JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens began being tracked by distributors today, and estimates have it grossing anywhere from $170 million to $300 million in its opening weekend. The current highest December weekend opening belongs to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, coming in at $85 million, meaning that that the highly anticipated Star Wars sequel is expected to double the record. However, that doesn’t come close to the highest grossing weekend of all time, which is Jurassic World with $208.8 million. Of course, that film premiered during the summer blockbuster season, when the empty classrooms generally mean more money in studio pockets.
But what do these projections actually mean? The pre-release tracking is technically meant to give studios an idea of how well their marketing strategies are working across different target audiences. This gives them time to adjust their marketing campaigns or to pull back if they sense an irredeemable flop. However, recently the tracking has become more a weapon of the media and rival studios, setting what is sometimes an impossible bar for films to reach. Perhaps that is why Disney studio chairman Alan Horn has been trying to play down the forecasted earnings. Responding to questions surrounding the opening weekend, he declared:
“It’s natural for people to want to view this and compare this to a summer blockbuster, but films in December don’t have the same historical release patterns as summer films. In December it’s rare to see a big debut—there’s only a handful above $70 million by the way, with the record being something like $84 million.”
And Horn is right, studios don’t generally chose December releases with the hope of breaking box office records, they pick them because they traditionally have “legs” that carry them far past December. James Cameron’s Avatar, for example, debuted at $77 million, but garnered a record breaking $760 million domestically. The two weeks between a mid-December release and the New Year can be an incredibly lucrative time for a well-received movie. So even if The Force Awakens falls short of its predicted earnings its opening weekend, that does not put it out of the running for the all-time record.
All in all, Disney doesn’t have much to worry about. $50 million has already been earned in pre-sale tickets. Fans have been hyperventilating for months (years, even). New fans and old will flock to the cinemas by the millions, and Disney will more than recoup her losses. Unless, maybe, there’s a disturbance in the Force.