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Star Wars: The Fall of the Box Office

‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ disappointed with an opening weekend gross far below expectations.
Star Wars The Rise Of Skywalker Ending
By  · Published on December 23rd, 2019

The final installment of the Skywalker Saga should have broken box office records.

When the original Star Wars opened in 1977, the movie didn’t set a new weekend high but its 1978 re-release did and at that time propelled the feature to become the highest-grossing film of all time. It’s still one of the biggest moneymakers ever when the amount is adjusted for inflation. Five years later, the third installment of the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi, set a new domestic opening-weekend record.

In 1999, the franchise returned with Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, which had one of the best openings ever at the time by a long shot and came very close to breaking the record held by The Lost World: Jurassic Park. In 2002 and 2005, respectively, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith set new worldwide opening weekend records.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuted in 2015, and the franchise reached more record-breaking figures in the US and globally ($248 million). Two years ago, the next installment, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, came close with a second-placing domestic gross ($220 million). Now, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker failed to even crack the $200 million mark domestically. The finale’s opening in the US/Canada ($175.5 million) is on par with the Beauty and the Beast remake.

Here are some more movies that surprisingly had better opening weekends than The Rise of Skywalker, with inflation or actual ticket sales considered: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Spider-Man 3, Iron Man 3, The Dark Knight Rises, Incredibles 2, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the final Harry Potter installment, The Deathly Hallows – Part 2.

Rather than looking at the grosses and explaining the contexts of time and inflation, here’s a breakdown of the series plus the other Star Wars theatrical features by estimated opening weekend attendance numbers:

Star Wars (1977): 0.7 million (per theater: 16,211)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980): 1.8 million (per theater: 14,488)
Return of the Jedi (1983): 7.3 million (per theater: 7,293)

The Phantom Menace (1999): 12.8 million (per theater: 4,296)
Attack of the Clones (2002): 13.8 million (per theater: 4,358)
Revenge of the Sith (2005): 16.9 million (per theater: 4,620)

The Force Awakens (2015): 29.4 million (per theater: 7,115)
The Last Jedi (2017): 24.5 million (per theater: 5,796)
The Rise of Skywalker (2019): 19.5 million (per theater: 4,420)

The Clone Wars (2008): 2 million (per theater: 590)
Rogue One (2016): 17.9 million (per theater: 4,312)
Solo (2018): 9.3 million (per theater: 2,115)

The sequel trilogy is the only one of the Star Wars trilogies to go down with each opening. The original trilogy does decrease incrementally with its per-theater averages, but let’s not forget that those movies’ initial screen counts were as low as 43, 126, and 1,002, respectively (The Rise of Skywalker opened on 4,406 screens). Not even Star Wars sequels were so frontloaded then as they are now because of fewer locations and longer runs in theaters.

The up-down-up rule for trilogies tends to apply with final grosses. The original trilogy’s order of financial success goes Star Wars > Return of the Jedi > The Empire Strikes Back. The prequel trilogy’s order goes The Phantom Menace > Revenge of the Sith > Attack of the Clones. But it’s now hard to believe that The Rise of Skywalker will wind up lapping The Last Jedi to finish in second place for the sequel trilogy.

The opening for Episode IX of the Skywalker Saga definitely fell below expectations. Back in October, Box Office Pro set its forecast range at $185-225 million with a central prediction of $200 million. Still below the other two in the trilogy but pretty hopeful. Last week, following disappointing buzz and reviews, the site lowered the forecast range to $160-190 million with a central prediction of $183 million. Following Thursday night previews, other experts guessed at least $195 million.

It’s not surprising, of course, given that negative buzz and critical reception. Reviews for The Rise of Skywalker have been scathing, giving the live-action side of the franchise its worst Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores since The Phantom Menace. But this isn’t just another matter of critics versus fans. Moviegoers also showed signs of disappointment by giving the movie a B+, which is the live-action franchise’s only grade below an A-. Even Solo received better marks.

While the buzz may temper after more people respond to the negative reactions with a shrug of “it’s not that bad,” The Rise of Skywalker continues to draw criticisms based on further developments about its narrative faults. Revelations have come about in the press over details only found in books, video games, and director Q&As that fans wish had been included or clearer in the actual movie. It’s not as bad as Cats updating its VFX throughout the weekend, but it’s still unfortunate.

There’s always China, right? Well, Hollywood’s favorite country for box office gross these days hasn’t always been the fondest with this franchise. Despite the hype in early 2016 that The Force Awakens broke a Saturday record in China, the movie’s overall opening there was much lower than other releases around that time, including the latest installments of the Fast & Furious, Jurassic Park/World, and Avengers franchises.

Two years later, The Last Jedi opened even lower in China and then fell tremendously after that: 92% down in its second weekend. Many theater chains pulled the sequel following that drop. Now, The Rise of Skywalker is performing even worse, opening in fourth place in the country (without considering early previews) and unlikely to crack the top 50 grossers in China for the year. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out had a better opening.

More broadly, The Rise of Skywalker had the 17th best worldwide opening of all time with $373.5 million, compared to The Force Awakens currently being in third place and The Last Jedi in eighth. Movies with better global debuts include Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain Marvel, The Fate of the Furious, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. If inflation factored with the international box office, there’d be a lot more.

Fortunately for Disney and Lucasfilm, this isn’t the end of the world. The Star Wars series The Mandalorian continues to be a pop culture phenomenon right now, even if it’s hardly the most-watched thing on Disney+, and the company has the hottest theme park attractions in years with its Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge area and rides at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. And eventually, they’ll figure out what they want to do and how to be significant with theatrical releases again.

At the moment, though, it’s having its worst life. Not even the bigger bomb that is Cats can take the media’s attention away from the relative box office disappointment of The Rise of Skywalker. Usually, a movie that tops the charts in its opening weekend and makes as much money as this has would still be spun positively, yet headlines from major news outlets including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Fox Business feature words like “just” and “fails.” with NYT pointing out that its “soft start” helped keep the yearly box office attendance below 2018.

The Rise of Skywalker? More like the Fall of Skywalker.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.