The Theatrical Release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is Over, And It Was Impressive

By  · Published on June 8th, 2016

Disney proved that in today’s box office world, speed matters.

Still thinking about catching the highest grossing domestic release of all-time? Think again, as Star Wars: The Force Awakens exited theaters this week after 24 weeks of unprecedented box office prosperity. If you missed it in theaters, you’re going to have to wait for the inevitable re-release. Or you can buy it on Blu-ray like everyone else.

Now that its time in theaters has come to a close, it’s important to take a moment and recognize the historic nature of its run. It didn’t knock off Avatar for the all-time worldwide box office crown, but J.J. Abrams’ legacyquel did set plenty of records, including:

The list goes on. But here’s the most impressive stat about the release. In the first week of January, The Force Awakens overtook Avatar as the highest grossing domestic release of all-time. It had been in theaters for about 20 days. Avatar’s mark – $760 million – was achieved over 318 days and two separate releases. That illustrates the difference in how the market consumes theatrical releases and how said consumption has changed over the years. In 1997, it took Titanic 41 weeks of release to earn its then-record $658 million at the box office. In 2009, Avatar smashed that record in 34 weeks, ending its initial run at $760 million.

Even The Force Awakens’ more contemporary competition, the record-breaking Jurassic World, spent 23 weeks in release to earn its $652 million dollar total.

This all illustrates the most impressive thing about the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It did not require the kind of longevity that previous record holders had needed to earn their very high box office marks. In fact, the release of The Force Awakens was all about velocity out of the gate. In a market that prioritizes opening weekends and moves quickly to get films to home video, Star Wars beat other box office titans by being bigger and faster all at once. Consider this: it was available to buy on-demand within 15 weeks of its theatrical release. But by that time, it had already earned the top domestic box office spot of all-time.

It’s more impressive when you look at The Force Awakens’ velocity compared to the other films at the top of the all-time domestic chart. Here is what each of these releases earned within their first 3 weeks of release:

While all five of these movies would go on to clear $600 million domestically, this shows a distinctive trend in the way audiences are consuming new releases. If you – you being the studio releasing the film – can’t get your audience to see your film early and often, you have no chance of competing with the box office titans. For context, consider one of 2016’s loudest releases, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which set an all-time Easter opening weekend record with $166 million. By the end of its third week, it had only barely crossed the $300 million mark, placing it in between the (unadjusted for inflation) totals of Titanic and Avatar. The Force Awakens opened to $390 million in its first week, then added another $260 million in week two.

It’s not entirely fair to compare Star Wars and Batman v Superman – regardless of what you feel about their respective quality. In Star Wars, we have the added intensity of one of the most popular cinematic brands of all-time having laid dormant for over a decade, while both Batman and Superman franchises have been on-again-off-again in theaters through the years. The immediate demand for a new Star Wars film was far more intense. But what we can learn is that longterm box office success in the modern market is about how the movie opens and how it continues to perform in the two to three weeks that follow its opening. In this regard, The Force Awakens is less of an outlier and more of the intensification of a natural market shift.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)