As Force Awakens winds down, Avatar remains supreme

2016-02-12 18:00

New York - Two months after opening to unprecedented fanfare, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is finally winding down in theatres, leaving behind arsenals of plastic lightsabers and a trail of box-office records.

The Force Awakens is still playing in more than 2 000 theatres in North America and remains ranked in the top-five at the box office as it enters its ninth week of release. But the lion's share of its theatrical revenue has been pocketed, and one thing is abundantly clear: it's not going to touch Avatar.

Regardless of further receipts, The Force Awakens (currently with $2.008bn worldwide) will slot in at No. 2 all-time on the global box office list, if you don't account for inflation or rereleases. That's slightly ahead of James Cameron's Titanic ($1.84bn before a later 3-D release pushed it to $2.18 bn) but light years behind Avatar ($2.79bn).

The Force Awakens was by any measure a massive hit: a full-blown if prepackaged cultural phenomenon that drove moviegoers en masse to theatres in a way that some thought was no longer possible in an increasingly multi-screen media world. It has already made the Walt Disney Co. heaps of cash and it has set the franchise up to reap oodles more in merchandising, theme park attractions and sequels.

But even the most colossal hit of the decade — one with all the firepower of arguably the movies' biggest franchise — was no match for Cameron's 2009 3-D sensation. Though some forecast The Force Awakens to rival Avatar and possibly become the first $3bn movie, that mark has never seemed more out of reach.

"Avatar is sitting on top of that global mountain, looking down and saying, 'Just try to catch me,'" said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore. "That's a record that's going to stand for a long time. And we know it now more than ever."

Though The Force Awakens set a record in North America ($906.7m and counting), it was less of a phenomenon in some overseas territories. Most notably in China, where Star Wars doesn't have the same history with moviegoers. Had The Force Awakens performed at the same rate internationally as it did in the U.S., it would have toppled Avatar.

Currency devaluation should be considered

Currency devaluation in some countries between 2009 and 2106 also help account for the distance between The Force Awakens and Avatar, perhaps as much as hundreds of millions.

It's just one more example of how box office rankings don't take into account countless variables (inflation, ticket prices, media competition) that affect every release. Adjust for inflation and the record domestic haul of The Force Awakens, is dwarfed by 1939's Gone With the Wind, which made approximately $1.7bn in North America in inflation-adjusted dollars. Each era has its own mega blockbusters.

"We're taking a little more time just to appreciate the run and the response without paying too much attention to ranking and ratings," said Dave Hollis, head of distribution for Disney. "There's still business to be had in this run and possibly if we decide to do a reissue of this film now or ahead of Episode VIII, or whatever it might be."

Regardless, the $4bn investment Disney made when it purchased LucasFilm is already looking like a bargain, and the mammoth success of The Force Awakens in movie theatres is only part of it.

Analysts expect merchandizing revenues from Star Wars to bring in some $5bn for Disney in 2015 and 2016. Star Wars is also driving more visitors to Disney's theme parks. Ground will soon be broken on a 14-acre Star Wars area in Disneyland.

Most importantly, director J.J. Abrams reinvigorated the franchise with a crowd-pleasing, critically praised reboot that pulled in new fans and put in motion a profit-creating system of galactic proportions.

"It started with a fantastic film that absolutely delivered," said Hollis. "For what it meant not just off of some big opening weekends but for the playability over the last couple of months and really for what it means in setting up the franchise for the future, everyone couldn't be any happier."

The ripple effect of The Force Awakens has only just begun

Propelled by Star Wars, Disney reported a record $2.88bn in quarterly revenue on Tuesday, a 32 percent jump from the same period a year earlier. The ripple effect of The Force Awakens has only just begun.

Anthony DiClemente, an analyst for Nomura, was among those who once forecast a possible $3bn in ticket sales. But he says the result for The Force Awakens, even if it fell short of the most bullish predictions, exceeded Disney's internal expectations.

"The thing about Disney is they have a content monetization engine where they can monetize one piece of content more effectively than any other company," says DiClemente, citing the company's television networks and parks. "It is something that ripples throughout the company."

In the end, Star Wars may be passing Avatar in other ways. Disney recently moved the release date for Star Wars: Episode VIII to December 2017, right up against a date 20th Century Fox had staked out for Cameron's long-awaited, repeatedly delayed Avatar 2. The Avatar sequel has since been removed from Fox's schedule.

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