The Force Awakens Is About to Make an Ungodly Sum of Money. What Does That Say About the Movie?

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Photo: Lucasfilm

You may have heard that the Force will be awakening on December 18. To provide a necessary outlet for our abundant excitement, we've assembled another Vulture Advent Calendar — in this case, 25 Star Wars–themed stories, one per day until Christmas. None of them will involve midi-chlorians.

Three weeks out from its release, the topic on everyone’s minds isn’t whether Star Wars: The Force Awakens can be the biggest movie of all time. Chances are, it will be: J.J. Abrams and Co. have already set one record, with more than $50 million in advance tickets already sold, and analysts are saying that, on the high end, Star Wars’ opening weekend could make $200 million, $250 million, or even the still-pretty-unimaginable $300 million domestic mark. (How big is $300 million? That’s what Attack of the Clones made over its entire domestic run.)

Even more conservative forecasts have Jurassic World’s $208.8 million record firmly in reach, and the lowest you’ll really see anyone go is about $170 million — and even that’s mostly Disney insiders trying to manage expectations. When you factor in overseas gross, you’re looking at a movie that’s tracking to make $3.5 billion worldwide, a number that would annihilate Avatar’s $2.7 billion. But really, the question of how huge Star Wars is is a matter of semantics. In the much-altered entertainment landscape of 2015, what does being the biggest movie of all time even mean?

As much as it feels like this entire year was just a countdown to December 18, that was hardly the case. The movie industry just had its second-best summer ever. This seems strange. It seems strange because, having ceded cultural ground to television, movies feel less important than ever before. It seems strange because, thanks to broken tracking and a number of flops, the industry didn’t expect it, meaning that the mood never quite went from surprised to properly triumphant. But most of all, it seems strange because none of the movies that came out over the last six months made much of an impression.

Instead, what we’ve seen develop is the greatest disconnect ever between the amount of money a movie earns and the impact it has on the Zeitgeist. Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7, and Minions all made a billion dollars worldwide. None of these are bad movies, though your opinion regarding Minions might vary based on:

1. How many children you have
2. How much time you spend on the internet

Despite Jurassic World and Furious 7 having made the equivalent of a small country’s GDP, they don’t feel like that big a deal, the kind of phenomenon you obsess over with your friends or demand that people see. On the other hand, The Force Awakens unequivocally does: Its power is unavoidable, undeniable enough to inspire the kind of secrecy that’s usually reserved for heads of state, not film premieres. Even if it doesn’t beat out Avatar, that won’t change. Clearly, in 2015, a movie’s box office is not the true and only indicator of its influence. The question, then, becomes: What is?

Looking at the list of history’s highest-grossing movies, something scans decidedly strange. It isn’t the fact that Star Wars and Jaws, two films credited with reinventing the industry, seem conspicuously hard to find: Star Wars doesn’t clock in until No. 55, and Jaws isn’t in the top 100. It isn’t the top of the standings: Goofy and overwrought as Avatar was, it still felt like something we’d never seen before, and Titanic was so epic, it should’ve come in hardcover. It’s that the list seems to suffer from a recency bias. If you knew nothing about movies and then took a look at these rankings, you might think that prior to the last five years, Hollywood was just some sort of hobbyist’s club. Only ten films made before 2000 rank in the top 100. Thirty-eight of them were made between 2000 and 2009. Fifty-two have come out since 2010.

The reasons why this is are, of course, straightforward. There’s the price of a ticket. In the second quarter of 2015, it cost an average of $8.61 to go to a movie, the highest mark of all time. For this, you can blame inflation and the luxury trend in theaters, but more prominently, you can point to the spread of 3-D and Imax. Although 3-D has been around since the early ’80s, it reemerged in 2003 and 2004, when James Cameron’s Ghosts of the Abyss, then Spy Kids 3-D and The Polar Express, showed that there were both artistic and commercial opportunities in the form. And when Avatar scorched the Earth in 2009, it became a phenomenon. Since then, 3-D declined until 2015, when all four of the year’s biggest movies had significant 3-D bows, and Mad Max, San Andreas, and Jurassic World took in as much as 40 percent of their opening-weekend grosses from 3-D showings.

Additionally, those inflated tickets are now being sold in tremendous quantities around the world. In 2004, international box-office revenue outpaced domestic for the first time, completing a transition that had been happening since the previous decade. That year’s top movie, Shrek 2, made $478 million abroad versus $441 million in the U.S., with its top foreign markets being, respectively, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Spain, and Germany. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban grossed more than double overseas than it did domestically: $547 million versus $249 million, including $121 million in Japan alone. The Chinese box office didn’t take off until 2007, but in 2014, it was worth $4.8 billion, a 34 percent increase from the year before, making it the first foreign region to cross the $4 billion line. Already the largest international market, it’s still growing at an astounding rate, and accounting firm Ernst and Young believes it could exceed the U.S. market by 2020, if not sooner.

To better understand the significance of the international trend, look no further than our billion-dollar performers in 2015. Jurassic World made a billion overseas alone, and in China, it took in $228 million. (No other foreign market yielded more than $100 million on its own, though at $99 million, the U.K. came close.) Avengers: Age of Ultron did even better in China, earning $240 million. And Furious 7 was the Chinese golden goose: It made $390 million in China, more than it took in domestically.

So coming back to that list of highest-grossing movies, if you exclude international markets, films from this millennium still seem overrepresented, but you also see the return of names like Star Wars (No. 7), E.T. (No. 11), and The Lion King (No. 14). And once you’ve adjusted for ticket-price inflation — which factors in both currency inflation as well as the increasing popularity of 3-D and Imax — order, so to speak, is restored: Filled with unimpeachable classics, the inflation-adjusted list looks like those rankings the American Film Institute puts out every so often to suggest that quality filmmaking died with the ’90s. Consider inflation and the overseas markets, then, and the problem of recency is solved: Minions has been relegated to its proper place in the footnotes.

But that understates how fundamentally these small changes shift the focus. Without inflation and the overseas markets, just one movie released since 2000, Avatar, ranks in the top 25. This year’s golden boys also see a shift in magnitude: Jurassic World ranks an impressive No. 28, but Avengers: Age of Ultron only comes in at No. 89, and Furious 7 and Minions both rank outside the top 150. A new picture presents itself: In the last 15 years, few films have truly possessed the collective mind of America.

While the box office has never been a fail-safe indicator of artistic merit or cinematic quality — The Sound of Music isn’t exactly Kurosawa, and Forrest Gump is Forrest Gump — truly resonant movies, the type that both gross spectacularly and attract cultural and critical adoration, used to be more common than they are in 2015. Although it might be common belief that mediocrity is rewarded now, the reality of it is a little more complicated: Mediocrity isn’t rewarded, at least not in the way that great movies used to be rewarded. The studios have figured out ways to make money that circumvent a new reality: The American public don't go to theaters with the dedication that they did in the past. But people overseas do — for the right movie.

Now we face a paradox. Being human beings, just like us, international moviegoers deserve the right to see movies they enjoy, just like us, and the money that studios earn from them is no less valuable than the money they earn from Americans and Canadians. But it is also undeniably true that the wider a movie must scan culturally, the broader it must be drawn — which brings us back to the dilemma of where the money moves in Hollywood.

The last ten Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards have made approximately $777 million, or $77 million per picture. The ten before that made $1,987 million, or $198 million per picture. The ten before that made $1,386 million, or $138 million per picture, and now we’re talking about 20 to 30 years ago, so you have to factor in inflation. As a whole, the Oscars are largely considering movies that make far, far less money than they used to.

You could argue that this is a deliberate effort by the Academy to up its credibility — that Oscar voters have turned toward the art house to combat the fatigue they’re feeling from superhero movies and the tsunami of sequels and remakes. You could argue that this is a function of audiences’ disinterest in prestige filmmaking, and that our current equivalent to the New Hollywood auteurs of the ’70s — Paul Thomas Anderson, Terrence Malick, Spike Jonze, and the Coen Brothers, for example — are too weird, too esoteric, and too challenging to appeal to anyone other than cinephiles. You could argue that Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, and Quentin Tarantino are Spielberg enough, and that whether or not the films of Kathryn Bigelow, David O. Russell, Alfonso Cuarón, Darren Aronofsky, Steve McQueen, Gus Van Sant, Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, Lee Daniels, Richard Linklater, Alexander Payne, Ron Howard, Ava DuVernay, and the Gilroy Brothers make all that much money, they’re still as culturally significant a group of filmmakers as those belonging to previous generations.

Most of all, you could argue that it’s the blockbusters that make these fine films possible: that Hollywood is run by a sort of trickle-down economics, and that though the movies making the most right now might not be changing the world, they enable the ones that are. (There are exceptions to even this caveat, of course, as the box-office grosses and critical reception of The Dark Knight and the Lord of the Rings trilogy demonstrate.) But limit the field to films that aren’t based on a preexisting property, and the situation truly flatlines.

In the last five years, there hasn’t been a single original live-action movie that was both nominated for Best Picture and placed inside the top 200 highest-grossing inflation-adjusted movies in domestic box-office history. Inception is closest, at 200 even. Because it’s a franchise film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens won’t reverse this trend. It will, however, provide us with the rare cinematic event that feels both culturally important and commercially explosive in both the classic and modern ways, including those gross-boosting Imax and 3-D showings.  

Even if J.J. Abrams’s behemoth makes more money than any movie in history, though, its true impact will be a little harder to pinpoint. Think of it this way: The Phantom Menace is as reviled a movie as exists, the exact definition for many moviegoers of disappointment. At the same time, it’s the highest-grossing Star Wars movie, and adjusted for inflation, the 17th-highest-grossing film of all time, even if that does relegate it to fourth within the franchise. While the money will almost certainly be better, thanks to those Imax screens and 3-D showings and the generally higher price of admission, there’s no guarantee that The Force Awakens will sell more tickets than The Phantom Menace did. 

By December 18, we’re looking at a possible $100 million in advance tickets sold, the widest domestic rollout in history, and a complete lack of precedent for what to expect. The new Star Wars, The Force Awakens, will be huge: this much is guaranteed. But it still won’t be the new Star Wars.