Has the start to a year ever been so dominated by one five-word film title, writes Screen editor Matt Mueller.
Welcome to 2016, and the unsurprising news that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is slaying box-office records with Vader-like abandon.
On top of surpassing Avatar’s all-time North American record this week (Star Wars streaked past in 16 days the $700m mark that Avatar took 72 days to reach), the film overtook Spectre after 16 days to become the UK’s biggest release of 2015 and the UK’s second biggest film of all time, with Skyfall’s $150m (£102.9m) benchmark due to be toppled imminently.
The extraordinary across-the-spectrum, around-the-world achievement of The Force Awakens is, in a variety of ways, supreme validation of the brand-strategy vision pursued by Disney in its purchase of Lucasfilm (and Marvel Entertainment before it).
That $4bn is already looking like the smartest investment the studio ever made, with the endless spin-offs and sequels it will be able to generate for decades to come (yes, settle in for a very long ride).
JJ Abrams’ canny approach tapped into the deep reservoir of nostalgia for the original trilogy while introducing smart 21st-century upgrades with the franchise’s new heroes: a self-sufficient, bad-ass female heroine and a black actor as the reluctant stormtrooper-turned-rebel fighter.
If Abrams (and Disney) guided audiences through a virtual retread of the original film’s plot, their unapologetic ploy will yield long-term dividends as the origin characters continue to exert influence on the new universe. (And Screen’s New Year sour-grapes award goes to George Lucas for slipping in that “white slavers” remark during a TV interview, in reference to Disney’s purchase of his company and its decision to make “a retro movie”. You sold your baby, George, you can’t be playing the Death Star now.)
Thanks to Disney’s juggernaut, 2015 ended on a giddy high, with Rentrak reporting that global box office topped $38bn for the first time in history, and by the time final receipts are counted, that figure could near $40bn.
It’s a landmark reached on the strength of four of the seven highest-grossing films of all time — Jurassic World, Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Furious 7, alongside The Force Awakens — with a fifth film, Minions, also crossing the $1bn barrier.
If the picture for 2016 looks less certain without a new Bond, Avengers or Fast And Furious, at least Stars Wars spin-off Rogue One is due in December.
No-one will ever bemoan that film-goers are spending money, but while the glittery figures are a source of delight, for Universal and Disney in particular, they hide the ongoing downward trend in admissions in the US — in 2015, they were at their lowest level for 20 years — and an alarming lack of depth in the marketplace.
Too few movies are sweeping up too much business, and with many of the studios’ key awards-season hopefuls struggling or flopping badly (Steve Jobs, The Walk), the result could be less money for modestly budgeted, adult-oriented projects.
Meanwhile, the gap is only getting wider between blockbuster titles that dominate everything and the rest of the releases that struggle for the leftovers, which is not good for the industry’s long-term health or sustainability.
While it has already reached $1.5bn, The Force Awakens’ chances of surpassing Avatar’s worldwide gross of $2.8bn will likely come down to China, where it opens this weekend (Jan 9). The country has the world’s second biggest box office but Star Wars doesn’t have the same brand recognition there. We’ll watch its reception with interest.
If the Force is dominating start-of-the-year headlines, that shouldn’t last too much longer, with awards season about to gain significant momentum with the announcements of the Bafta and Oscar nominations, and Sundance and Berlin rapidly approaching.
To celebrate the arrival of 2016 with something other than Star Wars, we have scoped out a list of upcoming titles from key film-makers such as Pedro Almodovar, Nicolas Winding Refn and Andrea Arnold that we anticipate will be making their bows on the festival circuit this year. Roll on 2016.
Matt Mueller is editor of Screen International