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‘Skywalker’ box-office draw suffers from lukewarm reviews

Christopher Palmeri
Bloomberg News

Walt Disney Co.’s “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” will be one of the biggest movies of the year, but maybe not quite as big as originally expected.

The film, which officially debuted Friday, is projected to take in $160 million to $190 million in its first three days, according to Boxoffice Pro. That forecast is down from as much as $225 million earlier in the week, before a rush of tepid reviews from critics. On the Hollywood Stock Exchange, the forecast has declined about 12% to $205.9 million.

Predicting the box-office performance of films is notoriously tricky. And it’s risky to bet against Disney’s marketing muscle: The world’s largest entertainment company has been promoting the release for months. Still, the opening seems likely to fall short of the past two movies in the saga: “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi.”

Joonas Suotamo is Chewbacca, Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, Daisy Ridley is Rey and John Boyega is Finn in "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker."

Estimates for “The Rise of Skywalker” were initially higher based on early audience reaction. Attendees at the premiere in Los Angeles on Monday gushed about the film on social media, and presales on ticketing sites have been strong. Fandango, for example, said purchases were pacing similar to 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” which delivered $220 million in its opening weekend.

Forecasts have been coming down this week after the film fared poorly with critics, scoring just 57% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates reviews. Anything below 60% is considered “rotten.”

Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro, said he thinks many of the ticket presales may be for screenings after Sunday, during the Christmas holiday week, and thus won’t count in the opening-weekend results.

In contrast, “The Last Jedi” was a hit with critics. But it also irked some fans, who didn’t feel like the storylines and character development stayed true to the Star Wars ethos.

“This week’s mixed reviews have emphasized the likelihood that casual fans may be waiting to hear word of mouth from their own peers before deciding to see the film,” Robbins said.

Disney, which typically forecasts conservatively, said earlier in the week that it was looking at an opening weekend of $160 million or more. Exhibitor Relations Co., another forecaster, has kept its estimate steady at $191 million. Box Office Mojo, meanwhile, expects $215 million.

“The Rise of Skywalker,” caps what has been a momentous year for Disney and the Star Wars brand. The film still looks to be the seventh released by Disney in 2019 that will exceed $1 billion in total ticket sales. That’s an unprecedented accomplishment for the company, which has already topped $10 billion in total box office worldwide.

Disney also opened two Star Wars-themed lands at its resorts in Anaheim, California, and Orlando, Florida, this year. And it’s built a following for “The Mandalorian,” a Star Wars TV series that serves as the centerpiece of the new Disney+ streaming service.

Disney has worked to get younger people interested in the Star Wars brand. Last week, the company offered a sneak peek at the new film within the wildly popular video game Fortnite, for example.

It’s also relying on Star Wars movie marathons to build excitement, and fans have been lined up for days on Hollywood Boulevard waiting to see the film.

The first Star Wars picture, in 1977, was a global phenomenon. Each of the films in that trilogy, and in a second one in the early 2000s, ended up producing higher tickets sales in its opening weekend than its predecessor, according to the Numbers website.

“The Force Awakens,” the first Disney produced film in the series, set box-office records in 2015. But “The Last Jedi” made less money. And a stand-alone film on the Han Solo character bombed last year.

Star Wars aside, Disney has enjoyed its best year ever at the box office, fueled by megahits such as “Avengers: Endgame” and “The Lion King.” The rest of the industry hasn’t been so fortunate. Overall box-office revenue is down 5.4% from 2018, when ticket sales generated a record $11.9 billion domestically.