LOS ANGELES — This year’s disappointing domestic box office results needed a Christmas miracle if Hollywood was to make the history books, and director J.J. Abrams and Disney delivered. Their "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" has smashed dozens of box-office records since its Dec. 18 nationwide opening, leading the movie industry to $10.9 billion in domestic ticket receipts this year.
But as forecasters try to figure out what 2016 will look like, will this year's record haul — and particularly, the way it was achieved — set the industry up for failure by raising expectations too high?
Corporations often have to adjust for extraordinary events on their financial statements to more accurately represent the ongoing nature of the business, and "Star Wars" might be one of those events for the film industry. The movie has already set 37 all-time box office records -- something that no 2016 film is likely to match. This past Christmas weekend brought in the second-largest box office haul ever, and its lead movie — "Star Wars," of course — premiered the week before. That's more of a serendipitous anomaly than a blueprint on which to build.
But this year's strong finish has undoubtedly increased expectations for next year's gate, and the inescapable "Star Wars" hype might have had some effect in boosting general interest in going to the movies. Two new comedies, "Sisters" and "Daddy's Home," both enjoyed strong weekends despite opening in the shadow of "Star Wars," and playing to an audience that likely has a decent amount of overlap with the space epic. The Quentin Tarantino-directed western "The Hateful Eight" and the Leonardo DiCaprio frontier epic "The Revenant," also had a solid per-theater haul despite playing to purposefully limited audiences.
But it's hard to say what effect "Star Wars" — as opposed to school being out — had on the solid box-office performance of, say, "Daddy's Home," which finished second with $38.8 million. The boffo Christmas weekend numbers owed a lot of their strength to people seeing "Star Wars" multiple times, hardly a repeatable strategy for other studio releases.
Other holiday films, meanwhile, did not fare so well. “Concussion,” the Will Smith medical drama centering on the NFL’s efforts to suppress brain-damage research, placed only sixth at the domestic box office this past weekend, with $11 million. "The Big Short," based on a true story about several finance industry executives during the 2008 housing crash — and featuring Brad Pitt, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling in lead roles — brought in $10.5 million. But despite their proven headliners and early Oscar buzz, the subject matter of both movies — brain injuries and mortgage-backed securities — limits their broader appeal.
That all pales in comparison to the $153.5 million that "Star Wars" reeled in during its second weekend, according to entertainment data firm Rentrak. That's nearly $50 million more than the previous week 2 record holder, "Jurassic World" — and more impressively, would have been one of the top 10 opening weekends of all time.
The "Star Wars" mania of 2015 — like the freakishly warm December weather on the East Coast — looks like a once-in-a-generation event. But with its 30-some records and the unprecedented moviegoing behavior it spawned — 3 a.m. showings! — it's certainly not something the film industry should actually count on being able to do again.
Not even Hollywood can do that kind of magic.