Star Wars fans were sent into a frenzy recently with the release of the third and final theatrical trailer for this year’s spinoff Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The film entered 2016 as the most anticipated movie as voted by fans, and that standing most likely hasn’t changed much now that the marketing campaign is in full swing. Arguably the best look at Rogue One to date, the latest trailer expanded upon crucial story elements (Jyn Erso and her father) while teasing some of the grandest set pieces in the franchise to date. Throw in the fact that famed villain Darth Vader has a role to play, and enthusiasm has reached a fever pitch with just a couple of months to go (as of this writing).
Disney is trying to manage the commercial expectations of Rogue One, admitting that the chances of it rivaling the numbers posted by 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens are slim. Still, the movie is set in a galaxy far, far away and will have the power of the Disney marketing machine behind it as the release date draws nearer. Odds are, Rogue One will make a pretty penny over the holiday season and become one of the year’s highest-grossing films. The word-of-mouth will dictate what kind of legs it has, but even if the reaction is mediocre, it’s still going to do fine financially in the early going of its run.
Whenever a sure thing like Star Wars opens, other studios smartly stay away in order to give their projects room to breathe and avoid getting lost in the hype. Last year, Paramount shifted Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation from December to July in order to maximize profits; a decision that paid off in the end. This time around, some high-profile works are opening shortly after Rogue One premieres, and it’s not the usual counter-programming. Video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed, animated family film Sing, and original sci-fi drama Passengers are all coming out on December 21, and with Rogue One looking to dominate the back half of December, it’s worth wondering what box office prospects those three films have.
Perhaps the film that has the most to lose going against Rogue One (due to the sci-fi genre connection), Passengers does have a lot going for it. The script has been floating around the industry for years, and those who have read it have very positive things to say. Directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), it also features two of the biggest stars today in Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Both of those actors have a number of commercial hits under their belts and are recognizable and likable. Sony is obviously very confident in the film, spending $120 million on production costs.
Due to the star power and interesting concept (Pratt and Lawrence play two passengers on a ship whose hibernation pods malfunction 30 years into a 120-year journey), Passengers is one of the more intriguing offerings of the winter and has cinephiles excited. However, an argument can be made that the buzz surrounding it right now is fairly soft. In the early days of Oscar prognosticating, the film is not seen as a realistic contender for any major Academy Awards – despite the pedigree of Lawrence and Tyldum. Part of that is due to the fact that it hasn’t been screened for critics yet (bypassing the fall film festivals), but it still puts Passengers at a disadvantage. The first trailer that came out at the end of September drew a mixed response, so it’s hard to say the preview moved the needle in the positive direction.
It’s also worth wondering how reliable box office draws Pratt and Lawrence are on their own. Their biggest hits have been franchise installments with a built-in viewership. Everyone loves Chris Pratt, but even his die-hard fans can’t give him too much credit for Jurassic World‘s $1.6 billion. The Hunger Games was based on a YA phenomenon that would have made gobs of cash no matter who was playing Katniss. Yes, Lawrence has starred in Best Picture nominees Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle (both of which made over $100 million domestically), but those films benefitted from Oscar buzz, which Passengers doesn’t have yet. It’s worth pointing out that Lawrence’s Joy opened one week after The Force Awakens and stumbled with just $56.4 million in the States.
Moviegoers are always clamoring for more original films, and Passengers certainly fits that bill, but most audience members are probably going to opt for franchise installment Rogue One (the big event film) over Passengers. The onus is on Sony to really ramp up the marketing to make their film look like a must-see in theaters. They still have a couple of months to get the job done, but Passengers is already being drowned out by Star Wars hype. If the reaction to Pratt and Lawrence in space is mediocre or worse, Sony could be in a lot of trouble. The first wave of reviews will be very telling.
Passengers isn’t the only big-budget film that’s taking on Rogue One in its second weekend. December 21 also sees the theatrical premiere of Assassin’s Creed, the adaptation of the popular video game series starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. The franchise is developer Ubisoft’s best-seller, with more than 93 million units sold as of June 2015. Since the first game came out nearly a decade ago, the property has become one of the most recognizable in the medium, combining commercial success with critical acclaim. Many heads were turned when Fassbender became involved, since he is one of the most in-demand talents in the business right now. If the project attracted him, it must be something special.
Video game movies seem poised to have a major breakthrough a la superhero films, but moviegoers are still waiting for the first hit gaming flick. Earlier this year, Warcraft was ultimately deemed a minor box office success due to its astronomical totals in China, but domestically it was a non-starter at just $47.2 million. Despite the Warcraft video games having a large following, that didn’t help it much in the U.S. It will be interesting to see how Assassin’s Creed performs and if it can be the one to break the video game movie curse. History has not been kind to that particular genre, as only two game adaptations in history have crossed $100 million domestically.
Assassin’s Creed‘s biggest issue is that as a PG-13 action film, it’s going to be targeting the same demographic as Star Wars. The trailers have hinted at a visually-stunning work that jumps through multiple time periods (giving it a unique setting), and that certainly helps. Where the film may struggle is that none of its principal cast members are box office locks. Even though he’s a two-time Oscar nominee, Fassbender hasn’t been able to lead a blockbuster non-franchise film in his career, and the same can be said for Cotillard. This will be a showdown of brands, and the largest question is whether or not Assassin’s Creed can rival Star Wars. The early prognosis on that doesn’t come in Assassin’s Creed favor, which is troubling since it could have cost almost $200 million to produce.
Arguably, the easiest way for Assassin’s Creed to avoid box office purgatory is for it to become a critical success and the response to Rogue One to prove lukewarm. It’s in a position where it needs the Star Wars spinoff to have weak legs so it can sell itself to audiences looking for a slick genre picture over the winter holidays. If Rogue One is well-received like The Force Awakens was last year, then it will have an uphill climb. The Lucasfilm project has a shot to join the $1 billion club if all goes well, whereas Assassin’s Creed‘s ceiling is far lower. If Star Wars generates repeat business and continuously draws in large crowds, Assassin’s Creed could be the latest video game movie bomb, and it needs huge numbers to turn a profit.
This is probably the movie with the greatest chance of survival against Rogue One. Sing is the latest film from Illumination Entertainment, the animation studio behind such blockbusters as Minions and The Secret Life of Pets. Its premise is cute and heartfelt; a koala bear puts together a singing competition for the animals living in the town in order to save his theater. Like many films of its kind, Sing features an A-list ensemble cast that includes the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, and Nick Offerman. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and earned mostly positive reviews, with many pundits saying that it’s fun.
Sing’s greatest asset in terms of the box office is that it’s geared towards a different kind of audience than the other films discussed here. It’s a PG-rated family comedy with talking animals. Star Wars is obviously a movie series for all ages (look at the toys!), but there’s a chance Rogue One could be out of real youngsters’ comfort zones. From day one, director Gareth Edwards has said his film will be a war drama set in space, and all the footage shown definitely lends credence to those claims. There’s a chance Rogue One pushes the boundaries of the PG-13 rating and is a bit extreme for the juice box crowd, making Sing a more appealing option for parents.
Another thing working in Sing‘s favor is that it will be the only movie of its kind playing during the holidays, meaning that it will have a monopoly on the market. Even if the film ends up being poorly-received, families with little kids won’t have many other appropriate options. A general rule of thumb in predicting the box office is to not underestimate animated films since mom and/or dad have to take the children to see it (leading to more tickets sold). This year has been a strong one for animated fare, and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t continue with Sing, especially since Illumination is starting to build a reputation similar to Pixar and DreamWorks’.
At this stage in the game, it’s difficult to point out any negatives with Sing‘s release strategy and it would be surprising if it faltered at the box office. The pieces are in place for a feel-good smash, since it is very separate from Rogue One. An apt comparison might be Daddy’s Home, which was a family comedy (albeit one rated PG-13) that dared to open right after The Force Awakens and pulled in $150.3 million domestically, good enough for 22nd on the yearly chart. Going for a completely different crowd has its perks, and Sing should be able to reap those benefits.
Christmas is going to be crowded at the multiplex, as Fences, Gold, and Why Him? all open on the holiday, just four days after the trio examined here. In all likelihood, there won’t be enough money to go around to make all of them hits. Going to the movies has become a very expensive endeavor, and casual audiences have become more selective of what they go out to see. This year in particular has seen many big-budget tentpoles come up short, and chances are some of these don’t post the desired numbers their studios are going for.
The novelty of Star Wars being back may have worn off a bit, but the franchise is arguably more popular than ever and just posted the highest-grossing film of all-time in America. As excitement continues to grow for Rogue One, the other films on the Christmas slate are at its mercy, needing a steep second weekend drop-off in order to make the most they can. Right now, it’s hard to envision a scenario where that happens, and Rogue One could very well be the #1 film for a few weeks, just like Episode VII was. Some studios made some curious scheduling decisions, and it’s a risk that might not pay off in the end.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens in U.S. theaters on December 16, 2016, followed by Star Wars: Episode VIII on December 15, 2017, the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25, 2018, Star Wars: Episode IX in 2019, and the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.