Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker overcame certain dark-side forces this past weekend — namely, lukewarm reviews, a 58 percent “freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and failure to live up to the sky-high box-office expectation set by 2015’s The Force Awakens — to reap an estimated $176 million in domestic ticket sales, undershooting preliminary box-office tracking estimates for its opening by around $25 million but still ranking in the top-three December-movie debuts of all time.
The dense-with-exposition, Easter egg-packed wrap-up to George Lucas’s generation-spanning space opera fell 29 percent short of The Force Awakens’ $247 million opening-box-office take and, more surprisingly, 20 percent below the numbers posted by its follow-up, 2017’s polarizing The Last Jedi (whose financial performance The Rise of Skywalker was widely expected to replicate). The critically beloved, Rian Johnson–directed movie earned $220 million over its debut weekend but also enraged die-hard fanboys with perceived diversions from canonical Star Wars elements (and, more generally, screwing with expectations about the parentage of Daisy Ridley’s Rey and the significance of characters like Supreme Leader Snoke). The finale, which like The Force Awakens was written and directed by J.J. Abrams, managed to haul in $373.5 million globally despite arriving as the worst-reviewed Star Wars film since 1999’s The Phantom Menace. If estimates hold, that rollout will count as the 12th-biggest opening of all time.
According to Erik Davis, managing editor of Fandango, such an enormous but not quite intergalactic rush to the multiplex could be indicative of Skywalker’s positioning amid a glut of recent Star Wars content. The last few months have seen a new TV show (Disney+’s The Mandalorian), book (Resistance Reborn by Rebecca Roanhorse), Fortnite video-game tie-in, and a theme-park attraction (Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland).
“[Disney] expanded [Lucasfilm] greatly,” Davis says, pointing to the franchise’s evolution since the former bought the latter for $4 billion in 2012. “That expansion has been met with a lot of happiness and joy, but then some critics have been critical of it. Now there’s a significant amount of pressure. But the biggest driver here is that this film is going to end the story and give people a sort of resolution. The general opinion is that audiences are thrilled to see this film.”
Only in Hollywood could a $176 million opening, from a blockbuster all but guaranteed to cross the $1 billion mark in global grosses, be considered something of an anticlimax. Disney, for its part, had downplayed prerelease earnings estimates, ball-parking Skywalker’s opening-three-day tally at around $165 million. (Worth nothing: The Force was particularly weak in China, where Rise of Skywalker ranked fourth over its opening, facing stiff theatrical competition from local blockbusters, to log the weakest showing to date for any of the recent Star Wars entries.) Moreover, in an earnings-call announcement earlier this year, Disney chairman Robert Iger affirmed there will be no new Star Wars–branded motion pictures until 2022 at the earliest, thanks, in large part, to the franchise fatigue caused by Disney’s one-per-year release of either stand-alone films (such as Rogue One and Solo: A Star Wars Story) or trilogy entries since 2015.
In the end, Skywalker wasn’t considered much of a match for The Force Awakens, which broke multiple box-office records for highest-grossing opening weekend and fastest film to break the $1 billion threshold, clocking an eventual worldwide gross of over $2 billion. Which isn’t to say Disney didn’t try: Skywalker “preview” screenings began Thursday at 5 p.m. (and ran with showtimes as late as 2 a.m.) before expanding into 4,406 North American theaters, a new record for a December release.
To hear it from Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian, a confluence of factors made The Force Awakens ticketing bonanza a once-in-a-generation occurrence. “The Force Awakens was the culmination of so much anticipation and anxiety for fans,” he says. “If you look back at Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith — those movies were liked, but they were not loved. Then, after many, many years, there’s a new take on Star Wars. People were so relieved and thrilled after the first reviews for The Force Awakens came out. I don’t think you could replicate that.”
As Fandango’s Davis sees it, however, Skywalker’s box-office returns should be viewed as incontrovertibly robust. “I mean, really? You’re looking at why it is going to make a billion and a half versus $2 billion?” Davis says. “It’s just bonkers. To have a film that can gross over a billion dollars worldwide and say that’s not special … Maybe it’s not as special as when George Lucas was releasing one film every three years. But of course it is special.”