastic. Whereas “The Force Awakens” posted $31 million on the last Monday of December, Episode VIII plummeted a massive 71 percent on its first weekday sans the help of winter break. Without being buoyed by those weekday sales—in which the film earned as much $40 million every single day—the road to $1 billion is a much steeper climb. The film’s weekend grosses will prove all the more crucial to reaching that peak.

All of these numbers might mean very little to you—unless you have an unusual fetish for statistics porn—but the supremacy of “The Force Awakens” is about more than just box office dollars. Its unprecedented success feels like a one-of-a-kind movie moment, one that unites diehard fanboys and everyday moviegoers in mutual geekdom. Whether you grew up with the original trilogy or relish seeing a beloved franchise embrace people of color and women in lead roles, nearly everyone has had something to be excited about. In the case of “Star Wars,” the money isn’t just talking; it’s screaming to us from the rafters.

If any of us were surprised at how well “The Force Awakens” has performed, clearly we weren’t paying attention.

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Nico Lang

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