Then and Now is a miniseries I’m running up until the release of TFA, maybe a little beyond that if I have anything to add. What I’m doing is looking at how different aspects of the SW experience have changed since the turn of the century/millennium when the prequels were released and today. In some ways it is the more things change the more they stay the same. In other ways, a LOT has changed in the movie landscape in just 10 years.
First up, I’m looking at box office. I am not a fancy analyst or anything but neither is hardly anyone else commenting on box office including a lot of people in the professional media.
It’s probably more apt to compare TFA’s box office potential with how TPM performed in 1999. Both begin their respective trilogies and unlike ANH, they are continuing an established series.
Based on the hype, several years’ worth of fevered anticipation of more Star Wars films, and the success of the Special Editions in 1997, expectations for TPM’s box office were extremely high. A lot of Star Wars fans felt TPM was supposed to snatch back the top box office throne from 1997’s “Titanic,” which had passed ANH in 1998 just a year after ANH finally passed “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” It was all about winning and restoring honor to the franchise! Admittedly I was one of those people who was not happy Frozen Leo and Kate Winslet’s boobies unseated ANH but when I saw that “Titanic” had grossed $600 million domestic (North America), I knew surpassing that amount at the box office was going to be extremely difficult even for Star Wars. I was practically the only fan who thought so too. “Titanic” actually had a moderately good opening but had the legs of Usain Bolt on a year’s supply of Red Bull. It sat there at the top of the weekend box office for an insane five months. It made as much money if not more during the week as it did Friday-Sunday, even long after the holidays. Up until “Titanic,” I believe the top grossing film of the 1990s was “Jurassic Park.” JP and other big ‘90s hits like “The Lion King” or “Forrest Gump” didn’t do even close to that kind of performance. Just to let you know how hard it is to make that kind of money even today, it took 12 years until another James Cameron movie, “Avatar,” topped it at the box office and for a long time no other movie even came close. And “Avatar” did not sell quite as many tickets as “Titanic,” since the former benefitted from higher ticket prices. “Titanic” had novelty on its side while TPM, even being the most anticipated movie ever, was still a continuation of a known quantity. “Titanic” drew crazy repeat business and most importantly, drew a lot of people who ordinarily didn’t go to the movies, especially women. My grandmother and my great aunt were hardly going to the movies anymore and they still trucked out to see “Titanic.”
Plus TPM was coming out in the summer movie season where there was more competition for its kind of core audience, i.e. families and kids. “Titanic” only had competition from the James Bond flick “Tomorrow Never Dies” and after that, pretty much no competition for a long time. Also I knew there were people who will flat out not see a fantasy or sf flick because they don’t “get” those kinds of movies. I saw more of a roof on TPM than on “Titanic,” a non-genre film.
Turns out, I was right. TPM performed extremely well. If not for “Titanic,” it would’ve been the top grossing film of the decade and for its first few weeks of release, TPM was actually making money faster than “Titanic.” It just didn’t have the same enduring legs though TPM endured fairly well indeed. In spite of what you might think, I don’t think that had anything to do with any backlash or “disappointment.” It was all of the factors I named: TPM being part of an established series, summer movie competition (though TPM still far outgrossed other hits like “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” and “The Blair Witch Project”), and a limit on audiences for genre films.
In 2015, expectations for TFA’s box office are also extremely high. One key difference between 1999 and today is we as fans have to worry about not just fan expectations based on personal pride but also SHAREHOLDER expectations. All TPM had to do in 1999 was make enough money to fund AOTC and it pretty much did that within days of its release. But if I were Bob Iger or Kathleen Kennedy, I’d be biting my nails to the nibs over some of the overblown box office projections that have been kicked around the media. Why? Because shareholders reading that stuff who have no idea how box office works are thinking how high their stock’s going to go when TFA grosses $5 billion worldwide and if it doesn’t make as much as those expectations and/or it doesn’t affect stock value, they’re going to be unhappy. And if they’re unhappy, heads could roll, and plans could change even if TFA is by anyone’s definition a hit and scores a nice profit. (Hint: shareholders are also going to look at how/if TFA drives merchandise sales.) It’s kind of weird we have to take this stuff into consideration but that’s how it is with the new regime.
It’s become an article of faith that TFA will certainly outperform “Jurassic World” and has a real shot at surpassing “Avatar”’s $900 million domestic gross just as everyone but me was so sure TPM was going to outdo “Titanic.” I am extremely skeptical of TFA besting “Avatar”’s 2009-2010 run. For one thing, “Avatar” offered a big leap forward in visual effects and in theatrical presentation, both of which are now totally taken for granted. I just don’t see a ballyhooed “practical” campaign inspiring people quite the same way. “Avatar” wasn’t a sequel; it offered something new. TFA is the seventh movie in a nearly 40-year-old franchise. I think by now most people who are aware of Star Wars have more or less made up their minds about it. Oh sure there’s another generation of younglings to introduce to the GFFA but the Playground Caucus has to really show up in force (ha ha) and poke their friends and relatives into going to see it too, multiple times.
TPM was a summer movie while TFA is going to be a holiday release, one week before Christmas. There’s been some discussion in the comments about how the release time might help or hurt box office. Again, both “Avatar” and “Titanic” were released around Christmas and the holidays certainly didn’t hurt their box office, but I’ll reiterate neither film was a sequel or prequel of an established franchise. Novelty is crucial in getting the kind of ticket sales that get a film to the top grossing spot. Not a single sequel/prequel has ever taken the all-time box office crown (domestic). TESB and TPM were the only ones to ever get close.
Realistically I think TFA is more likely to perform similarly to the LOTR and Hobbit flicks, which were no slouches at the box office even at Christmas time. The window of opportunity for school kids is much shorter than for summer films so that can cut into box office after New Year’s. Also a factor: weather. A monster blizzard in the upper Midwest or the mid-Atlantic/Northeast that knocks out power and dumps 10 feet of snow (or worse yet a bad ice storm) might slow business a bit. Oh sure, hardcore Star Wars fans will slap on skis or snowshoes and head to their nearest open multiplex anyway but most filmgoers are not diehards.
Another factor to take into consideration is the faster turnaround between a film’s theatrical release and its release on DVD/Blu-Ray/on demand/streaming services. If you missed TPM in the theaters–and you had plenty of opportunity to see it in the theaters back then–you had to wait until April 2000 to see it on VHS and until October 2001 to see it on DVD. That was almost a year just to see it on videotape! Today, it was four months between the time “Jurassic World” opened in multiplexes and the time when you can watch it on Netflix or Apple movies. People used to see blockbusters multiple times because it was going to be a long time before they’d have an opportunity to rent it out at Blockbuster or watch it on HBO. It would be YEARS before they’d have any hope of seeing it on broadcast television. Even though some people still do make multiple trips to see movies they are obsessed with, I don’t think they are going 15 times anymore. Movies, even big hits, just don’t stick around more than a couple of months. Higher ticket prices have to compensate for the fewer viewings of today’s blockbusters.
My prediction is TFA will fall into the same pattern as TPM and ANH: it will likely be the highest grossing film of the sequel trilogy. Thanks to 2015 dollars, IMAX admissions, and an expanded international market, I think there’s a good chance TFA ends up being the highest grossing Star Wars film to date (right now that’s TPM with just over $1 billion worldwide). If TFA performs similarly to TPM, everyone at Disney should be beyond overjoyed. What we should be worried about is Disney and especially its shareholders expecting TFA to perform like ANH. THAT is not going to happen for reasons I’ll get to in another post.
Disney corporate politics aside, I don’t think fans ought to worry as much about winning the box office horse race. No matter how TFA does, people will forget all about its opening weekend and box office totals by the time “Batman vs. Superman” or whatever else is on slate for 2016 comes out. The focus ought to be on whether or not it’s a worthy addition to the saga.