Talk about a gamble that’s poised to pay off. Disney buys Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012. The studio looks to recharge the Star Wars film franchise, which hasn’t seen a sequel in 10 years, coupled with the challenge that the last trilogy left a bitter taste in fans’ mouths. But here Disney stands with the all-time domestic opening record for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens at $238M, and the current 2nd best global launch at $517M behind Jurassic World.
And out of all the release dates on the calendar, the studio chooses the weekend before Christmas, a time usually challenged by weather, holiday activities and travel. Distribution executives expressed their concern earlier this year: Why re-launch a franchise that was born in the summer, in the winter? There’s only a finite amount of time to make a lot of money when kids are off school. In fact, Disney already knew about the difficulties of the pre-Christmas frame: In 2010, at the same point in time, they tried to re-launch their dormant 1980s Tron property and fell short with a $44M opening after a year’s worth of promotions and a $170M production cost.
Disney originally staked out a May 2015 date for Force Awakens but two years ago when it looked like Abrams and Lucasfilm required more time, they moved the film to this weekend. “We needed more time to get the film in perfect form. It had to set the stage for the other titles,” one Disney insider told Deadline.
When discussing the success of Force Awakens, Hollis called out to the Disney marketing team led by president Ricky Strauss and EVP Asad Ayaz who ran point on the two-year-plus campaign. They are the unsung heroes behind Force Awakens. When it came to re-energizing the Star Wars fan base, the point can be argued that Disney provided a bigger promo push for Force Awakens than 20th Century Fox did with any one of the prequels from 1999-2005. Aside from any presentations for the film at Disney’s D23 conventions, the studio stoked fans with a Star Wars Celebration on April 16, trotting out Abrams and the cast along with a teaser for next December’s spinoff film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Another is planned for this year, as well as a European convention in London. Fan excitement was seen at the San Diego Comic-Con when the masses followed Abrams and the cast after a Force Awakens panel to a special outdoor San Diego symphony orchestra performance of the Star Wars music.
Friday, September 4 was designated a Star Wars toy day, aka ‘Force Friday,’ when all the merchandise for Force Awakens dropped. This was preceded by a toy unboxing day broadcast on YouTube across several global time zones. Force Friday was the catalyst for driving Star Wars merchandise to $3B this year, per analysts’ estimates, with another $5B projected for 2016.
Global promo partners for Force Awakens include FCA USA auto group (Jeep Cherokee, Dodge), Duracell, HP computers, Subway, General Mills and Verizon. Castmembers canvassed late night with visits to Jimmy Kimmel Live and Conan, but taking turns on The Tonight Show. ABC’s Good Morning America hosted a week of Star Wars interviews followed by coverage on Live! With Kelly and Michael. iSpotTV estimates that Disney spent $26.3M across 2K-plus TV spots on 46 networks. Co-branded commercials from 19 brands generated $68.1M in TV ad value, with iSpotTV also reporting that the estimated media ad value for Force Awakens stands at $93.6M.
Some media reports have mentioned that the total global P&A on Force Awakens is less than $100M, but that figure is highly suspect for a tentpole that cost an estimated $200M, especially when you take into account the PR stunts mentioned above. Couple that with the fact that Disney threw the biggest movie premiere in Hollywood history, closing down two blocks, taking over three theaters (the El Capitan, TCL Chinese and the Dolby) with 3,500 guests being served food by chef Wolfgang Puck. In addition, Disney sent the cast to the European premiere in London, Harrison Ford to a special Sydney event, and Oscar Isaac and Lupita Nyong’o to a Mexican fan screening.
Another feat Disney can relish is the fact that they successfully rebooted the series with a female lead — the character Rey played by British newcomer Daisy Ridley — likely expanding the female fanbase, particularly for future installments. After Friday saw 63% guys turning up, the next two days had more women attending, repping 42% of the audience. Disney believes the percentage will even out over the film’s run, especially since women gave Force Awakens an A+. Historically, women haven’t been a huge part of the original trilogy’s audience, nor were they a dominant share of the prequels. Disney licensees were expanded to target young women with cosmetics (“The Dark Side” mascara by Covergirl), jewelry (a Stormtrooper necklace at Kay Jewelers) and a clothing line at Forever 21.
So with a domestic opening of this size, has Disney set the bar so high that no other title will ever surpass it?
“No,” answers one rival distribution chief. “At $238M, Force Awakens is only 14% higher than the opening weekend of Jurassic World. Records are meant to be broken. I mean, the fact that the all-time record opening record was broken twice in the same year, it’s like, wow. That’s pretty cool.”