The ninth and final chapter of the Star Wars “Skywalker” saga earned an estimated $175.5 million at the weekend box office, the third best December opening of all time, but some analysts are predicting trouble for the franchise, citing the film’s mixed reviews and the first opening weekend audience score for a major Disney Star Wars release that wasn’t an “A” grade.  Whatever the eventual fate of The Rise of Skywalker and the Star War franchise, Episode IX gave the box office a major boost, sending it 32% over the same frame a year ago when Aquaman opened with $67.9 million.

While it might appear to be difficult to regard a film like Star Wars: Episode IX-The Rise of Skywalker, which opens with $175.5 million domestic and $198 million overseas for a 3-day global total of $373.5 million, as a “disappointment,” analysts are discovering chinks in the armor of the once dominant franchise.  Episode IX has garnered mixed reviews (only 57% positive on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes) and the lowest audience CinemaScore of the 3 major Disney Star Wars films (a “B+” versus the “A” grades for the previous films).  Most disconcerting to analysts was the drop-off between Friday and Sunday (Episode IX was the first Disney Star Wars film in which Friday admissions made up 50% of the total weekend gross), which could also be explained by the fact that Saturday and Sunday were expected to be among the biggest shopping days of the year with Christmas falling on a Wednesday this year.  It is too early to predict the staying power of Episode IX—in fact it may take several weeks to see how the final Skywalker film “legs” it out.

Opening weekend audiences for Episode IX skewed male (59%) and older with 64% of the crowd over 25.  The film’s “just OK” “B+” CinemaScore has to be a bit disconcerting for Disney, though a  competing audience tracking service (Post-Trak) presented a more positive view of the audience’s assessment of the film.  Disney hoped that bring back director J.J. Abrams, who helmed the hugely successful Star Wars: The Force Awakens, would put some juice back in the franchise.  With the Mouse House planning to launch a new series (of non-Skywalker-centric Star Wars films) in December of 2022 (when it will face direct competition from Aquaman II), the studio did not want to end the Skywalker portion of the franchise on a down note—the jury is still out, but it appears now that there might be some cracks in the foundation of the cinema’s most successful science fiction franchise to date.

While Episode IX’s overseas earnings look impressive—the $198 million represents revenue from almost all of the major world markets—and Episode IX is trending a bit behind the previous two major Disney Star Wars releases.  Unlike say the Fast and Furious movies, the most recent of which earned just 22.9% of its worldwide total here in the domestic market, Star Wars has always been a predominantly North American box office phenomenon with overseas grosses only accounting for about 50% of the films’ overall totals.  Part of the reason is that the Chinese, who make up the world’s second biggest movie market (and soon to become #1), don’t really care for the franchise—Episode IX earned just $12.2 million in its first weekend in the Middle Kingdom.

With a production cost that reportedly reached nearly $300 million, Episode IX will have to make three-quarters of a billion just to break even.   Disney, which already has six films so far in 2019 that have earned a billion, is hoping that Episode IX will be the seventh.

Weekend Box Office (Studio Estimates): December 20-22, 2019

 

Film

Weekend Gross

Screens

Avg./Screen

Total Gross

Wk#

1

Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker

$175,500,000

4,406

$39,832

$175,500,000

1

2

Jumanji: The Next Level

$26,125,000

4,227

$6,180

$101,936,365

2

3

Frozen II

$12,300,000

3,665

$3,356

$386,533,961

5

4

Cats

$6,500,000

3,380

$1,923

$6,500,000

1

5

Knives Out

$6,125,000

2,535

$2,416

$89,573,909

4

6

Bombshell

$5,075,000

1,480

$3,429

$5,484,281

2

7

Richard Jewell

$2,565,000

2,502

$1,025

$9,517,518

2

8

Queen & Slim

$1,850,000

1,078

$1,716

$36,598,765

4

9

Black Christmas

$1,800,000

2,625

$685

$7,248,650

2

10

Ford v Ferrari

$1,800,000

1,433

$1,256

$101,961,608

6

Last week’s winner Jumanji: The Next Level dipped 56% in its second frame, which is not bad considering it was up against the debut of a Star Wars film.  The Next Level earned an estimated $26.1 million to bring its domestic total to $101.9 million, making it the 28th film of 2019 to pass that milestone (there were 35 films in 2018 that earned over $100K).  The big question for Jumanji: The Next Level is whether it will be able to forge a “leggy” run now that the opening of Episode IX has run its course.

Disney’s Frozen II earned $12.2 million to bring its domestic total to $386 million, and with overseas earnings of $717 million, the animated musical has now earned $1.103 billion, making it the fourth biggest animated release of all time (not adjusted for inflation).

Fourth place went to Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the Broadway musical Cats, which earned just $6.5 million from 3,380 locations, which puts it in the “top 20” of all time worst openings in more than 3,000 venues.  With just a 19% positive rating from the critics surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes, and a lousy “C+” CinemaScore from opening weekend audiences, Cats appears to be in big trouble, given its $100 million production cost and meager overseas earnings so far (just $11 million).  While other musicals, most notably The Greatest Showman, opened weakly during the holidays ($8.8 million), but parlayed that into a sterling $184 million domestic box office run, it doesn’t appear that Cats, with its “C+” CinemaScore, has the appeal to pull off a lengthy run.

Rian Johnson’s old school murder mystery Knives Out continued its solid run, dropping just 33% in its fourth weekend as it earned $6.1 million to bring its domestic total to $89.6 million.  Knives Out should make it past the $100 million mark in the next week or two.

Debuting in sixth place was Jay Roach’s Bombshell, a well-reviewed film about the sexual harassment case that brought down Roger Ailes of Fox News.  Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie play the women who brought down arguably the most powerful man in American media.  While Bombshell earned just $5 million in its first week of wide release—the film was only in about 1,480 theaters, and it posted the third best per-venue average in the top ten, trailing only Episode IX and Jumanji: The Next Level.

Bombshell is a serious film that is never going be mistaken for a holiday blockbuster, but it could get extra life from awards nominations, and will probably take its time to reach its adult target audience.  Opening weekend crowds skewed heavily female (62%) and older with 87% over 25.

Be sure to check back here next weekend to see what happened during Christmas week with a slew of movies debuting on Christmas Day including the animated Spies In Disguise from Blue Sky Studios, and Greta Gerwig’s acclaimed adaptation of Little Women, along with the expansion of the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, which stars Adam Sandler in a “serious role.”