`Star Wars' Hits Theaters as Ticket Forecasts Go Into Hyperdrive

  • Disney's promotional muscle drives predictions for new records
  • Entertainment giant tried to temper ever-rising estimates

'Star Wars' Awakens Disney's New Box Office Force

The wait is over. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” debuts in U.S. theaters Thursday night, finally answering whether Walt Disney Co. can deliver the box-office punch that matches months of pre-opening hype.

If expectations weren’t already high, they’ve only risen this week after the biggest star-studded premiere in Hollywood in years, near-unanimous critical acclaim and ticket forecasts that rise by the day.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Source: Lucasfilm Ltd. via Getty Images

Disney shares have risen this week, amid glowing commentary from Wall Street analysts touting the film’s prospects, and are up 21 percent this year in a tough climate for media stocks. With five more pictures in the works, “Star Wars” will set the pace for the company’s moviemaking, theme-park and consumer-products businesses for years.

“It’s huge, there’s no question,” said Amber Stepper, vice president of marketing at National Amusements Inc., a Norwood, Massachusetts-based chain with about 950 screens around the world. “As shows sell out, we are continuing to add more.”

Just how huge will depend on whether the picture can live up to the anticipation created by the world’s largest entertainment company. The film made its debut at No. 1 Wednesday in 12 international markets, including France and Italy, taking in $14.1 million, Disney said in a statement. The studio said the movie set opening day records in several countries.

Bob Iger, Disney’s chairman and chief executive officer, isn’t making predictions. The company itself is trying to tamp down expectations, citing estimates of $175 million to $201 million from forecasting services that are well below independent projections. Winter releases typically lack the box-office punch of summer blockbusters.

“All I can say is we’re very excited about the film and we can’t wait to share it with the world,” Iger said in an interview at a Disney event last week.

Advance Sales

Record advance ticket sales of more than $100 million, film trailers with hundreds of millions of online views, and now talk of Oscar nominations all point to a hit that will challenge industry benchmarks.

Customers, dressed as Jedi Knights, collect their tickets in London.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

“The Force Awakens” could take in $229 million in U.S. and Canadian theaters in its opening weekend and as much as $900 million in the full North American run, according to researcher BoxOffice.com, which raised its estimates Wednesday.

That would top the $208.8 million record debut set by “Jurassic World” this year and the overall $760.5 million domestic mark held by the 2009 release “Avatar.” “The Force Awakens” could also challenge the global $2.79 billion ticket record set by “Avatar.”

Surveys of moviegoers indicate “Force Awakens” is scoring highly across the gender and age categories followed by market research firms, according to Vincent Bruzzese, chief executive officer of C4 R&D, which consults with studios on film projects.

“It’s the strongest movie I’ve ever seen tracked,” Bruzzese said. “You have older, you have younger. This is the movie that ‘Star Wars’ fans have been waiting for.”

star-wars-revenue-tout
Photographer: Golum, Rob

Global Frenzy

Since the initial release set off an international frenzy of ticket and merchandise sales in 1977, “Star Wars” has become the model for a motion-picture industry increasingly focused on movies with built-in international audiences and the potential for sequels and merchandise tie-ins.

Prior to “Star Wars,” big-budget action films tended to be historical dramas such as “Cleopatra” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” said Kenneth Dancyger, a film professor at New York University. Science fiction was considered low-budget.

Now, 10 years since the release of the last movie in the series, “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” the new film could garner Academy Award nominations for best picture and for Daisy Ridley, one of the stars, he said.

Oscar Handicapping

“This year there’s no clear front runner,” Dancyger said. “In this situation there’s a strong likelihood the film will be nominated. When you get the rebirth of something that was important to your dad and these kids have seen or owned the sequels. I think it’s going be the biggest film ever, period.”

Customers dressed as Jedi Knights.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Bookmakers in the U.K. have been boosting the Oscar probabilities since critics gave the movie 94 percent approval ratings at Rottentomatoes.com, which compiles reviews. Britain’s Ladbrokes Plc doubled the film’s chances of winning best picture to 33 to 1 from 66 to 1 previously. A spokesman said the odds could fall to single digits and that the bookmaker had seen a 700 percent increase in bets on the picture.

Disney acquired “Star Wars” owner Lucasfilm Ltd. for $4 billion in 2012 under a long-term strategy by CEO Iger to acquire film brands with global appeal. His previous deals included Pixar, purchased in 2006, and Marvel Entertainment, bought in 2009.

Returning Cast

To direct the company’s first film in the series, Disney tapped J.J. Abrams, who revived the “Star Trek” franchise for Paramount Pictures. “The Force Awakens” features the stars of the original series, including Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, as well as a cast of younger actors. Ridley has a leading role as Rey, a scavenger drawn into a quest to find the missing Jedi knight Luke Skywalker, played again by Mark Hamill.

Disney theme parks in Florida and California are promoting “The Force Awakens” with film memorabilia and character meet-and-greets. The company is adding new scenes to its Star Tours rides in Orlando, Florida, Tokyo and Anaheim, California, and will use the music in fireworks shows in Orlando.

Over the next several years, Disney also will build “Star Wars” theme-park attractions in Florida and Southern California.

The movie will be good for the resorts “in the short term and the long term,” Bob Chapek, the head of Disney’s parks division, said this week at the premiere.

Profit Estimate

Using his most optimistic estimates, Morgan Stanley analyst Benjamin Swinburne figures Disney could earn $1.35 billion from “The Force Awakens.” That forecast assumes $2.25 billion in worldwide ticket sales and almost $1 billion in revenue from home entertainment, TV and merchandise royalties. He put the film’s production budget at $200 million, a sum that doesn’t include many millions more for marketing.

In Philadelphia, some fans plan a pub crawl ending in a screening Thursday night. Theaters have added around-the-clock screenings and are selling posters and T-shirts to capture as much revenue as possible.

“People who don’t normally go out the movies will go for this,” said Kevin Goetz, chief executive of Screen Engine LLC, a Los Angeles-based researcher. “I don’t see any dark clouds, only silver linings.”

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