Hollywood empire strikes back

Star Wars fans gathered for a lightsaber battle at Pershing Square in Los Angeles last Friday.
Star Wars fans gathered for a lightsaber battle at Pershing Square in Los Angeles last Friday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Star Wars: The Force Awakens bucks trend of soft cinema attendance, by smashing records in its opening weekend

NEW YORK • Conventional wisdom holds that mass movie-going is the pastime of another era. The cultural heat emanates from television now. Hollywood churns out only banal sequels and forgettable action films. Netflix is the new multiplex.

Well, the movies just struck back.

In an astounding display of cultural and commercial domination on a global scale - one with little precedent in the history of Hollywood - Walt Disney's Star Wars: The Force Awakens earned roughly US$517 million (S$729 million) in worldwide ticket sales through Sunday, smashing multiple box-office records, even after accounting for inflation. It finished second only to Jurassic World, which in its June opening garnered US$525 million worldwide.

But it was the largest opening weekend in North America, with US$238 million in ticket sales. To put that figure into perspective, consider that Avatar (2009), which analysts consider to be the highest- grossing film in history, with US$3.1 billion in global ticket sales, took in US$85 million over its first three days in domestic release. The previous record-holder for a December opening was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) with US$87.5 million.

The figure shatters the previous record set by Jurassic World in June when it premiered to US$208.8 million.

Thousands joined a mock lightsaber battle in Los Angeles, where an Australian couple married in line for the film. United States President Barack Obama ended a news conference last Friday, saying he needed to head to a White House screening of the movie, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton closed last Saturday's Democratic debate saying: "May the Force be with you."

"I don't think ever in the history of movies has there been more hype leading up to the release of a film," said Mr Jeff Bock, senior box- office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co. "This is a huge, huge win."

Star Wars has long been in a league of its own. But The Force Awakens also represents the way that Hollywood hopes to battle back after years of soft domestic ticket sales, piracy and competition from video games and television.

Focusing on nostalgic film properties with familiar, often cherished characters, studios are assembling Death Star-sized movies that can capture the public's imagination in ways reminiscent of the earliest years of blockbusterdom, before the hyperfragmentation of pop culture.

Consumers are just beginning to see this strategy - Jurassic World was an example - but studios have been engaging in a behind-the- scenes arms race for several years. The results are just now coming to market.

Disney is working on four more Star Wars-related movies and plans to restart the Indiana Jones series. Three more Avatar films are on the way from 20th Century Fox. Universal has a Jurassic World sequel planned for 2018 and is working to combine its classic monster properties (Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein) into one huge film series. Warner Bros will release Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice in March; together with Legendary Pictures, Warner has a King Kong versus Godzilla film in the works.

Hollywood has repeatedly missed the mark with mindless remakes and sequels, but Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which cost an estimated US$350 million to make and market, also represents an effort to improve the quality of mass-audience films. Lucasfilm, the Disney unit that controls the Star Wars franchise, hired an experienced director, J.J. Abrams, who veered sharply back towards old-fashioned film- making, relying less on computer- generated imagery and more on constructed sets.

Reviews for The Force Awakens were 95 per cent positive, according to the Rotten Tomatoes website, which aggregates critical response. The Force Awakens, the seventh Star Wars movie, focuses on a young woman, Rey, as she becomes entwined with efforts - led by General Leia, no longer a princess - to locate a vanished Luke Skywalker and generally save the galaxy from evil combatants called the First Order.

"The studios finally seem to be remembering, after years of over- reliance on visual effects, that moviegoers like a story," Jeanine Basinger, a film studies professor at Wesleyan University and the author of books including The Star Machine, said on Sunday. "It can be a story we are familiar with. It can be a serialised story. But give us, please, we're begging you, a story of some kind."

The Force Awakens arrives at a time when Hollywood has finally started to better understand how to use social media to turn consumer interest into a frenzy. The film also benefited from improved technology in theatrical distribution; the rise of digital projection and advance online pre-sales allowed theatre owners to add extra screenings quickly to meet opening- weekend demand.

"Theatres in some cases took what we originally planned and expanded it in real time to three or four times the capacity," said Mr Dave Hollis, Disney's executive vice-president for distribution.

The box-office and critical results represent a personal triumph for Mr Robert A. Iger, chief executive of Disney, who engineered the US$4-billion purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012, faced down sceptics on Wall Street who believed the price was too high and essentially ghost-produced the film. (He watched dailies, oversaw elements of the marketing and flew to Harrison Ford's side when the actor injured himself on the set.)

Executives at rival studios spent the weekend marvelling at the way Disney managed the film's release, in particular praising the entertainment company's use of its vast empire - theme parks, television networks, an online video studio, consumer products, video games, cruise ships - to promote the movie. "Not one misstep," the marketing chief at a rival studio said begrudgingly, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of a reluctance to publicly praise a competitor.

Disney, which spent more than US$200 million to make Force Awakens, also pulled off one of the hardest tricks in event film marketing, which was timing the surge of advance hoopla to crest just as The Force Awakens arrived in theatres.

"We have so many options for entertainment, yet look at where everyone is flocking this weekend - to the multiplex," said Mr Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at box-office tracking firm Rentrak. "Disney has this down to a science."

"We're setting records in real time," a jubilant-sounding Mr Hollis said. Asked if Disney's distribution and publicity teams were ready to collapse after the hard push, he noted that the film had not yet opened in China, where release is set for Jan 9.

"Collapsing is what February is for," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2015, with the headline 'Hollywood empire strikes back'. Print Edition | Subscribe