Can ‘The Force Awakens’ holiday box office ‘halo’ turn Oscar dreams into reality?

It's not 'Avatar' but that might not matter
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As someone who seriously brought up the possibility of “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” as a best picture nominee in October, I’m not adverse to the idea of J.J. Abrams sequel playing the awards season game.  Many forget that George Lucas’ first “Star Wars” was a nominee when there were only five slots available and it’s become a part of Hollywood’s cultural heritage.  That being said, when the film finally screened for critics 10 days ago this pundit didn’t think it was a real contender.  I gave the film a B+ in my review and that was mostly on nostalgia and Harrison Ford’s impressive performance. A week after “The Force Awakens” hit theaters its chances at an invitation to the big party are more in flux and the primary reason might surprise you.

Everyone knew “The Force Awakens’” box office would be big, but no film had ever opened over $100 million domestically in December even when pre-release tracking indicated it might (i.e, “The Hobbit” franchise).  The holiday season is full of distractions and moviegoers also have more time to catch films over the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve when a good chunk of Americans are on at least a partial vacation.  Much to even Walt Disney Studios’ surprise, however, “Episode VII” not only took the all-time three-day record, but it shattered the previous mark by earning a whopping $247.9 million domestic.  And it hasn’t come close to slowing down.  “The Force Awakens” broke the Christmas day record with $49.44 million and should surpass $550 million by end of day Sunday, it’s 10th day of release.  Still, any Oscar watcher will tell you box office matters until it doesn’t.  Or, conversely, box office doesn’t matter until it does.  That’s part of the story here.

Where “The Force Awakens” is eye-popping is the “halo” effect on the rest of the marketplace (credit to Deadline for leading with this term first).  Many distributors believed the blockbuster might suck up consumer interest and its one reason why many films moved off the Christmas weekend (“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”) or decided to go limited first (“Hateful Eight,” “The Revenant”).   It turns out the exact opposite is occurring.  “The Force Awakens” has actually driven so much interest that almost every other film in the marketplace is over-performing.

“Daddy’s Home,” one of the worst reviewed comedies of Will Ferrell’s career, is looking at a $44 million three-day.  That’s a remarkable $10-15 million over the most bullish projections from the studio or its competitors and the second biggest opening of Ferrell’s career (Mark Wahlberg’s participation doesn’t hurt).  David O. Russell’s former Oscar player “Joy,” which earned middling reviews, is expected to take in a strong $21 million.  That 20th Century Fox release had been pegged for just a $15-18 million debut.  Universal Pictures’ “Sisters” will earn more over its second weekend than its first.  “The Big Short” is looking at $10-11 million in just 1,500 or so engagements and that is double what tracking indicated.  Films such as “Spotlight” and “Brooklyn” lost up to half their screens and are dropping just 15-21%.

Films that are just in limited release are also performing much better than anticipated.  The three-hour plus roadshow engagements for “The Hateful Eight” should take in $5 million in just 100 theaters for a stellar $50,000 per screen average. “The Revenant” should end up with $120,000 per screen in just four theaters (that would be the second highest per screen this year).  And even films that are not turning into substantial hits, “Concussion” and “Point Break,” are still exceeding expectations.

If this continues through the New Year (and there’s no indication it won’t), there will be a slew of think pieces (technically this might be one of them) pushing the narrative that “Star Wars” brought a happy holiday not just to the Walt Disney Corporation, but almost everyone in the industry.  And that just won’t be in the trades, but major outlets and news organizations.  It will be hard to ignore and perfectly timed for Oscar ballot voting which ends on Jan. 8.

“Star Wars” also earned a boatload of strong, almost “rave” reviews from some of the nation’s biggest critics.  It currently has an 81 on Metacritic and 94% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.  But, there are still a number of hurdles it has to overcome because despite fan comparisons it’s not “Avatar” which had a somewhat unexpected Oscar run seven years ago. While both set records at the box office, there are some major differences that are key when putting it in the context of an awards season campaign.

First, “Avatar” screened for the press and industry weeks before “The Force Awakens.”  The latter is a very late arrival and physical screeners have not been sent to the Academy (as far as we know).  That’s significant considering the short time frame between its national release and when the nomination process ends.  You’ll need a hardcore group of at least 300 voters to have seen it in theaters (or in one of two official Academy screenings in the organization’s large Samuel Goldwyn Theater) and vote for it as their number one choice.  That’s not as easy as it sounds.

Second, “Avatar” was positioned by Fox co-chairs Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman as a cinematic breakthrough (which it was) months before its release.  This was partially part of the studio’s strategy to position Jim Cameron’s epic as a “must-see,” but it also made the Academy view it as something beyond a silly, Sci-Fi fantasy.  Cameron’s use of motion-capture was seen as a major leap even after Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the 3-D immersive world was also a substantial art-form pushing achievement. “The Force Awakens” has not been positioned to the Academy or campaigned in such a way whatsoever.

Third, Fox had a significant awards campaign budget for “Avatar” including For Your Consideration ads that was in effect weeks before the film was released.  It also had the benefit of pushing the picture’s Golden Globe nominations and numerous top 10 lists and/or Best Picture of the Year proclamations.  “Star Wars” was just added as a Best Movie player to the Critics Choice Awards (an embarrassment to their voting process), but that’s about it.

Fourth, Cameron had already directed multi-Oscar winner “Titanic” (the highest grossing film ever before “Avatar”) and had a track record of pictures that moved the industry forward both technically and artistically (“Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “The Abyss”).  No disrespect to Abrams, but he’s never been considered in the same league as someone of Cameron’s stature.

These differences may caution your own individual enthusiasm for a “Star Wars” best picture nod, but that “halo” effect may be key here.  When “Avatar” debuted many still expected “Sherlock Holmes,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “It’s Complicated” to be hits and they were.  Very few people believed “The Force Awakens” could allow for the same expansion of the marketplace whether nationwide or in limited release.  It’s rare you have a cultural phenomenon of this stature, one on track to break the $800 million mark domestically that encourages people to see other films.  Yes, Academy members need a film to hit the “pedigree” criteria to feel compelled to vote for it, but there may just be enough here to warrant the vote (see those overly euphoric reviews).  Especially if they fell for the nostalgia as much as millions of other moviegoers did.

With effectively two weeks left of voting there are some key questions to ask. Can Disney throw together a For Your Consideration campaign that has significant impact before ballots are due?  (And is it their corporate responsibility to do so for sister company and Oscar broadcaster ABC which would kill for “The Force Awakens” to be in the race?)  Does a “Star Wars” inclusion mean 10 nominees for the first time since the new voting rules or is a worthy contender kicked out because of it?  With one of the most wide-open Best Supporting Actor races in recent memory could Harrison Ford make the cut?  If Abrams earns a DGA nomination and the film earns a PGA nod is a “Star Wars” Best Picture nomination an effective lock?

Needless to say, in a year where it’s taken longer to land on a frontrunner than many expected (that’s “Spotlight” if you haven’t been paying attention) and so many key races are still in play the Force may prove we haven’t seen anything yet.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.
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