Superlatives Notwithstanding, Even 'The Force' Has Its Limits

Jan 18, 2016
Originally published on January 20, 2016 3:08 pm

Biggest, fastest, highest, most — it's hard to talk about The Force Awakens without superlatives. No question the Force is strong with this one at the box office. But would it surprise you to learn that despite all the records it's been setting, The Force Awakens went into this holiday weekend as only the third biggest Star Wars movie in terms of attendance? Or as cute as that adorable soccer ball with personality BB-8 is, just as many millions of people have gone "awwwww" at the puppies in 101 Dalmatians?

The Force Awakens is big, make no mistake, but biggest? Well, certainly not yet. In attendance, according to boxofficemojo.com, it hasn't even cracked the top 10 yet if you include the re-releases of older films. And it's had nothing like the same social impact. Lots of people talk about "adjusting for inflation" when they compare box office figures, but forget about dollars. I'm talking butts in seats. Charlton Heston put roughly as many butts in seats racing chariots in Ben-Hur. And over time he put many, many more butts in seats parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments.

Those seats were filled mostly in the 1950s, when the population of the U.S. was about half what it is now. So it was much tougher to rack up attendance numbers over a hundred million. Not to mention that Heston's biblical epics played downtown for months in exclusive, reserved-seat engagements before they ventured out to the places people actually lived. It was considered downright modern in the 1960s when movies opened right off the bat in the suburbs. When I went to Clark University, there were two — count 'em, TWO — movie screens anywhere near our campus in Worcester, Mass., and for very nearly my entire freshman year — and believe me, I remember this — one of them was playing Doctor Zhivago. The other was playing Sound of Music.

Different world, obviously. But note that even without the advantage of playing in thousands of multiplexes (which hadn't been invented yet), both of those films — and again, we are talking multiple releases — were seen by tens of millions more people than have seen The Force Awakens so far. So were two films that scared baby boomers silly a decade later — Jaws and The Exorcist.

Even after all that, when the original Star Wars came along, it opened on fewer than 50 screens nationwide. But it was such a huge hit that on its way to becoming the second-most-attended film in U.S. history, it really did change the film industry — the way movies were released, and merchandised. It rewrote the rules. That's not going to happen with The Force Awakens, which is just going to sell a lot of toys and make the Disney organization a pile of cash. It is going to do that reeeeeally fast. That's the big change this time. In 1977 the original Star Wars stayed in theaters all summer, churning out practically the same numbers every weekend. This one's dropping 30 to 40 percent each week. It's still huge — approaching 100 million admissions — but it's going to play itself out a lot faster. Which means, if I can do a little crystal-ball gazing, that it will not — not even with a couple of re-releases in a few years — match the granddaddy of all blockbusters.

Gone With the Wind has sold more than 200 million tickets in its many releases. And it sold most of them back when there were far fewer people on the planet. In 1939, the city fathers of Atlanta welcomed Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh to Gone with the Wind's world premiere with a parade that reportedly attracted 1.5 million spectators. For the record, the population of Atlanta back then was barely one-fifth of that. Disney, by comparison, threw a block party for a few thousand invited guests when it premiered The Force Awakens. Might want to keep that in mind as the media reports on the history-making return of the Star Wars franchise.

History, it seems, is also a Force to be reckoned with. May the hype be with you.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

By now, everyone knows that the new "Star Wars" movie, "The Force Awakens," has been breaking box office records. But our movie critic Bob Mondello has been crunching some other numbers and says it appears that even the force has its limits.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The biggest, the fastest, the highest, the most - it's hard to talk about "The Force Awakens" without superlatives. No question - the force is strong with this one at the box office. But would it surprise you to learn that despite all the records it's been setting, "Force Awakens" went into this holiday weekend as only the third-biggest "Star Wars" movie in terms of attendance, or that as cute as BB-8, that adorable soccer ball with personality, is...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS")

MONDELLO: ...Just as many millions of people have gone aw at the puppies in "101 Dalmatians"?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "101 DALMATIANS")

MICKY MAGA: (As Patch) Now there's 99 of us.

JESSICA TAYLOR, BYLINE: (As Pongo) What?

MONDELLO: "The Force Awakens" is big, but biggest - well, certainly not yet. In attendance, according to boxofficemojo.com, it hasn't even cracked the top 10 yet if you include the rereleases of older films, and it's had nothing like the same social impact. Lots of people talk about adjusting for inflation when they compare box office figures. But forget about dollars. I'm talking butts in seats. Charlton Heston put roughly as many butts in seats racing chariots in "Ben-Hur."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEN-HUR")

MONDELLO: And over time, he put many, many more butts in seats parting the Red Sea in "The Ten Commandments."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS")

CHARLTON HESTON: (As Moses) Behold his mighty hand.

MONDELLO: Those seats were filled mostly in the 1950s when the population of the U.S. was about half what it is now, so it was much tougher to rack up attendance numbers over a hundred-million, not to mention that Heston's biblical epics played downtown for months in exclusive reserved-seat engagements before they ventured out to places people actually lived. It was considered downright modern in the 1960s when movies opened right off the bat in the suburbs. When I went to Clark University, there were two - count them; two movie screens anywhere near our campus in Worcester, Mass. And for very nearly my entire freshman year - and believe me; I remember this - one of them was playing "Doctor Zhivago."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOCTOR ZHIVAGO")

MONDELLO: And the other was playing "Sound Of Music."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SOUND OF MUSIC")

JULIE ANDREWS: (As Maria, singing) The hills are alive with the sound of...

MONDELLO: Different world, obviously, but note that even without the advantage of playing in thousands of multiplexes which hadn't been invented yet, both of those films - and, again, we're talking multiple releases - were seen by tens of millions more people than have seen "The Force Awakens" so far. So were two films that scared baby boomers silly a decade later - "Jaws...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JAWS")

MONDELLO: ...And "The Exorcist."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EXORCIST")

MONDELLO: Even after all that, when the original "Star Wars" came along, it opened on fewer than 50 screens nationwide, but it was such a huge hit that on its way to becoming the second most-attended film in U.S. history, it really did change the film industry, the way movies were released and merchandised. It rewrote the rules. That's not going to happen with "The Force Awakens," which is just going to sell a lot of toys and make the Disney organization a pile of cash.

It is going to do that really fast. That's the big change this time. In 1977, the original "Star Wars" stayed in theaters all summer, churning out practically the same numbers every weekend. This one is dropping off 30 to 40 percent each week. It's still huge, approaching a hundred-million admissions, but it's going to play itself out a lot faster, which means if I can do a little crystal-ball gazing, that it will not, not even with a couple of rereleases in a few years, match the granddaddy of all blockbusters.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

MONDELLO: "Gone With The Wind" has sold more than 200 million tickets in its many releases, and it's sold most of them back when there were far fewer people on the planet. In 1939, the city fathers of Atlanta welcomed Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh to "Gone With The Wind's" world premiere with a parade that reportedly attracted 1.5 million spectators. For the record, the population of Atlanta back then was barely one-fifth of that. Disney, by comparison, threw a block party for a few thousand invited guests when it premiered "The Force Awakens" - might want to keep that in mind as the media reports on the history making return of the "Star Wars" franchise.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS")

HARRISON FORD: (As Han Solo) Chewy, we're home.

PETER MAYHEW: (As Chewbacca, growling).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

CLARK GABLE: (As Rhett Butler), Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

MONDELLO: History, it seems, is also a force to be reckoned with. May the hype be with you. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.