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‘Star Wars’ Box Office Holds the Key to a Record-Breaking 2015

It all comes down to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

At the beginning of the year, exhibitors, studio executives, and box office analysts publicly predicted that 2015 would be the biggest in history. In particular, they projected that for the first time, domestic ticket sales would eclipse $11 billion.

But with less than three weeks left to go before New Year’s day, it appears increasingly unlikely the business will hit that mark. In fact, it may not even be a record year unless other holiday releases besides “Star Wars” such as “Concussion” and “The Revenant” are embraced by audiences.

“It’s going to be pretty tough to surpass $11 billion,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “We still have a shot at a record number, but $11 billion looks overly optimistic.”

As it stands, domestic ticket sales hover just over $10 billion. That’s a 4% improvement on last year’s numbers, but just a tick under 2013, which established the previous record for annual receipts with more than $10.9 billion. In order to hit $11 billion, the box office will have to do nearly $1 billion worth of business in two and a half weeks, something it has never done before. Of that, analysts estimate that “The Force Awakens” would need to be responsible for 35% to 40% of ticket sales because none of the other December releases look to be commercial juggernauts.

The film is expected to debut to more than $170 million when it opens this week and analysts believe it could do as much as $400 million through the end of the year if the public embraces the picture.

“We are literally neck and neck with 2013 at this point,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. “It’s all ‘Star Wars’ dependent. It comes down to how much money within this calendar year can that movie inject into the marketplace?”

Part of the reason that the movie business finds itself scrambling to make up ground is that the fourth quarter of the year has been weaker than expected. Films such as “The Good Dinosaur” disappointed at the box office, while others such as “Pan” and “In the Heart of the Sea” flopped. Even hits like “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” and the James Bond sequel “Spectre,” failed to match previous installments in their franchises.

Handler, for instance, was expecting the fourth quarter to grow between 10% to 12%, but now believes the business will have to settle for growth in the low-to mid-single-digit range. As analysts have been slashing their quarterly estimates, exhibitors have been feeling the hit on Wall Street. Major theater chains such as AMC and Regal have all seen their share price fall in recent weeks.

Beyond “Star Wars,” it’s a mixed bag of new releases. Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” will only be in limited release, and other Oscar contenders such as the survival epic “The Revenant” and the NFL drama “Concussion” may be too heavy-going for moviegoers looking for escapist fare. Analysts believe that “The Big Short,” a financial crisis comedy that did very well in limited release, may have the best chance of connecting with mainstream crowds thanks to a cast that includes Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Brad Pitt.

The good news  is that December tends to be a backloaded month. In the past two years more than 80% of receipts for the month have been generated in the final two weeks of the year. Moreover, unlike the two highest-grossing films in history, “Avatar” and “Titanic,” both of which were released in December and saw their revenues rise on word-of-mouth and strong reviews, “The Force Awakens'” receipts will likely be front-loaded. Generations grew up watching the original trilogy and the subsequent prequels, so scores of people are familiar with the galaxy far, far away. Consequently, its opening weekend will be one of the biggest in history and  “The Force Awakens” will do the bulk of its business in its initial weeks in theaters.

Then there’s the spillover effect. Though “Avatar” dominated box office charts in December of 2009 and January of 2010, it still managed to leave a lot left over for other holiday releases. “Sherlock Holmes,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel,” and “It’s Complicated” all came out in its wake and performed handsomely.

“When it comes to box office, a rising tide lifts every ship,” said Shawn Robbins, senior analyst at BoxOffice.com.

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