Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Will Box Office Records Affect Its Legacy?

We look at how the record-breaking Star Wars: The Force Awakens stacks up to the biggest film classics ever.

By now, you probably already know about the records that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has broken, from its biggest single opening day ($119 million) to the biggest opening weekend ($248 million), and from being the highest grossing movie of 2015 with $1.7 billion worldwide (thus far) to being the uncontested highest grossing movie in North America ever.

And it’s not done yet. The Force Awakens crossed the $750 million mark after just 20 days, and it probably has three months or more to go in theaters. This past weekend alone, it added another $42 million to its take, bringing it over the $800 million mark, which is brand new territory for the domestic box office. Yet, even with its box office milestones, I doubt anyone is quite ready to call Star Wars: The Force Awakens a “classic” at the moment. But with the dust far from settled, one wonders what the legacy might be for J.J. Abrams’ revival of the popular franchise.

Before we look into any lofty expectations for the film’s future, we first need to look at the significance of those box office numbers and how they might fit into the mix. Whenever one wants to compare current box office numbers with any movies from the past, there’s a little something called “inflation” that needs to be taken into account. You may have heard the term “adjusted for inflation” bandied about in recent years, and it’s an important consideration. That box office record held by James Cameron’s Avatar for six years prior to The Force Awakens was based on the ticket prices for 2009, which were lower than they are now.

There are also a lot more premium IMAX and 3D theaters today than there were when Avatar came out, which should also be taken into consideration. Currently, an IMAX 3D ticket for Star Wars: The Force Awakens in New York City would cost $21.59, which is probably $3 to $5 more than the highest priced ticket for Avatar in 2009.

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And before Avatar, James Cameron’s previous movie, Titanic, held the domestic gross record for over 12 years, opening during the winter of 1997 and grossing $600 million total (it would add another $50 million from various rereleases). When adjusted for 18 years of inflation, Titanic is said to have grossed $1.2 billion (or 93 percent more) due to increase in ticket prices during that time. Titanic was also nominated for 14 Oscars and won 11, which may have contributed to its longevity, which we’ll discuss again below.

It wasn’t until Cameron’s 2009 follow-up, Avatar, that we’d see Titanic’s astounding domestic gross be bested when the 3D outer space fantasy grossed $749.7 million in 2009. Adjusted for six years of inflation, that would be $837 million—which Star Wars: The Force Awakens will also very likely surpass.

Meanwhile, two other movies in the last three years—Marvel’s The Avengers and Jurassic World—have passed Titanic’s $600 million mark, but it’s been a rarity when not accounting for inflation.

The increase in ticket prices and the number of movie theaters that have opened over the past decade plus—including many premium IMAX and 3D-capable theaters—also makes it easier for movies to open as big as Star Wars: The Force Awakens has just done.

Before 2002, it was unheard of for a movie to open with more than $100 million, and we’ve had 33 movies do just that since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Marvel’s The Avengers was the first movie to open with more than $200 million in a single weekend, and that’s been surpassed twice in the last year, first by Jurassic World and then by Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But neither The Avengers nor Jurassic World seem like movies people will be talking about 40 years from now either.

But let’s go back to the Star Wars franchise and how The Force Awakens fits in with what’s come before it.

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Beyond James Cameron’s movies—and before all the Dark Knight and Hunger Games, and Avengers movies—the biggest domestic grossers were the original Star Wars and its 1999 prequel, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. (You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that has anything nice to say about that movie over 15 years later.)

The original Star Wars opened on May 25, 1977 and earned $307 million in its original run at 1977 ticket prices, but that’s $1.5 billion (nearly five times that much) when accounting for 38 years of ticket inflation. It would go on to get multiple rereleases over the years in various formats, including a high-profile 1997 “Special Edition,” which added another $153 million. That $460 million would make it the highest grossing non-Cameron movie until the release of The Phantom Menace, which noticeably enjoyed a similar bump in interest to what we’ve just seen with The Force Awakens.

Star Wars was nominated for 10 Oscars and won six of them, plus a special achievement Oscar for sound effects designer Ben Burtt, who would go on to win that Oscar twice more. The Phantom Menace was nominated for three technical Oscars and won none by comparison. I think it’s pretty evident which film has sustained a bigger legacy.

Before the release of Star Wars, the shark thriller Jaws, directed by George Lucas pal Steven Spielberg, was the biggest movie of the summer of 1975, grossing $260 million (based on a $7 million budget!), which ends up translating to $1.1 billion going by current ticket prices. Two years earlier, a similarly buzz-worthy horror flick called The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin, earned $193 million in 1973 ticket prices (or $952 million at today’s prices).

While many of those movies from the ‘70s were playing in theaters, VHS was still a fairly new thing and there was no such thing as DVD or Blu-ray, or digital downloads, or even cable.  If you wanted to see a movie again, you’d just have to go out to the theater and buy more tickets. There was no “waiting for the DVD.” This is why those movies made so much money and why even unadjusted, it’s an impressive achievement for those releases to bring in that amount of money.

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Moviegoing phenomena like the three mentioned above were fairly uncommon but not unheard of, and you could go all the way back to 1939 to find a movie that had an even bigger impact: the four-hour Civil War epic Gone with the Wind, which grossed $189.5 million. When you adjust for 76 years of inflation, you end up with $1.7 billion, which would be nearly impossible for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to surpass (at least domestically) even if it remained in theaters for the rest of 2016.

Another box office phenomenon experienced while James Cameron was still just starting out was Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie E.T. The Extraterrestrial, which grossed $359 million in its original run by opening in June 1982 and remaining in the top four at the box office for six months—a feat that is unheard of today. It was the #1 movie for six consecutive weeks—compared to the four that your average popular blockbusters will now hold—and then it was #1 at least 10 times more since then. It was a phenomenon that we didn’t see again until… you guessed it, Titanic, which was the #1 movie at the box office for 15 consecutive weekends. E.T. was also nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, and won four of them.

Speaking of Spielberg, the director was involved with another popular franchise from the ‘80s: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and its three sequels. Raiders was the highest grossing of the three original movies with $212 million (unadjusted). When Spielberg returned to direct Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it grossed more than $300 million. And while it initially received positive reviews (78 percent on Rotten Tomatoes!), it wasn’t nearly as well received by the fans and it didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination. 

Surely, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will fare better than that, but can it break into the Top 10 box office adjusted for inflation? Possibly. Yet that doesn’t really confirm its legacy. All those films mentioned were also nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and we won’t know whether Star Wars: The Force Awakens will join them until the morning of Jan. 14 when the Oscar nominations are announced (you can read my previous thoughts about this year’s Oscar chances for genre films here).

And while it would perhaps be premature to attach a correlation between iconic films’ legacies and where they stood in serious Oscar or awards season conversations, it’s still worth considering that many recent box office record holders in the 21st century enjoy a far briefer fling with audience adoration and thus subsequently a muddier legacy: examples include the aforementioned The Phantom Menace, as well as the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie and Spider-Man 3, both of which briefly held the Biggest Opening Weekend Ever title but were hardly bragging when Oscar season came calling.

Still, it’s hard to fathom any other movie that will come along that might break any of The Force Awakens recent records—which have been earned not only by excitement but also by impressive word of mouth. That even includes this year’s Rogue One. Similarly, Rian Johnson’s 2017 sequel, the currently untitled Episode VIII, might have a hard time surpassing The Force Awakens’ domestic box office since it’s opening in the summer and those who weren’t that into Abrams’ movie might not rush out to see its sequel three times in a single weekend.

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Maybe The Force Awakens’ legacy isn’t something we can intelligently discuss until after the Oscar nominations are announced or until even after it’s left theaters and other movies have entered the public consciousness. But it’s fairly evident Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be remembered not only for its box office success, but also for how J.J. Abrams revitalized a franchise that creator George Lucas had driven into the ground, and how Abrams introduced new characters that could very well remain popular for decades.

But the legacy of the film in future years will have to be more reliant on the quality of the actual movie, and how audiences have accepted its storytelling, rather than any specific box office number.