It’s likely to be the biggest movie of the year and probably has sold more tickets in advance than any other movie this year, but Lucasfilm’s STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI — the middle installment of the new trilogy spearheaded by JJ Abrams in 2015 — has a lot to live up to, especially when it comes to the box office.
The question has never been “Will this sequel be big?” as much “How big will it be?” and more importantly, “Does it have a chance of surpassing 2015’s ginormous blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens?”
That last question is what I’ll be tackling, and in order to do that, you need to really gauge why The Force Awakens ended up being as big as it was. It wasn’t just because it was Star Wars, because George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, released between 1999 and 2005, never came close to those insane numbers. Star Wars Episode 2 grossed the most of that trilogy with $430 million, but that wasn’t enough to surpass the record set by James Cameron’s Titanic two years earlier.
The $936 million grossed domestically by The Force Awakens was new ground at a box office that had gotten used to the idea of no movie ever surpassing Cameron’s Titanic or Avatar, which grossed $760 million domestically. Marvel’s The Avengers broke new ground in 2012 when it opened with more than $200 million, which seemed unheard of at the time, and then Universal’s Jurassic World also crossed that mark. The Force Awakens’ $250 million in 2015 also broke new ground and set a benchmark for the franchise that might be impossible to surpass.
Sure, we can probably attribute some of it to the higher price of movie tickets since 2005 and the larger amount of larger-format, 3D and other premium theatrical experiences being offered now compared to ten years ago, but there were other factors that made The Force Awakens such a big hit. How many of these are still in play for The Last Jedi is probably what’s going to govern whether the sequel does nearly as well.
Anticipation and the Nostalgia Factor
This is something that helped contribute to The Force Awakens’ success, possibly more than anything else, because it had been ten years since what was thought of as the “last” Star Wars movie, at least from George Lucas. When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, it immediately announced that making more Star Wars movies was the studio’s top priority, and J.J. Abrams created a sequel to Return of the Jedi that was also a reboot of the franchise with new characters that stirred the imagination of old and new Star Wars fans alike. More importantly, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Carrie Fisher’s Princess (now General) Leah, Chewbacca and other characters were brought back for the first time since Jedi in 1983, which got fans of the original trilogy even more excited. Han’s gone but Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker will have a larger role and then you have…
The Return of The Force Awakens Characters
While Daisy Ridley was an unknown when cast as Rey, John Boyega, who plays the rogue Stormtrooper Finn, was only really known from the British sci-fi film Attack the Block. Both Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver had been in a bunch of projects — Driver on HBO’s Girls – but there was nothing to say that these new characters created by J.J. Abrams with writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt would connect with audiences the way that Han, Luke and Leia did. Obviously, the continued success of the movie after its astounding opening weekend shows that Star Wars fans liked them, and the movie left them with a doozy of a cliffhanger with Rey encountering Luke on a desolate planet. As with most sequels, when they come after a cliffhanger like that and with only two years between movies, fans won’t have enough time to forget how much they liked the previous movie. This should be one of The Last Jedi’s biggest assets, except that it also has…
The New Blood: Rian Johnson
The Looper director came on board for the sequel to The Force Awakens, and it was recently announced he will write and direct an entirely new Star Wars trailer, so there’ll be a lot of interest not just from fans of Johnson’s previous films but also those curious to see if he can deliver. It isn’t that uncommon for a new director to take over a Star Wars sequel, because neither The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi were directed by George Lucas, although he helmed all three prequels. Surely if Lucasfilm wasn’t happy with Johnson, they wouldn’t have announced his trilogy, but there were none of the reshoot rumors that plagued Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One last year. None of that hurt Rogue One, although that opened significantly lower than Force Awakens with $155 million before grossing $532 million domestic.
The Carrie Fisher Factor
This might sound morbid but the death of Star Wars stalwart Carrie Fisher may give Force Awakens’ sequel a bump not just from the fans who want to pay tribute to the woman responsible for so many girls and women being Star Wars fans, especially as she took on a stronger role as General in The Force Awakens. Remember when Heath Ledger died months before the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. There’s no way to know how many people rushed out to see sequel just for Ledger, but The Dark Knight opened with $158 million, 75% of what Batman Begins made in total domestically a few years earlier. Obviously, there’s no way that kind of sequel boost can happen with The Force Awakens, but maybe even the less diehard Star Wars fans might be curious to see how Johnson deals with Fisher’s beloved character in the sequel.
New Creatures and Characters
While there’s probably a lot more surprises that haven’t been revealed in trailers so far and Lucasfilm will try to keep those surprises secret, we already know that The Last Jedi will introduce new characters played by Benicio Del Toro, Laura Dern and Justin Theroux. No one knows how big their parts will be, but the idea of the franchise and world being developed further by Johnson and his team will help drive up the curiosity factor even for those who aren’t big Star Wars nerds. There’s also the Porgs, the furry creatures that will likely to appeal to kids in a similar way as Return of the Jedi’s Ewoks. Maybe they’ll even get their own spin-off film someday.
Too Much Star Wars?
This is a question on some minds as we’re starting to get a new Star Wars movie every single year, and we’ll get yet another one next summer with the Han Solo prequel. When a franchise is so persistent that it delivers an installment each year, there’s the chance of burn-out, because it no longer feels like a special event. We’ve seen this many times before with Pirates of the Caribbean and The Matrix, which petered out before the third part of its trilogy. It doesn’t seem like Star Wars has reached that point of saturation or burn-out yet, so The Last Jedi should be fine in that regard. Next year’s Han Solo directed by Ron Howard and 2019’s Episode IX (again directed by J.J. Abrams) might be another story.
As of now, it seems like an opening in the $210 to 220 million range for Star Wars: The Last Jedi seems doable, but maybe it will surprise like The Force Awakens did. More likely, it will get more business through the holidays and be the #1 movie at least until Jan. 5 when the latest Insidious movie opens. It seems like $650 million could be the low-end in terms of total domestic gross, but it’s probably going to make somewhere in the $700 to 750 million, besting Titanic but not Avatar.
I’ll probably have more to say about The Last Jedi in next week’s penultimate box office preview for the year.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor