Director James Cameron has a distinction that no other filmmaker can claim. His films hold the top two spots on the all-time box office revenue list. Avatar (2009) and Titanic (1997) are the top grossing films worldwide, both films making over $2 billion with Avatar leading all films at $2.7 billion.Worthy of some poor soul’s master thesis is an explanation as to how Cameron has accomplished this with two very different films. Moreover, it’s been some time since any film has been projected to give Cameron any real competition for that top spot.
J.J. Abrams may just be the man to topple the self-proclaimed “King of the World.” If he does it, it’ll be by taking over one of the most beloved film franchises of all time.
As everyone in the modern world knows by now, a new Star Wars film is coming to theaters this December. The film is significant for many reasons including being the first without creator George Lucas and being the first to continue the story arc started with the original trilogy.
Anticipation for Star Wars: The Force Awakens is setting a new standard for major feature films. It is an unprecedented level of global excitement. Generations of fans, young and old, are expected to crowd multiplexes everywhere to see the film. Already the film has set records for presales and many showings in major urban areas are sold out with six weeks still to go.
Whether The Force Awakens will satisfy a rabid fan base that was previously crushed by an underwhelming prequel trilogy is the million dollar question. But whether Star Wars can become the all-time box office leader is the three billion dollar question.
Industry watchers and Wall Street analysts have been timid to make hard number predictions. Disney executives (including CEO Bob Iger) have been downright mum on the topic. I’ll step out right now and tell you this film will make $3B before it leaves the global box office. Here’s why I believe so:
- Multi-generational appeal. Of all the film franchises out there, not one appeals to a wider group of cross generational fans. Viewers over 55, viewers under 24, and everyone in between likes Star Wars. Ok, I’m not really saying that everyone likes Star Wars…but, I’m saying the franchise doesn’t appeal to just one segment. And if done correctly, this film will do better than the most recent Star Wars films. The “prequels” did not have enough carry over characters from the original trilogy to pull in marginal fans. Sure the die-hards went to see them, but others were willing to wait and see. Part of the nostalgia draw is not just the franchise but the familiar characters that go with it.
- IMAX. With an IMAX ticket the consumer pays about 50% to 60% over the price of a traditional theater ticket. IMAX has grown as an option for moviegoers beyond the strictly experiential films to major feature films. According to the Motley Fool, IMAX has increased its year over year revenue in 2015 by 58%. Average revenues per screen are at the highest levels since a little film called Avatar was in theaters in 2010. The company is targeting a 12% growth in theaters globally and as of July, they were working hard to get those new theaters up in running just in time for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, IMAX just started keeping solid revenue tracking from ticket sales in the last few years so it’s difficult to get a baseline for expectations. According to the CEO of IMAX, Avatar did $250 million globally just from IMAX ticket sales. The Force Awakens should be able to meet and exceed that number.
- China. Box office revenues are growing faster in China than anywhere else on the planet. According to Forbes, box office revenue in China is up 52% this year alone. Growth of the middle class has been a driving factor in box office revenue. New theater construction continues to be hot. And earlier this year, we saw two medicore films score big at the Chinese box office. Marvel’s Ant-Man, panned as one of the weakest superhero films to date, has made over $100 million in China alone. Compare that number with the $179 million it made in the US or the $517 million the film has grossed globally. An even better example of a marginal film doing well in China was Terminator:Genisys who made $112 million at the Chinese box office. Consider that the film only made $89 million in the US and it was clearly bigger hit overseas. So what’s the potential for a potential mega-hit like The Force Awakens? $250 million? $500 million? There really isn’t a precedent and its likely TFA will set the new high water mark for US films in China.
- Starved Fan Base and Redemption. The failures of George Lucas with Episodes I-III will benefit, not detract from the success of Episode VII. With Lucas unable to meet expectations and in some ways tarnishing his own legacy, legions of SW fans everywhere want redemption. Not redemption for Lucas, but for their own sacred memories of the magic of Star Wars. Abrams has a chance to make it great again. Whether his film is as good as any of the original trilogy is not important. If he can bring back that “feel” and “experience” 40 and 50 somethings everywhere felt the first time they saw Luke’s X-wing fly through the trenches of the Death Star, he will have been successful. Then I predict like Avatar and Titanic, viewers will want to see The Force Awakens more than once in the theater.
It is difficult to imagine a scenario where The Force Awakens is not a runaway hit. With an estimated production budget near $250 million, would Disney be satisfied with a $750 million to $1B box office return. In many ways they would be satisfied with all the additional revenue sources from merchandising to home video that the film will generate, but somewhere deep at the studio, I think there are confidential predictions that believe this new Star Wars film can, in fact, be the most financially successful film in Hollywood history. While analysts and executives aren’t ready to make that prediction public, some of us can already sense that the force is strong with this one.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in US theaters on December 18th.