While “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” wrapped up the nine-film saga which ended an all-encompassing story about heroes and villains living in a special effects world full of wonder and big-screen wizardry, Disney found it to underperform its successors. Ticket sales in North America saw a 4 percent decrease from 2018 with $11.45 billion.
With this part of the Star Wars saga closed, fans can expect to see more which will be streaming on tablets and phones rather than on the big screen.
Major fantasy films were behind the high sales with “Frozen II” (Disney), “The Lion King” (Disney), “Toy Story 4” (Disney), “Aladdin” (Disney), “Captain Marvel” (Disney), and “Avengers: Endgame” (Disney) which broke all kinds of theater attendance records. Of course, one name is behind all of these films and that Mouse House has already had six films to cross the billion dollar mark with “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” certain to become the seventh.
The Force was a little less strong with “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” J.J. Abrams’ Skywalker finale couldn’t match its recent predecessors on opening weekend, but it still amassed a $175.5 million debut that ranked as the third largest weekend of the year.
“The Rise of Skywalker” came in with worse reviews than any “Star Wars” movie except for 1999′s “The Phantom Menace,” which famously heralded the debut of Jar Jar Binks. “The Rise of Skywalker” has a 57% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences, too, were relatively lukewarm to the movie, giving it a B+ CinemaScore.
That response may have muted what could have been a record-setting weekend. While Disney had cautiously estimated about a $165 million opening, analysts had pegged “The Rise of Skywalker” for around $200 million.
“The Rise of Skywalker” pulled in $374 million worldwide, according to studio estimates Sunday. The film was especially lackluster in China, where all “Star Wars” films have struggled. It grossed $12.1 million in the world’s second largest movie marketplace.
Though it proved divisive with fans, 2017′s “Last of the Jedi,” directed by Rian Johnson, opened with $220 million and ultimately grossed $1.3 billion worldwide. Abrams’ own “The Force Awakens” set a then-record in 2015 with a $248 million debut and sold more than $2 billion in global tickets.
With the coming holiday period, “Rise of Skywalker” is poised to dominate the year’s most lucrative week of moviegoing. Cathleen Taff, distribution chief for Disney, called it a great start.
“With critics, we’ve seen that our movies have received lower scores than not but that they continue to do business because they’re great quality movies for the moviegoer,” said Taff. “Audiences are generally responding really positively to the film.
“We know that people are very passionate about ‘Star Wars’ and have very strong opinions about it. And we’re fine with that,” added Taff. “We think it’s inspiring to see so many people who want to prompt a discussion around a film.”
Such expectations did not await Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.” The much ridiculed big-screen musical, featuring infamous “digital fur technology,” scratched out just $6.5 million in ticket sales, sending Mr. Mistoffelees (and Universal Pictures) home licking their wounds.
The $100 million production (not including tens of millions in marketing costs), featuring an ensemble including Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, James Corden, Idris Elba, Ian McKellen, and Taylor Swift, came in behind projections and opened in a distant fourth place. The movie drew an 18% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes and a C-plus CinemaScore from audiences. Adding to the mounting costs, Universal sent theaters a version of “Cats” with just slightly improved special effects over the weekend.
“Even modest opening in this extraordinary lucrative corridor can prove very kind to films,” said Jim Orr, chief of distribution for Universal. He anticipates the film’s strongest demographic — older moviegoers — will be most available over the holidays. “Our scores from those who are 55 and up are very good and very encouraging.”
Holdovers “Jumanji: The Next Level” ($26.1 million in its second weekend) and “Frozen 2” ($12.3 million in its fifth weekend) both surpassed “Cats.”
“Rise of Skywalker” culminated a tumultuous period in “Star Wars,” finishing off both a trilogy and nine-film cycle begun 42 years ago by George Lucas. In 2012, Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion. While its stewardship of “Star Wars” has drawn enormous box-office proceeds, “The Rise of Skywalker” had its work cut out in trailing both the much-debated “Last of the Jedi” and the 2018 dud “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”
In November, Disney chief executive Bob Iger told investors that “Star Wars” will go “into a hiatus” after “Rise of Skywalker.” The next “Star Wars” movie, which is to be set outside the Skywalker saga, isn’t scheduled for release until 2022. “Game of Thrones” makers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss recently pulled out of planned “Star Wars” trilogy.
Lately, “Star Wars” has also been a hit on the small screen, too. “The Mandalorian” helped launch the Disney Plus streaming service. To make way for “Rise of Skywalker,” the latest episode of “The Mandalorian” debuted on Wednesday, instead of Friday.
But Disney can still make considerable demands on theaters for “Star Wars” films. Disney charges theaters 65% of ticket sales, or about 10 percentage points more than standard, for “Star Wars” releases, and requires a run of four weeks.
Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore, said the opening for “Rise of Skywalker” could only be considered a disappointment for Disney. The film will likely become Disney’s seventh $1 billion release of the year (a record) and give the studio seven of the top 10 films of the year.
“It’s time to devote a lot of attention to the streaming environment for ‘Star Wars’ and then come back with a vengeance,” said Dergarabedian.” There’s a lot of lessons to be learned and certainly from this latest installment.”
“Rise of Skywalker” helped improve the shortfall at the box office compared to last year, but ticket sales are still running 4.6% behind 2018, according to Comscore.
In its national expansion, the Lionsgate Fox News drama “Bombshell” underperformed expectations with $5.1 million in 1,481 theaters. Rian Johnson’s “Last Jedi” follow-up, the starry whodunit “Knives Out” continues to do strong business for Lionsgate. After $6.1 million in its sixth weekend, it has grossed $185.6 million globally.
Misfires from earlier in the year included “Dark Phoenix,” the latest in the threadbare “X-Men” series; Ang Lee’s ill-advised “Gemini Man,” starring Will Smith; “UglyDolls,” an animated clunker based on a toy line; and a pop-feminist reboot of “Charlie’s Angels,” with Kristen Stewart.
Nine movies from Warner Bros. stumbled out of the gate, including “The Goldfinch,” “The Kitchen,” “Shaft,” “Motherless Brooklyn” and “Richard Jewell,” which gave Clint Eastwood his worst opening weekend as a filmmaker in four decades.
“It’s hard to know if this is a secular, permanent phenomenon related to audience viewing habits or movie title-specific,” said David Gross, who runs Franchise Entertainment Research, a film consultancy.
The movie business is cyclical, and ending the year a few hundred million dollars behind 2018 is hardly a catastrophe — not when theaters are competing with a fast-growing array of streaming services. One of the most discussed films of the year, Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” largely bypassed theaters, playing instead on Netflix. “The Irishman” and two other Netflix films, “Marriage Story” and “The Two Popes” were showered with Golden Globe nominations. Those three films are also seen as major Oscar contenders.
Joe Drake, the chairman of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, said the competition for intellectual property and talent “is more heated than ever, but we doubled our box office this year and increased our market share.”
Lionsgate found success by deploying Keanu Reeves in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum,” Gerard Butler in “Angel Has Fallen,” Tyler Perry in “A Madea Family Funeral” and a bevy of stars in “Knives Out.” (Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron couldn’t save the Lionsgate comedy “Long Shot” from living up to its title, however.)
To compete in theaters, non-franchise films have to be definitive — what Drake called “great stories well told that announce themselves.” “Knives Out,” starring Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas, did not bring anything particularly new — it’s an old-fashioned whodunit — but it was a perfectly executed example of the genre.
“We genuinely believe that there is a false narrative about midrange movies,” Drake said. “They are not going extinct.”But if a movie has flaws, there is no longer a floor. No amount of marketing hocus-pocus could convince people that “The Sun Is Also a Star,” a middling romantic comedy starring Yara Shahidi (“grown-ish”), was worth the hassle and expense of trekking to a theater.
Every studio ended the year with a few hits, including Warner, which struck a cultural nerve with “Joker” ($1.1 billion worldwide). Jennifer Lopez and her savvy stripper friends (“Hustlers,” $157 million) propped up STX. “Rocketman” ($195 million) helped Paramount return to annual profitability for the first time in memory. Jordan Peele’s cerebral horror film “Us” ($255 million), Danny Boyle’s Beatles-oriented “Yesterday” ($151 million) and the “Fast and Furious” spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw” ($759 million) kept Universal competitive.
When all ticket sales are counted, Sony Pictures is expected to be the only studio — aside from Disney — to land two movies in the top 10. “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” riding on “Avengers” coattails, collected $391 million in North America and $1.13 billion worldwide. “Jumanji: The Next Level,” released on Dec. 13, is performing like “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” which earned $404 million at domestic theaters in 2017. Sony also struck gold with Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” ($372 million worldwide).
“This year was dominated by major franchises, but we’ve also seen the hunger for original content,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for BoxOffice.com, citing Tarantino’s comedic drama as an example.
Even so, calling the film business healthy would be a stretch.
The box office is increasingly divided into haves — franchises, mostly aging ones — and have-nots (everything else). Studios churned out a whopping 58 franchise films this year, which consumed 82 percent of the worldwide Hollywood box office, according to Gross’s film consultancy. Eighty-one non-franchise films got the scraps. Some franchises declined sharply. “The Secret Life of Pets 2” was down 51 percent from its series predecessor. “Terminator: Dark Fate” fell 41 percent.
“Story lines need to move forward, and worlds need to expand,” Gross said. “New characters and conflicts need to emerge.”
Because moviemaking relies on personal judgment calls, studios try to reduce risk by adhering to rules of thumb. But few choices seem safe anymore.
Original animation used to be a relatively sure bet. This year, mythical creatures (“Missing Link”), an amusement park run by talking animals (“Wonder Park”) and a fox named Swifty (“Arctic Dogs”) got the cold shoulder.
Stephen King sequels are hot (“It: Chapter 2”). Until they’re not (“Doctor Sleep”).
“The market is still very dynamic, but what works is more unpredictable,” said Stephen Gilula, the co-chairman of Fox Searchlight. “The costs have gone up, and the success rate has gone down.”Searchlight, the Disney-owned art film studio, scored with the summertime horror flick “Ready or Not” ($29 million). Taika Waititi’s “JoJo Rabbit,” a Nazi satire, has earned $20 million and could generate another $5 million to $10 million based on its awards fate. But Searchlight had a very quiet year overall. “Lucy in the Sky” ($320,000), starring Natalie Portman, was an outright flop. Frequent contributors like Wes Anderson were between films.
Between January and Aug. 25, combined ticket sales for the 20 largest art film distributors — Fox Searchlight, Magnolia and the like — fell 45 percent from the same period last year, according to Box Office Mojo data.
A handful of art house offerings ultimately managed to get noticed, including Lulu Wong’s China-set family drama “The Farewell” ($18 million), the elevated A24 horror film “Midsommar” ($27 million), the quirky Huck Finn-style tale “The Peanut Butter Falcon” ($21 million) and Bong Joon Ho’s genre-defying “Parasite” ($21 million).
For the third year running, Focus Features topped the specialty box office. The Universal Pictures subsidiary saw films like “Downton Abbey” ($97 million) and “Harriet” ($42 million) over-perform in ways that seemed to startle even the studio.
“We always thought there would be an excited core audience for ‘Harriet,’ those who have a natural interest in an American icon who shockingly had never had her life story told onscreen,” said Peter Kujawski, the chairman of Focus Features. “But it crossed well past that core audience and broke into the broader culture.”
“Harriet,” directed by Kasi Lemmons, may also figure into the coming Oscar race. Cynthia Erivo, who stars in the film as Harriet Tubman, is a favorite for a best actress nomination.
North American Box Office
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Where available, the latest international numbers for Friday through Sunday are also included.
1. “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” $175.5 million ($198 million international).
2. “Jumanji: The Next Level,” $26.1 million ($32.6 million international).
3. “Frozen 2,” $12.3 million ($31.6 million international).
4. “Cats,” $6.5 million ($4.4 million international).
5. “Knives Out,” $6.1 million.
6. “Bombshell,” $5.1 million.
7. “Richard Jewell,” $2.6 million.
8. “Queen & Slim,” $1.9 million.
9. “Black Christmas,” $1.8 million.
10. “Ford v Ferrari,” $1.8 million.