Poised to swipe Avatar’s crown as the biggest-grossing film of all time domestically in the next day or so, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has raised questions about its international performance and why it is unlikely to reach the $2.027B mark needed to wrest the overseas crown from James Cameron’s head. At $786.1M with Monday’s estimates added, The Force will need to kick into hyper-drive to dispute Cameron’s claim he is king of the world.
While some watchers remain optimistic, so much of this movie’s run so far has been unpredictable. That includes a China roll out that begins Saturday. With estimates in a Middle Kingdom market that is increasingly hard to gauge running from $175M-$300M, many feel that will not be enough to push it over the top. With the holiday session over, drops seem inevitable as the world returns to work.
'The Force Awakens' Speeds Past 'Furious 7', 'Avengers' On All-Time Worldwide Chart
But given the domestic/foreign split to date, does this mean Star Wars is underperforming internationally? No — and here’s why.
The domestic business that Star Wars is doing is remarkable, with the movie expected to potentially touch $1B. More sober estimates have it finishing around $880M-$930M. Internationally, I’m hearing about $1.18B-$1.25B, which would push it past Furious 7 at No. 3. I have heard as high as $1.5B offshore, which would see it air-kiss Titanic to make it No. 2. Current worldwide estimates from those in international distribution are between $2.1B-$2.3B, again putting it within spitting distance of Titanic on either side.
If we consider the high end of that spectrum, it gets close to a 40/60 split domestic to international. That would come near Jurassic World‘s breakdown — 2015’s No. 2 offshore movie and the recent one that most closely resembles Star Wars in terms of nostalgia, the revival of a dormant franchise, and a whole new fan base.
The most recent Star Wars prequels hewed closer to a 55/45 split, so if this one comes out near even, it’s still in keeping with the rest of the more modern-day franchise. There is a big legacy factor at work in the U.S. on TFA and along with repeat viewings during the holiday season, that has goosed those numbers. “It’s very much a retro film. It’s basically the first film all over again with a female Luke Skywalker. I think that’s resonating more in the U.S.,” says an international exec.
Another says, “There has not been the nostalgia factor in all emerging markets, so you’re not seeing the same results in, say, Latin America as the rest of the world. Most of the new moviegoing world doesn’t have the same affinity as domestic.”
An analyst comments, “I don’t think it’s underperforming internationally. The Star Wars franchise has always been strong domestically, so I would expect the split to be pretty balanced, excluding whatever gross China brings in later.”
Another exec notes Star Wars has always been a U.S./Europe phenom, “Except for Japan.” Japan on TFA has been lighter perhaps than expected so far, but this is a very slow-burn market that sees films leg out for as many as three months with consistency. Disney’s own Frozen skated to $250M over several months. TFA is currently at $55.7M and has seen nice percentage increases in the past week.
Some of the softer spots are currently in Asia, where Hong Kong actioner Ip Man 3 has been performing. And, even though Korea saw TFA beaten by local film The Himalayas, and never gave it the No. 1 slot, it’s $23.2M to date is “big given Korea is not a traditional market” for the franchise, says a rival distrib.
As for China and the hopes there, one person suggests it won’t beat Furious 7, and maybe not Jurassic World, but could still fall in the $200M-$300M range. Avatar, for the record, did $204M. China will be an interesting experiment with the push that Disney has done locally; a market that has less of a relationship with the franchise than others. It will also have only about 20 days to play before Kung Fu Panda 3 arrives.
Looking at the overall picture, and turning back to king Avatar, the word-of-mouth factor is an important element here. Star Wars shot off like a supernova and is at its current $786.1M. At the same point in its run, Avatar was at about $677M international. Avatar opened smaller than TFA and held for months. Time will tell how the front-loaded TFA bears out. In terms of Imax at least, it won’t lose screens until Deadpool opens in mid-February. Some overseas market will see Kung Fu Panda 3 hit in late January and after that the next mega-tentpole release isn’t until late March with Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
The Force Awakens has already bested Avatar in the UK where it has enticed the dark and the light — even despite losing an entire day’s grosses when cinemas were closed on Christmas.
As a whole, was this film ever going to beat Avatar internationally? Not many people I’ve spoken with lately think so. While they may be Monday morning quarterbacking, there’s always been a sense TFA would be huge and like nothing we’d ever seen, and in many ways it is. But there are some key differences with Avatar that put that movie also in a world by itself.
First, sources point out, Avatar was an original film, not part of a franchise, so there was an element of discovery that came with it. It also means that there wasn’t much built-in awareness, whereas the entire world, believe it or not, is not populated by 7 billion Jedi acolytes. Some people just don’t get it. “It’s difficult to convert those who already have an opinion,” a source says.
What’s more, 3D was bright and shiny when Avatar came out. And Cameron did something revolutionary at the time. A source calls Avatar “a beautiful piece of 3D cinematography when the technology was new.” Star Wars is playing well in 3D but in 2009, the format drove the curiosity factor higher and made the movie a must-see. Think of the new world Cameron created like the new world a lot of us discovered for the first time when we saw A New Hope as kids.
There’s also a simple math issue to remember here. Offshore currencies have been seriously devalued in the intervening years, and even rival distribs have pointed that out. TFA‘s current $21.7M in Brazil would have been closer to $50M a year-and-a-half ago.
Another adds, “I think the strong dollar makes $2B a lot harder.” Avatar had 5%-10% better foreign exchange rates, confirms a number-cruncher.
Now that school holidays are coming to an end everywhere but in the Southern Hemisphere, an exec suggests that “we’ll see a big drop this week, probably in the region of 65%, and then we’ll be looking at 40%-50% drops from then on.”
An analyst says, “It really just depends how, with holidays now over, it holds up. Avatar had the exact same issue, but was also driven by people initially not interested, being brought to it by word of mouth as well of course as the repeat viewing. So, the question now is, if Star Wars received that same crossover to audiences not initially interested or is the business entirely being driven by repeaters and just how many times will they go?”
There are people I’ve spoken with who think TFA could leg out ultimately to Avatar‘s offshore numbers. But even if it doesn’t, should anyone complain? A rival exec says, “It’s all relative… But it’s not underperforming. You can’t say that about any film about to do $1B internationally.”
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