How Disney Broke The Box Office Mold With ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

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.

Tron-Legacy-Movie-Poster-10And 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.

“We saw the opportunity to create an event since people are off from work and school, along with the fact that there was an absence of tentpole competition,” said Disney distribution chief David Hollis on why this weekend was the right one to launch a new Star Wars trilogy.
Fans Line Up To Watch "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" In New York CityWith 96% of all moviegoers saying that Force Awakens either met or exceeded their expectations, coupled with 88% saying that they’ll pass good word of mouth along to at least five people per Rentrak PostTrak, Episode VII is expected to make at least $500M before Dec. 31. And financial analysts believe Disney got away with a cheap acquisition price for Lucasfilm, with the next trilogy and spinoff films sets to rake in $25B in revenues.
In the days ahead, the momentum for Force Awakens will be fueled by a combination of repeat moviegoers and newcomers (or latecomers). Many predict the film will beat Jurassic World‘s 17-day pace to $500M, and the 36 days the Uni title took to hit $600M.
star wars the force awakens“We have this big pre-holiday burst despite the distraction level from shopping and travel and this will transition in the next couple of weeks where moviegoing is the primary activity that most people will be doing,” adds Hollis who also praised the exhibition community this morning for responding to audience demands by adding more showtimes. As a four quad film, Force Awakens played everywhere from the big cities to small towns, although non-Disney box office analysts noticed the J.J. Abrams title over-indexing in the west given the abundance of tech and fanboy audiences. The next two weeks are like several Fridays in a row. And although most kids will go back to school after January 3, there’s still a good sum on recess through the Martin Luther King Day Jr. holiday frame which most distributors count as the end of the holiday season. At this point in time, Deadline projects that Force Awakens can have a run at No. 1 all the way until either Jan. 15 when Ride Along 2 opens or Jan. 29 when Kung-Fu Panda 3 debuts.

Star Wars Celebration 2015When 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.

jeep cherokeeGlobal 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.

Premiere Of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" - Red CarpetSome 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.

star wars covergirlAnother 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.”

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