Predicting "The Last Jedi"

The trailer for The Last Jedi is out! Tickets are on sale! I've unsubbed from r/StarWars because I'm on spoiler alert! That means it's time to start guessing how much The Last Jedi is going to make at the box office!

Back when The Force Awakens came out, we all knew it was going to be big, but we were struggling with how to define it. When you're working on box office projections, you look at the soon-to-be-released film, compile a list of similar films to compare it to, and then use the box office performances of those films to come up with a guess of how the film in question will perform. For example, I would bet that 99% of people coming up with box office projections for Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to an 80s sci-fi thriller, compared it to Mad Max: Fury Road, a sequel to an 80s spec-fi action film.

There was nothing for The Force Awakens.

There was some who immediately wanted to compare it to Avatar. It too was a major blockbuster that had a December release, so surely The Force Awakens would perform similarly. A smaller opening weekend compared to your summer blockbuster—Avatar only made $87 million opening weekend—but it'll make up for that with long legs. But that comparison didn't feel right. Compared to The Force AwakensAvatar had been a quiet release. Star Wars hype was everywhere leading up to December. With every trailer, the fanbase would get more excited—from what we could tell, every problem and quibble we had about the prequels was being addressed. Industry tracking about audience awareness indicated that 100% of Americans knew that a new Star Wars film was coming out. You would've had to live in the mountains with no internet or human contact for at least five years to not know that a new Star Wars film was coming out. The hype was real.

Yet people still persisted in comparing The Force Awakens to other December releases. No December release had an opening weekend over $100 million, they'd say. Maybe Star Wars can, but there's no way in hell it'll cross $200 million. The most it could do was $175 million, and that's if the pun-intended stars aligned. r/boxoffice was convinced that anyone who thought it could hit $200 million on it's opening weekend was a fanboy, and had no idea what they were talking about. It's not that these people were necessarily wrong or foolish. They were trying to apply conventional wisdom to a film that increasingly looked like it would have an unconventional performance. I bucked the conventional wisdom. and sometime in November I had settled around a $215 million opening weekend. But as the opening day approached, I had good reason to doubt my numbers. A contact in-the-know offered insight into Disney's internal numbers: The Force Awakens had already sold $175 million in tickets for opening weekend, and we were still a week-and-a-half from release. After the initial sale of tickets in October, ticket sales had seemingly flatlined, but as we approached opening day, people were buying tickets almost as fast as theaters were putting them on sale. To this day I'm surprised this info never leaked—there's a reason why I noted that my $215 million estimate was conservative.

A few weeks before The Force Awakens opened, I was talking with the theater's then programmer and its former programmer—these were the guys who scheduled the showtimes and did the internal box office projections for our location1—and one posited the theory that we needed use a "historical comp" for The Force Awakens. Conventional box office prediction looks at recent releases; anything older than three to four years is out of date. Even comparing The Force Awakens to Avatar was pushing it, and the only reason Avatar was even brought up was that people were struggling to come up with recent films that felt like an accurate comparison. During our conversation, we concluded that the only film that had the same cultural awareness and hype was The Phantom Menace.

The only thing you can use to predict Star Wars is Star Wars.

When Rogue One was getting closer to release, I decided to test this theory. Management at the theater was prepping for Rogue One to be only slightly smaller than The Force Awakens. I argued that The Force Awakens was a statistical outlier. Since we couldn't find good comparisons for The Force Awakens, we then shouldn't use it to make predictions. It was its own beast, and to even think that anything would come close again in the near future was foolish. I decided that the best comparison film was, of all things, Revenge of the Sith. I felt that Revenge of the Sith had two things going for it. 1) It had been received warmly by the fanbase. 2) The latter two prequel films had little appeal in the general audience. Rogue One's marketing, and Disney's own expectations, made me think that they were expecting this film to appeal mainly to the fans, and not so strongly with the general audience. And since the fans had been energized by The Force AwakensRogue One would be greeted by an appreciative audience.

BoxOfficeMojo has a handy little feature that lets you adjust a film's box office gross as if it had been released a different year. The tool is by no means scientific, but it's good enough for what I needed. I adjusted Revenge of the Sith to get a 2016 estimate and got this: Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith - $380,270,577 Actual / $513,157,600 Adjusted to 2016Rogue One would go on to gross $532,177,324, a variance of $19,019,724, or 3.574%. So, while not perfect, it's pretty damn good.

At the time, I hadn't thought to try and use Revenge of the Sith to estimate an opening weekend gross for Rogue One. How audiences see movies has changed since 2005—over time, opening weekends have increasingly represented larger and larger chunks of the total gross. So, instead of looking at Revenge of the Sith's opening weekend numbers, a better idea would be to apply a multiplier to the anticipated total gross. If you've never followed box office results before, a multiplier is basically another way of saying how much of the film's total was made on opening weekend. For example, a multiplier of 2 would mean that a film's total gross will be double what it made opening weekend. A multiplier of 3 would mean its total gross would be three times the opening weekend numbers. In short, a higher multiplier is better. The average 'well-performing' blockbuster typically has a multiplier in the 3.0-3.5 range. So, if we take the adjusted Revenge of the Sith gross, and divide it by your average multiplier, 3.3, you would get an approximate opening weekend total of $155,502,300Rogue One made $155,081,681. So while the math is by no means perfect, it can at least get us in the ballpark.

So now, for The Last Jedi, the trick is figuring out what exactly we should use as a comparison. So let's look at all the Star Wars films, in release order and with adjusted grosses:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - $936,662,225
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - $532,177,324
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith - $380,270,577 Actual / $513,157,600 Adjusted to 2016
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones - $302,191,252 Actual / $449,906,100 Adjusted to 2016
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace - $431,088,295 Actual / $733,743,200 Adjusted to 2016
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi - $252,583,617 Actual / $700,506,300 Adjusted to 2016
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back - $209,398,025 Actual / $682,158,400 Adjusted to 2016
Star Wars: A New Hope - $307,263,857 Actual / 1,234,649,200 Adjusted to 2016

Here's that info as a handy dandy chart:
 

"Star Wars" Box Office Grosses (Adjusted)

Total Grosses adjusted using BoxOfficeMojo.com

While we might be quick to jump on the first obvious trend—that the second film each trilogy sees a considerable drop—I think using that to deduce potential box office numbers for The Last Jedi is a trap. The drop from A New Hope to The Empire Strikes Back is a whopping 44.75%, and Attack of the Clones sees an equally stunning 38.78% drop from The Phantom Menace. If The Last Jedi were to see a similar drop from The Force Awakens, the box office gross would only be $545 million. There are easy explanations for the earlier drops. Not only did The Empire Strikes Back receive a mediocre response upon its releaseA New Hope was such a massive hit, anything following was going to see a considerable drop. And Attack of the Clones was not only poorly received, but many in the fanbase felt like they’d been burnt by The Phantom Menace. However, a $545 million gross would align this film with the performances of Revenge of the Sith and Rogue One. If this ends up being the final result, I see two possible reasons: Critics and the fans find The Last Jedi to be lacking, or the potential gross of the average Star Wars film is around $550 million. Either way, a result like this would be troubling for Disney and Lucasfilm.

However, I think we can take a more optimistic appraisal. First, both The Force Awakens and Rogue One were well received by fans and critics alike, so there's definitely more goodwill going into The Last Jedi. Secondly, Deadline already has tracking indicating that presale tickets are outperforming Rogue One, and are "just under" The Force Awakens. Finally, I think we should look more closely at the box office performances of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Phantom Menace. Why these three films instead of any of the others is simple. Both A New Hope and The Force Awakens are such extreme examples, that it's best to consider them to be statistical anomalies—including them would only skew the results. Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith had been released to a leery fanbase and disinterested public after The Phantom Menace. While there is definitely an instinct to lump in The Phantom Menace with the other prequels, from a box office perspective, the film was largely unaffected by the scorn it developed among the fanbase. And Rogue One was intended to be a "smaller" release compared to the "Saga" films. That leaves The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Phantom Menace. If these three films are indicative of the average performance of a Star Wars saga film, than the average potential domestic gross is around $705 million.

But how about the opening weekend? The Force Awakens had a multiplier of 3.78 and Rogue One had a multiplier of 3.43. I would hazard a guess that The Last Jedi will perform closer to Rogue One than it will to The Force Awakens—it was the sequel many had been waiting over 30 years for, it was destined to over-perform. So let’s guess that a typical Star Wars film performs with a 3.4 multiplier. So, a $705 million gross with a 3.4 multiplier gets us an opening weekend number of $207 million.

The method used to get these numbers is by no means scientific, but this gives us decent guidance for The Last Jedi, and possibly for future Star Wars releases.