Star Wars: The Force Awakens toppled Avatar's domestic box-office record after only three weeks in theaters, but it's still a long way off from surpassing the James Cameron sci-fi film's global record of $2.7 billion. So what are Episode VII's chances of becoming the worldwide box-office champ? HitFix asked four box-office experts for their predictions, and the consensus is pretty clear: there's not a snowball's chance in hell.
“I think the chances are slim, slim to none I would say at this point,” said Bruce Nash, founder of the TheNumbers.com. “You know, it's still got a long way to go. I think it will overtake Titanic probably, but I think that based on the numbers we've got so far, it is going to fall short of Avatar's global gross.”
Jeremy Kay, U.S. editor of Screen International, concurs with Nash, noting that The Force Awakens has too much ground to make up to reach the goal: “I think there's very little chance that it will do this,” he said. “To cross Avatar, it's gotta take another billion. And I think the chances of that are extremely slim. It's not gonna happen.”
Currently The Force Awakens stands at around $1.78 billion worldwide — far from chump change, but still miles away from Avatar's total. And unfortunately for Disney, it simply isn't doing the kind of business that would push it over the top in several key international markets, including Germany, South Korea and the biggest one of all: China.
“It's actually underperforming in China, which is disappointing but not that surprising,” said Box Office Prophets founder David Mumpower, who previously predicted that The Force Awakens would overtake Avatar for the global record. Not surprising because prior to 2015, none of the Star Wars films had been theatrically released in China, presenting a challenge for Disney in building awareness for the franchise in a country largely unfamiliar with its relatively complex mythology.
“Last June, [Disney] did the Shangai Film Festival, which was the introduction to the Chinese public of the original franchise,” Mumpower continued. “And they released the prequels again in China specifically, and it did not go well. I want to say, without looking at the numbers right now, the three films in combination didn't earn $20 million in China.”
In terms of overseas appeal, Mumpower compared the film to last year's other massive franchise entry Jurassic World, a sequel that, unlike The Force Awakens, easily crossed cultural barriers (“Everybody understands a giant dinosaur eating stuff,” he noted) and made a huge impression in China, racking up over $228 million by the end of its run. And while it's still too early to tell where The Force Awakens will finish in the country (it only opened this week), Mumpower thinks that reaching the same heights is a bridge too far for a film that requires significantly more awareness-building than a movie about dinos run amok.
“It just faced too big an obstacle,” he continued. “They've been trying and trying and trying to build up the awareness every step of the way, and they're going to get there, because there's already one Disneyland park [in China] and two more on the way. So eventually everybody who goes to Shanghai Disney is going to have high awareness of Star Wars as a brand. But this is the introductory phase.”
Most of the analysts I spoke with agreed that one big key to the massive global gross of Avatar was its novelty, with the marketing campaign around the film promising a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience that had never before been seen.
“Avatar…was really marketed as 'this is the new frontier of technology and the new frontier of cinematic experience,'” noted Box Office Media analyst Daniel Loria. “So even if you weren't a huge fan or weren't really aware of…the story…it did have this 'event' aspect of showcasing the latest technology going into it. Star Wars is certainly a great reflection of top-notch effects…but it doesn't have that whole novelty aspect that Avatar came in with around the world.”
Another advantage Avatar enjoyed was a radically different international marketplace for American films. In 2009, it was possible for a Hollywood blockbuster to enjoy an extended window on overseas screens, but with the global marketplace becoming an increasingly lucrative arena, studios are bumping films faster than ever before to make way for new product.
“Films don't run indefinitely [overseas] now,” said Mumpower. “Studios have started putting in the same model there as they use here, which is they try and get new product in as quickly as possible to make more money faster. They don't want a film to be earning a few hundred thousand, they'd rather get in a project that can earn a few million…So Star Wars probably…isn't going to run long enough to get where it needs to be. And that's really more a credit to how Avatar took advantage of an unprecedented marketplace rather than any type of indictment of Star Wars.”
So where will The Force Awakens ultimately top out globally? With its performance in China still relatively up in the air, analysts are predicting anywhere in the range of $2.1 to $2.4 billion when all is said and done, putting it within striking distance of James Cameron's other worldwide blockbuster Titanic, which currently sits at No. 2 with over $2.18 billion globally.
“I think it'll probably just get over Titanic, but I don't think it'll get over by a massive amount,” said Nash, who made sure to note that the 1997 blockbuster added over $300 million to its gross following a 2012 3D re-release. Whether Disney will similarly mount a re-release of The Force Awakens to push its grosses higher is an open question.
“I'd never put it past a studio to do that, whenever there's an opportunity to make money or to break a record,” said Kay. “Of course they might…they might do that just to get it past Titanic's number.” Then again, with the Star Wars spinoff Rogue One and Episode VIII both slated for release over the next couple of years, Disney may not have the inclination to add more to The Force Awakens' coffers: “I don't know they would do it now,” Kay added. “They've got so much else in the works.”
Despite all the naysaying, one analyst I spoke with wasn't completely willing to rule out The Force Awakens' chances of hitting the No. 1 global spot.
“Disney can do pretty much anything they want,” said Mumpower. “So that's why I'm not speaking in finite terms. If they negotiated deals to keep the film in theaters in an unusual way we don't see in the international marketplace anymore, it has better options. But right now, because China is looking like a miss, it's in trouble. Now if it suddenly did something unexpected in China…then the conversation changes again.”