Analyzing 40 Years of Star Wars Box Office Success and the Future of Cinema

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SOURCE: Posters for Episodes 1 -7 Designed by Olly Mossy — HTTP://OLLYMOSS.COM/ | Poster for Rogue One designed by Alexander Perez — https://www.behance.net/gallery/47729655/Minimalist-Rogue-One-Poster

SOURCE: Posters for Episodes 1 -7 Designed by Olly Mossy — HTTP://OLLYMOSS.COM/ | Poster for Rogue One designed by Alexander Perez — https://www.behance.net/gallery/47729655/Minimalist-Rogue-One-Poster

[UPDATE #1 — I miscredited all 8 of the Star Wars posters in the header above to Olly Mossy, when in fact the Rogue One poster was designed by the very talented Alexander Perez. Link to his full portfolio here]


A few years back after the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens I wrote an article detailing the box office success of each Star Wars film during their first week of screening. At that time The Force Awakens had been out for just 2 weeks and was smashing box office records left and right. So I was interested in exploring how the domestic (U.S.) box office sales for its opening week stacked up against the previous films in the franchise.  

Since my original article the The Force Awakens has run its course on the big screen, we've seen yet another instalment to the franchise (Rogue One) come and go, and we're just less than 3 months away from the release of Episode 8: The Last Jedi. So I thought it would be fun to refresh some of the numbers as well as look at total box office success rather than just  opening week.

So without further ado, let’s get into it.

Star Wars Opening Week Box Office Success

So in my original article I covered domestic box office sales for each movie during their first 7 days of screening (data sourced from Box Office Mojo). The chart below shows the same data refreshed with Rogue One added into the mix. The blue bars below show the total domestic (U.S.) sales for the first 7 days, and the red bars show the same figures adjusted for inflation.

Plot 115

As you can see, Rogue One did well during its first 7 days but still didn't come close to the opening week success of The Force Awakens, achieving just 56% of ticket sales during the same period. It's also worth noting that, although the chart above does show that Rogue One ranked 2nd in terms of opening week sales (if you ignore inflation), Revenge of the Sith actually opened to almost 5oo fewer cinemas than Rogue One back in 2005, so you could argue that Revenge had the edge in terms of opening week success. In fact, if you adjust for inflation Revenge of the Sith does indeed outperform Rogue One.

Next, I thought it would be interesting to look at daily domestic sales for each film during their opening week. The chart below shows the opening week box office sales broken down by day. The figures below have been adjusted for inflation, and I've also excluded A New Hope from this chart as it's been tricky to find reliable data on opening week daily ticket sales for that film.

Plot 141

I thought this chart was really interesting as it highlights just how effective the franchise has become at driving more ticket sales earlier in the release. In fact, every Star Wars film since Attack of the Clones has made more than 40% of its domestic haul during the first 7 days. Rogue One and The Force Awakens even made as much as 13% of their total domestic sales on opening day alone. Which is pretty impressive given that The Force Awakens is the highest domestic grossing film of all time (and Rogue One is the 7th). 

These numbers certainly highlight the growing commercial success of the franchise over time, but I was curious if this success stands as an exception within the industry as a whole. After all, there seems to be a lot of buzz these days about the state of cinema and whether it's a dead or dying industry. Confusingly, the narrative actually seems to be quite mixed on this topic as I've seen compelling data on both sides of the argument. 

For example, last year the MPAA (which has a pretty clear stake in the survival of the industry) reported that "2016 was another strong year for the global box office" with global revenue up 1% to $38.6 billion and the total number of cinema screens increasing by 8%. On the other hand, last year Business Insider reported on an alarming downward trend in U.S. admissions per capita between 2006 and 2015.

I wasn't fully convinced by the data I've seen on either side so I pulled together some figures on U.S. box office performance which I thought would offer a clearer snapshot of where things are headed. The figures in the chart below were sourced from The Numbers, a "provider of [U.S.] movie industry data and research services". The first chart below shows the total volume of movie tickets sold in the U.S. from 1995 to 2016 as well as the total number of films released by the 6 major studios (Warner Bros, Disney, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Sony, and Universal).

Plot 129 copy copy

I think this chart offers important context around the film/cinema industry that has been missing from a lot of the debate I've seen. First, the total number of tickets sold has definitely trended downward over time, starting from around 2002. So yes, there are fewer people walking into theatres then there were in past years.

But look at what's happened with the total number of big budget movie releases over time. Since 2009 the top 6 studios released an average of 93 films per year, compared to an average of 111 films per year between 1995 to 2008. So, for one thing the decline in tickets sold could be partly explained by a decline in inventory as there are simply fewer movies to go see. And I think part of the reason why big studios are scaling back the number of films they produce is to focus their efforts on fewer films/franchises they're confident will succeed commercially.. Which is probably the only reason why the Fast & Furious franchise still exists (seriously, can it die already). 

But here's another way to look at the current health of cinema. The chart below shows the total number of domestic tickets sold as well as total box office sales in the U.S since 1995. Think of this as comparing total revenue with total transactions for an eCommerce site.

Plot 129

Now this chart tells a really interesting story. Despite a steady decline in tickets sold (i.e. transactions) and fewer movie releases (i.e. inventory), U.S. domestic box offices sales have maintained a steady rate of growth year on year since 1995. If anything, this chart shows how Hollywood has become increasingly effective at making money.

But how can revenue increase while transaction volume decreased? Lots of ways. Jacking up the price of admission is certainly one tactic you've probably become accustomed to. In fact, last year the Guardian reported the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. reached record highs. And given the proliferation of digital screens and films being released in 3-D and IMAX, I'm not really surprised by the steady growth in revenue relative to the decline in transactions. And beyond charging more for admission, cinemas also seem to be experimenting with new approaches to service as a means to generate increased revenue per ticket, such as bundling digital downloads with movie tickets, offering more premium dining services, and creating more immersive and technology driven viewing experiences. 

Star Wars Total Box Office Success

Ok, that was a bit of a digression, but I've been really interested in the future of the cinema industry lately and I think it's fascinating to consider how the bankability of franchises like Star Wars can play such a big role in its survival.

But enough of that, back to Star Wars.

So we've looked at opening week success, but what about total sales? The next chart shows domestic box office sales for each movies' entire theatrical run (not just the first 7 days). But keep a few things in mind when looking at these numbers. First, the cinema and movie-goer landscape in the U.S., and across the globe for that matter, has changed considerably since the release of the first film in 1977. In fact, Star Wars: A New Hope opened to just 32 theatres back in May of 1977 (but that quickly scaled up to 1,700 theatres as movie reviews started to create buzz for the film). As a benchmark, Rogue One opened to 4,157 across the U.S. on it's first day. Also, A New Hope had 5 separate theatrical releases, in 1977, 1979, 1981, 1982 and 1997, and it's first theatrical run extended across almost a full year (the average film today only runs for 4 weeks). So it's not entirely fair to read these numbers without considering when and how they were released.

Finally, it's important to note that in the chart below, I've used the domestic figures for only the first theatrical release of A New Hope in 1977. 

Plot 121

In this chart you can see that, without adjusting for inflation The Force Awakens was by far the most successful film, bringing in almost a billion dollars domestically. Which, as I mentioned earlier, The Force Awakens currently holds the record for biggest domestic release of all time. It also happens to rank 3rd in terms of worldwide box office sales (behind James Cameron's Avatar and Titanic).

Notably, if we adjust for inflation A New Hope does actually takes the lead as the most successful film, with an equivalent $1.2 billion today over its original $307 million in 1977. 

And just in case you’re wondering about domestic vs foreign ticket sales, the chart below shows the breakdown. Lots of caveats with this chart, as it doesn’t adjust any of the figures for inflation (as this can be tricky with foreign revenue) and it includes all revenue generated by all theatrical runs for every film, including the 1999 digital re-releases of the 1st generation films. So you shouldn’t take this chart too seriously.

Star Wars - Domestic vs International copy

The only major thing that stood out to me here was how close 1999's The Phantom Menace came to matching Rogue One's success in terms of worldwide sales. Even without adjusting for inflation, Rogue One only took in about $29 million more than Phantom at the box office, which is pretty impressive for a film that was released 18 years earlier and is commonly regarded as the worst film in the franchise. 

Analyzing Critical Reception and Box Office Success

But is The Phantom Menace really the worst film?

Well, that depends on how you define worst. Commercially it was actually among the best. And on the review side, well, that's not so simple either. Indeed, Phantom's critics score on Rotten Tomatoes (RT) is by far the lowest of all films at 55%. But it's Audience Score on RT (59%), which is based on more than a million votes, actually ranks the movie as only the 2nd worst in the franchise, ahead of Attack of the Clones (57%). So audiences apparently disliked episode 2 even more. 

To help answer the question around best/worst Star Wars films I thought I'd use a method I applied to a similar article I wrote about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) where I created a weighted scoring model to evaluate both commercial and critical success together. You can read the original article for more detail about the approach and methodology. But as a short summary, I've created a scoring model that weights different variables and produces a score on a scale of 0 - 100. Here are the variables I’ve used and their weighting relative to the total score:

  • RT Critics Review Score - 30% of Total
  • RT Audience Review Score - 30% of Total
  • Movie ROI - 40% of Total

The weights I’ve applied hereare fairly subjective and based on how I think the variable categories should contribute to the total score. Obviously a different weighting could result in an alternative ranking from the one I’ve produced below. So this scoring / ranking isn’t meant to be taken as some kind of standard.

For the critical reception, I’ve only used Rotten Tomatoes as a source. The reason for this is also covered in my MCU article, but it’s generally because I don’t like how IMDB aggregates their scores, and Metacritic basically just dilute ratings. Is my approach perfect, nope. But if you don’t like it, too bad.

And one final note on ROI. This is calculated by using a fairly standard equation (i.e. [revenue -budget]/budget]). In this case I’m using worldwide revenue, not just domestic. Next, to produce a value that can be easily dropped into the scoring framework I’ve assigned each film a relative rating out of 10 based on the MIN and MAX ROI range for all movies. Again, there’s more detail on this approach in the MCU article. But this does raise an important caveat about the ROI score that is worth highlighting. That is, each movie is assigned a score relative to the ROI of all the other Star Wars films, as opposed to using some kind of absolute standard, like the ROI of all movies, or movies of similar budget, genre, etc.

Ok, caveats out of the way. Let's see the rankings. 

The chart below shows the results of the scoring exercise, ranked from highest to lowest score and with the breakdown for each variable (i.e. critic score, audience score and ROI).

Plot 125

So there it is, by applying a weighted scoring framework that accounts for both critical reception and commercial success, all 3 of the original Star Wars films top the franchise list. Again, it's important to keep in mind that A New Hope had multiple theatrical runs, and the 1st generation films all received a box office uplift with the hefty digital re-release in 1999. But the 1st generation films also scored well due to their high critics and audience scores, particularly with the latter all coming in above 94%.

I think it's fair to say that, from a reviews perspective, the original films tend to be universally loved. Whereas the latest instalments (The Force Awakens and Rogue One), though mostly positive, do have some mixed reviews. I think there's definitely more pressure on the franchise now that Disney is at the helm. The original films were way ahead of their time and accomplished things visually and thematically that had never been done before. But today there isn't much we haven't already seen with state of the art special effects, which includes bringing Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher back to life. So the franchise needs to do more than just dazzle audiences with higher quality renderings of the Millennium Falcon.

And I think this has huge implications for the next film, The Last Jedi. Indeed, The Force Awakens did insanely well at the box office, but it's hype was built on the back of a 10 year gap since the previous film and a fresh take on the franchise. And then, two years later, Rogue One was the first film to break away from the core series and tell us a new story in a way the franchise hadn't done before. But now, The Last Jedi has big shoes to fill. Technically it has to follow on the success of Force Awakens, and it's trying to do so with a relatively untested director, Rian Johnson (whose work on Looper I loved), and in the face of potential franchise fatigue

Frankly, I'm doubtful that The Last Jedi will achieve the same commercial success of The Force Awakens (though it will likely surpass Rogue One). But I'm hopeful that Johnson and the team at Disney will produce a film that offers something new to the franchise while honouring the characters and story that made the original films so much fun to watch. Time will tell, and December's just around the corner.

So what did you think about the custom movie scores? Do you agree with the list? And what's your favourite Star Wars film? Let me know in the comments below. And as always, thanks for reading.