If you’re aware of general pop culture goings-on, you know that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a box office behemoth. It’s not just a huge movie for 2015, or big for a Star Wars movie—it’s a positively massive box office phenomenon, and it’s on track to surpass Avatar as the highest grossing film of all time not only at the domestic box office, but potentially on the worldwide chart as well. This is everything Disney hoped for when it purchased Lucasfilm from George Lucas for $4 billion, and while they certainly put even more money into the development and production of The Force Awakens and other Star Wars films, they’re no doubt sitting pretty right now, basking in the box office glory of J.J. Abrams’ franchise sequel/soft reboot and feeling more confident than ever about the IP’s renewed merchandizing and ancillary potential.
But this wasn’t always the plan. When Abrams was hired to direct Star Wars: Episode VII, Disney was set to release the picture in May of 2015, keeping with the tradition of the franchise. Troubles in the scripting phase pushed the film’s production start-date back, and Disney was then forced to delay the movie’s release until December. One has to wonder, though, if The Force Awakens had opened in May, would it have seen the same monumental success it’s enjoying now? Moreover, given how spectacularly well the film is doing—with no signs of slowing down—should Disney be reconsidering the release strategy of its future Star Wars films?
To answer that question let’s consider what would’ve happened if The Force Awakens had come out in May 2015. It no doubt would have enjoyed a similarly astronomical opening weekend, possibly even breaking the same records it did, but with kids still in school and a number of other blockbuster-type options available at the box office—including the buzzworthy Mad Max: Fury Road and Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron still in theaters—the numbers may have softened in the following weeks, especially once Jurassic World, another franchise soft reboot that was sold hard on the nostalgia factor, opened on June 13th.
As it stands now, The Force Awakens not only benefitted from kids being out of school for Winter Break and families looking for something to share at the multiplex together over the holidays, but there’s little standing in its way in terms of box office competition. Folks have been going back two, three, four times to see The Force Awakens not just because it’s an entertaining flick, but because there’s really nothing else playing that offers the same popcorn, blockbuster-type feel. Indeed, the film looks to have free reign at the box office until, at the earliest, January 15th, when Ride Along 2 and 13 Hours open in theaters, and even then the possibility of it being usurped is far from solidified. In terms of scale and family-wide appeal, the closest competitor doesn’t arrive until Kung Fu Panda 3 opens on January 29th, nearly a month and a half after The Force Awakens first arrived in theaters. Now that’s the kind of wide open box office run you want.
So was the smashing success of The Force Awakens a one-time thing, simply because it’s the first new installment in the franchise after over a decade, or would Disney be wise to try and mimic this same type of strategy with future Star Wars films? Lucasfilm plans to release a new Star Wars movie every year in perpetuity, following the pattern of one proper “Episode” every other year, with standalone spinoffs/anthology films filling the gaps between. Their calendar right now looks like this:
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – December 16, 2016
Star Wars: Episode VIII – May 26, 2017
Untitled Han Solo Star Wars Anthology Film – May 25, 2018
Star Wars: Episode IX – Unspecified 2019
Given the crunched schedule on The Force Awakens, Rogue One will be released next December, but after that Disney officially plans on course-correcting to a May release strategy. But I have to wonder if sticking with December might be a better bet. After all, the appeal of having essentially the entirety of January—a dead zone, quality-wise for wide release films—to run rampant at the box office is strong, and the competition from other blockbusters is low at this time of year, especially if Disney plants a flag. Conversely, May is the traditional launching ground for the summer movie season, and is usually home to two or three huge franchises. May 2016 alone will see the release of Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Alice Through the Looking Glass, and the competition only gets more fierce once June and July arrive. If Disney really wanted to claim December as the new “Star Wars Month”, they could totally ride this wave off The Force Awakens and pull it off.
Of course not every Star Wars movie will carry the same appeal as The Force Awakens, but that’s another reason why December is beneficial. If it becomes a sort of family/holiday/Winter Break tradition to see a new Star Wars movie when you’re home for the holidays, Disney’s task of convincing folks to return for the other films is made easier. Abrams’ movie was aided by the fact that no one knew a thing about the plot or characters when it opened, so the allure of the unknown was appealing. When Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII rolls around, we’ll already know most of the main characters, so Disney then has to convince folks there’s reason to come back—although in hindsight it was smart to save Luke Skywalker’s big role for Episode VIII, with the franchise now down one iconic OT character.
And Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One is quite possibly the hardest sell of all, with Lucasfilm offering something entirely different: a “boots-on-the-ground” war movie set prior to the events of A New Hope about a group of Rebels tasked with stealing the Death Star plans. There’s no Force or Original Trilogy characters to be found, but since it’s being released next December, there’s a familiar quality to the release date re: The Force Awakens that could work in its favor.
Plenty of fans were upset when The Force Awakens was pushed to December, breaking with the tradition of the franchise up until now, but the truth of the matter is that the Star Wars that exists post-Force Awakens is not the Star Wars you grew up with, so the tradition doesn’t really apply. George Lucas is no longer involved, the protagonists are entirely different characters, and a refreshingly diverse group of filmmakers are bringing these new stories to life. This is a new Star Wars for a new generation, so why create a new tradition when it comes to the release date?