That 2012 acquisition was intended to launch a cinematic universe set in a galaxy far, far away: a series of interconnected sequels, spinoffs and prequels that would serve as a filmic parallel to Disney’s Marvel Comics-inspired adventures.
“This is a record that will stand for a long time,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “This gives us an idea of how much a movie can make on a particular weekend.”
Director J.J. Abrams’ nostalgic take on the series of space operas George Lucas created four decades ago was a hit with critics and fans, earning strong reviews and an A CinemaScore. Its opening soared past the previous high-water mark of $208.8 million established last summer by “Jurassic World.” It more than doubles “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’s” December record debut of $84.6 million.
Globally, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” scored the second-biggest opening in history, earning $517 million worldwide, behind only “Jurassic World’s” $525 million bow. Unlike “Jurassic World,” the seventh film in the “Star Wars” franchise did not have the benefit of showing in China on its inaugural weekend. It opens there on Jan. 9.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens'” dominance was a foregone conclusion. It has already shattered pre-sales records, selling more than $100 million of advance tickets. A decade separates Abrams’ film and Lucas’ poorly received (but immensely profitable) prequels. The absence appeared to have stoked excitement and made “Star Wars” the rare film to capture the zeitgeist. Scalpers sold tickets to prime showtimes, parents weaned on the Skywalker clan saga took their children to introduce a new generation to the epic push-and-pull between the Dark Side and the Light and theaters were forced to clarify their costume policy, with many chains outlawing masks and blasters. Lightsabers were treated more leniently, but exhibitors such as AMC mandated that they be left off during showtimes.
“It was bigger than a movie,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief. “It became a cultural event.”
Men made up the bulk of ticket buyers, comprising 58% of the opening weekend audience. Adults represented 71% of the crowd with families accounting for 20% of consumers. The film, with its inter-galactic battles and space-hopping adventures, played particularly well in premium formats — 3D showings accounted for 47% of tickets sales, Imax made up 12% and premium large formats were responsible for 7%.
The bonanza may not be over. Hollis believes that the film will benefit from its release on the cusp of the Christmas holiday. School vacation will begin this week, which should enable the film to rope in younger viewers.
“There’s going to be a lot of repeat business,” said Hollis. “We’re going to get a big burst when schools get out.”
A few, brave films debuted against the “Star Wars” juggernaut. Twentieth Century Fox tried to snag families with young children, offering up “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip.” The sequel to the ongoing “Chipmunks” franchise earned $14.4 million from 3,653 theaters. It cost $75 million to make.
“We believed that ‘Star Wars’ might be rated PG-13 and that there would be an opportunity to reach a younger age group,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s distribution chief. “We saw a chance to take advantage of that and we did.”
Universal fielded Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s “Sisters,” a comedy about two siblings who have a raucous house party, to the tune of $13.4 million from 2,952 theaters. The film cost $30 million to produce.
“It’s great to have a comedy for Christmas,” said Nick Carpou, Universal’s domestic distribution head. “We’re very happy with the way it started out and we’ll play well into January.”
Holdovers “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” and “Creed” rounded out the top five, earning $5.6 million and $5.1 million, respectively. “The Hunger Games” sequel has generated $254.4 million and the “Rocky” spinoff has made $87.9 million since opening in November.
In the Oscar contender field, Paramount held “The Big Short” steady in eight theaters, making $350,000. The financial crisis comedy has earned $1.3 million since debuting last weekend. It expands nationally on Dec. 23.
Sony Pictures Classics’ “Son of Saul” bowed to $38,891 from three theaters, for a per-screen average of $12,964. The Holocaust drama from Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes is viewed as a likely best foreign film Academy Award nominee.
The success of “Star Wars” enabled the industry to reach a new high-water mark for a weekend, with total receipts passing the $300 million barrier for the first time in history. The exhibition industry is hoping to pass $11 billion this year, establishing a new record, but it still has more than $600 million in revenue to make up.
“It’s still going to be tough,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “It all comes down to ‘Star Wars.'”
VIDEO: Watch the “Stars Wars” cast sing the iconic theme music: