Battle of the Box-Office Blowhards

Evaluating The Last Jedi’s Performance

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The Last Jedi is clearly an abysmal failure.

Take it from Rob Cain, who on December 22 published an article on Forbes.com with the headline “Last Jedi Grosses Are Collapsing with the Worst Daily Holds of All Nine Star Wars Movies”:

The Last Jedi is the rock-bottom, worst-holding movie of the entire nine-film franchise. Even Attack of the Clones looks like a champ in comparison.”

Sound ominous for Disney and Lucasfilm, right?

No, because Cain’s chosen lens has several flaws.

Day-to-day box-office revenue can help evaluate performance, but it shouldn’t be considered in a vacuum. And using it as the sole point of comparison to movies released over the past four decades is disingenuous, because the movie business and audience-attendance habits have changed so much over those 40 years. (They’ve changed a lot in the 12 years since Revenge of the Sith, too.) I’m picking on Cain, but he’s not alone in picking on The Last Jedi.

So let’s look at the bigger picture now that we’re through the New Year holiday.

Slate claimed that “we don’t really have a great comparison point” for The Last Jedi’s box-office performance, but that’s not true: There’s a clear and obvious pattern with each Star Wars trilogy.

In inflation-adjusted domestic gross for initial theatrical run (according to Box Office Mojo), the first movie performs the best, the second performs substantially worse, and the third is an improvement over the second but still doesn’t come anywhere close to the first.

The Empire Strikes Back brought in 55.3 percent of what Star Wars did, and Return of the Jedi generated 56.7 percent.

Attack of the Clones earned 61.3 percent of The Phantom Menace’s receipts, and Revenge of the Sith followed with 69.9 percent.

If we consider those percentages by themselves, you begin to see the problem with Cain’s circumscribed approach. The second trilogy looks pretty great ... until you consider that Star Wars generated $1.27 billion in box-office revenue compared to The Phantom Menace’s $757 million. Despite the percentages, the second and third episodes of the original trilogy earned roughly $200 million more apiece than their prequel-trilogy equivalents.

In 18 days (through January 1), The Last Jedi’s domestic box office was estimated at $533 million, which is 55.2 percent of The Force Awakens’ $965 million. It’s still the top-grossing movie in theaters, and it’s within easy striking distance of both Empire and Return in percentage-of-first-movie terms. And it’s already out-earned the inflation-adjusted grosses of Clones and Sith.

Furthermore, if Episode VIII can get to $592 million, it will have beaten Attack of the Clones as a percentage of The Phantom Menace.

In other words, take that “daily holds” claim with a big pile of salt. Not three weeks into its release, The Last Jedi is doing just fine, and it stands just about where you’d expect when you look at Star Wars box-office history.

Update, January 16, 2018: After 32 days in release, The Last Jedi has topped $595 million in domestic receipts. It still has a bit left in the tank, but its relative performance is set. In percentage-of-first-movie terms, Johnson’s movie (61.7 percent) has now eclipsed Empire (55.3 percent), Return (56.7 percent), and Clones (61.3 percent) but will not beat Sith (69.9 percent). In inflation-adjusted domestic gross, it’s clearly superior to Clones (by $131 million), Sith (by $65 million), and Rogue One (by $55 million) but will not reach the level of Empire or Return. (It’s more than $100 million short of both.)

The only real financial weakness of Episode VIII is its failure to create even more separation from the inflation-adjusted grosses of Sith and especially Rogue One. A Last Jedi domestic gross of $640 million (which will not happen) would represent a $100-million gap to quickly end this debate for nearly all sentient beings.

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