The grizzled smuggler turns to his towering co-pilot, and with a flicker of a smile, says in the familiar voice of Harrison Ford, “Chewie We’re Home.”
That line of dialogue marked the first time that Ford had returned to the role of Han Solo, a part that made him a film icon, in more than 30 years. When footage of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which brought Ford back to a galaxy far, far away, premiered before 5,000 fans at the Star Wars Celebration convention in Anaheim last spring, some audience members burst into tears.
The overwhelming response that day was one of the first hints at the massive expectations for “The Force Awakens.” Not just on the part of Disney, the studio that plunked down $4 billion and change to acquire “Star Wars'” parent Lucasfilm, but for generations of moviegoers who were weaned on tales of Jedi knights and the Dark Side. When “The Force Awakens” debuted this month, audiences showed up at a level not seen since “Avatar” galvanized the movie business in 2009. The film racked up more than $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales its first 12 days and catapulted the exhibition industry to record levels.
For the first time in history, the domestic box office has exceeded $11 billion, a 7.3% improvement from last year and a 1.5% gain on the previous record-setting year of 2013. Final results have yet to be tallied, but it appears there will be between 1.32 billion and 1.34 billion admissions, roughly in line with 2013, but trailing the high of 1.57 billion in tickets sold in 2002 — meaning the number of moviegoers is remaining flat, while the revenues continue to increase due to higher ticket prices. Through the third quarter, ticket prices got more expensive than ever, as premium formats such as Imax and 3D caused a spike in costs.
Globally, ticket sales should also scale new heights, particularly since China, the world’s second biggest market for film, grew nearly 50% to hit $6.8 billion. The results come during a period of transition for the movie business. The decline of DVD sales has put increasing pressure on a film’s theatrical performance and the rise of streaming services such as Netflix is viewed as a threat to an industry that relies on people leaving the comforts of home for the local cinema. But analysts believe that unlike the music industry, which is a shell of its pre-Napster self, the exhibition space has weathered the shifts in consumption habits more or less intact.
Part of its endurance is related to a willingness of theater operators to spruce up their cinemas. There has been a continued drive to ramp up amenities, with major chains such as Regal and AMC investing heavily in ripping out old seating and replacing it with oversized recliners that come with steeper ticket prices. They’ve also have begun to offer alcohol and more inventive concession options than just popcorn and Jujyfruits.
“The business has sustained itself quite well,” said James Goss, an analyst with Barrington Research Associates. “They’ve expanded their menus and done other things that have encouraged people to get out of their homes and continue the social experience of going to theaters.”
The “Star Wars” experiment, in which a studio raids the pop culture catalogue to re-introduce venerable characters and properties while applying a gloss of new polish, is one that was repeated extensively throughout the year. “Jurassic World,” “Spectre,” “Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Terminator: Genisys,” and “Creed” were new installments in franchises that were, in each case, decades old. Next year promises more of the same, with characters such as Batman and Spider-Man getting rebooted, to say nothing of a new “Ghostbusters,” a sequel to “Independence Day,” and the return of Matt Damon as Jason Bourne after a nine-year hiatus from amnesiac ass-kicking.
The “Star Wars” model is instructive in another way. Disney began fanning the flames over a year ago, releasing a 90-second teaser over Thanksgiving, and then slowly doled out dribs and drabs of set photos and behind-the-scenes videos, each one impeccably spaced out for maximum viral impact. The start of ticket sales made headlines after services like Fandango and Movietickets.com crashed in the wake of intense demand.
“The shared experience and the social media experience are becoming integral,” said Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment “It’s akin to buying a Coachella ticket or a festival pass. People post about buying a movie ticket. They share a picture. Then they post about the day they’re going to the movie and what they thought of it after. They become ambassadors for the movie.”
In another era, actors like Ford seemed all too eager to move on from a career-defining role like Solo, sticking around for a maximum three films before using their leverage to get more challenging projects like “Witness” and “The Mosquito Coast” made. In modern Hollywood, the calculus has shifted. Robert Downey Jr., for one, has played Iron Man in five films (and popped up in assorted cameos), but instead of being eager to put down the mask, he recently signed up to reprise the role of the world’s most popular Avenger in at least three more pictures. And actors such as Ford and Sylvester Stallone are being coaxed back into their most familiar roles, revisiting Han Solo and Rocky Balboa to acclaim and commercial success.
That’s partly a testament to studios increasing reliance on tentpole productions and aversion to more off-beat projects. There’s a business reason behind the reticence to take risks. Eight of the top 10 movies this year were sequels, spin-offs or reboots. Fifteen years ago, only one of the top 10 highest grossing films was a sequel to a pre-existing series. It’s not surprising that the current vogue in Hollywood is less about crafting new movie series than mining old ones for spin-off opportunities. It’s a rhizomatic approach in which “Star Wars,” for instance, will delve into the backstories of a Boba Fett or Han Solo, in what has been dubbed “universe building.”
When studios expended a great deal of treasure trying to fashion new franchises, they were met with indifference. “Pan,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” and “Tomorrowland” all carried hefty price tags and were intended to set up sequels, but were instead painful flops. With major film productions carrying budgets of between $100 million to $200 million and requiring another $100 million in promotional spending, the financial stakes have never been higher.
“When you greenlight a movie, you better know who your audience is and you better know if they are interested in seeing it,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s distribution chief.
Fox’s “The Martian,” which finds Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars, was one of the few films not based on a comic book or toy line to break through, racking up nearly $600 million globally and enjoying strong Oscar buzz. That’s still the exception, not the rule: a $100 million adventure intended to be a one-off. After all, it’s hard to imagine how the filmmakers can fashion a followup to the rescue story unless Damon’s character is indeed the universe’s most hapless explorer, destined to be perpetually left behind “Home Alone”-style in the outer reaches of space.
When actors do move outside their franchise roles, the results can be bleak — Vin Diesel is box office gold in “Furious 7,” but suffered a costly flop with “The Last Witch Hunter,” while Downey’s attempt to remind audiences of his serious actor cred with last year’s “The Judge” resulted in writedowns. Jennifer Lawrence is one of the few to straddle the worlds of popcorn entertainment and serious cinema with strong commercial results, scoring hits with both “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” and the offbeat biopic “Joy.”
The opportunities to put together the kind of year Lawrence had are shrinking for actors who don’t have a Katniss Everdeen on their resume. In October, ticket sales plummeted more than 50% as a glut of dramas and comedies aimed at adults such as “Steve Jobs,” “Our Brand is Crisis” and “Burnt” all cannibalized each other. The carnage led Harvey Weinstein, whose label the Weinstein Company lost millions on “Burnt,” to urge Oscar voters to cast their minds back beyond September, so that indie labels can better space out their releases and not cut into each other in the quest for awards love.
“I would hope that people learned you don’t have to cram everything into the end of the year,” said Erik Lomis, the Weinstein Company’s distribution chief. “These pictures can work in different times of the year and that will allow us to spread out more of the wealth.”
At the highest box office levels, wealth was increasingly centralized. The top ten films in 2015 accounted for nearly 35% of overall ticket sales, whereas last year that number was less than 25%. Most companies also got a smaller taste of the profits. Two studios, Disney and Universal, controlled more than 40% of the domestic market share.
“You have a smaller number of major blockbuster films dominating the box office in any year,” said Eric Wold, an analyst with B. Riley. “Disney has become even more of a behemoth.”
Though Disney, with its arsenal of Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel, has become the envy of all of its Hollywood ilk, the studio had to settle for second place in terms of market share. It was Universal that became the first studio to cross $6 billion in a year, and it did that without the benefit of a comic book franchise. Instead its slate featured a mixture of films such as the book adaptation “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the rap drama “Straight Outta Compton,” and sequels such as “Furious 7,” “Minions,” and “Jurassic World.”
“There’s not one formula for success,” said Universal’s distribution head Nick Carpou, “If we only made one type of film, it would be a recipe for boredom.”
If the types of movies being made have become more homogenized, they are at least enjoying diversity of another sort. A business that has been slammed for being overly monochromatic and male did see more prominent movies headlined by women and people of color. “The Force Awakens” is anchored by a female (Daisy Ridley) and a black man (John Boyega), “Furious 7” has one of the most ethnically inclusive casts in movie history, and films such as “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and “Pitch Perfect 2” scored by appealing to women.
“Diversity is the thing that allows movies to resonate with all audiences in a global environment,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief. “People want to see themselves reflected in the movies.”