Star Wars: Episode 7.5 — The Ripple Effect

            Star Wars

            Nothing but Star Wars

            Gimme those Star Wars

            Don't let them end

Got the tune in your head?

That’s from Bill Murray’s rendition (as Nick the Lounge Singer) of the Star Wars (traditionally lyric-free) theme, first performed on "Saturday Night Live" in 1978.

Joking aside, “Nick’s” wish that Star Wars would never end appears to have been granted, as — approaching 40 years later — Murray’s own ditty has recently been covered by Oscar Isaac, a star of the latest installment in the movie franchise, "Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens," which is debuting in theaters today (although, technically, it began showing last night, Dec. 17, during which it was on track to land a record $50 million to $55 million-plus Thursday night opening).

To those with even a passing interest in the movie business, it might seem as though the industry has indeed been “nothing but Star Wars” for months now — if not for over a year, going back to when the first teaser for "The Force Awakens" appeared online on Black Friday 2014. (Heck, this very article is one of two with Star Wars in the title running on PYMNTS today — and we’re not exactly Variety.)

There’s no question that "The Force Awakens" will be a massive financial success; the only unknown at this point is how much money it will end up making.

The film had already exceeded $100 million in ticket sales before it was released (an “unheard-of number” in that context, remarked The Hollywood Reporter), breaking records left and right — including becoming movie ticketing website Fandango’s top-selling title of all time — en route to an opening weekend haul that analysts place in the range of $185 million to $250 million-plus. Earlier this week, Goldman Sachs increased its projection for the movie’s total domestic earnings from $500 million to $750 million (and its international box office forecast for the title from $1 billion to $1.2 billion), causing shares of Disney — the studio behind "The Force Awakens" — to rise 2.6 percent on Tuesday (Dec. 15).

While this is all obviously great news for The Walt Disney Company, it might seem logical to conclude that it’s bad news for every other movie studio, whose films face the nigh-impossible task of competing with Star Wars for consumer attention and box office dollars through the holiday season (and beyond).

But there’s another way of looking at the situation, one that shows how Disney’s success with "The Force Awakens" could be a boon for the entire movie industry and, therefore, the studio’s competitors.

For some time now, the film business has become increasingly fragmented by the rise of technologies and companies that facilitate at-home, on-demand streaming movie options. A couple years back, even the creator of Star Wars himself, George Lucas — along with his pal, Steven Spielberg — predicted a “massive implosion” of the traditional model of moviegoing, wherein the casual consumer practice of going out to the cinema would be overtaken by VOD (video on demand), forcing theater closures en masse and those that remain to alter their business model to become more akin to big ticket outings, like Broadway and major sporting events.

In a recent article, Los Angeles Times explored the possibility that the prosperity of "The Force Awakens" might actually, on its own, stem the tide of on-demand’s encroachment of in-theater business.

While it’s all but guaranteed that, at least during the movie’s first weekend (or two, or three), competing offerings to Star Wars will comparatively wilt in its Death Star-size shadow, the working theory is that "The Force Awakens" is an event film of such significance that it will attract an enormous swath of consumers who rarely ever go to the movies — or perhaps haven’t in a long time. And if they have a good enough time at that film, they will be more likely to start making theatergoing a regular practice — spending money on other movies, produced and distributed by other companies in addition to Disney.

"What everyone [in the Hollywood ecosystem] is hoping is that Star Wars will be the rising tide that raises all ships,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for the box office tracking firm Rentrak, told L.A. Times.

Greg Foster, chief executive of Imax Entertainment, is among that optimistic camp; he shared with the outlet his belief that "The Force Awakens" is “going to start to reenergize the momentum of moviegoing.”

The “ripple effect” that the L.A. Times puts forth as a potential outcome of "The Force Awakens" has been seen before, in other areas of retail.

In the early 1990s, Nintendo recharged the at-home video gaming industry, setting the stage for the huge success of products that didn’t even exist at the time, like Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox. Apple, for its part, has arguably made the ripple effect a side business, with recent examples like the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch having positive, wide-reaching effects on the tech industry.

For a brand in any industry to actively root for the success of a direct competitor in the hopes that it will have a ripple effect from which it will eventually benefit is far from a common occurrence, but the movie industry, on the whole facing numerous and growing threats to its business model from the outside, is not in a common position. That would explain why executives at competing studios to Disney — while they might not be openly cheering it on — are counting on "The Force Awakens" to lift their shared industry to a record-breaking $11 billion-plus in annual revenue.

For that prediction to come true, the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise would be called upon to bring in the lion’s share of about $1 billion in three weeks’ time. Is it unlikely? Sure.

But, have stranger things happened in terms of predicting things in the movie business?

Just ask Bill Murray.



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