Star Wars smashes box office: Hype helps, women are key

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I have a confession to make. I’ve never seen a Star Wars movie. Since 1977 when a friend first raved about a brilliant sci-fi film she’d seen on holiday in the US, to now. Not one. Zero.

That’s quite a surprise for an admitted Star Trek/Buffy/Doctor Who fan, but somehow it never appealed.

I tried watching it on TV in the early 80s but my bedroom only had a black & white Russian portable TV with a six-inch screen. The special effects experience kind-of passed me by and I managed about 10 minutes.

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Fast forward to last week. Trying to get to Charing Cross at 6pm and not being able to get through Leicester Square for the crowds of Jedi knights and ewoks. Now I’ve struggled through Leicester Square during A LOT of big-league premières (Harry Potter parts one-though-5,000, Lord of the Rings one-through-87) but I’ve never had to take a complete detour.

The fact is, Star Wars is in a league of its own, whether it’s the $30bn-plus that has been spent on Star Wars-linked merchandise since 1977 or the box office records that have just been smashed.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens powered its way through the North American box office record with a take of around $238m up to Sunday. Not bad, considering the original Star Wars movie took in $517m in a decade. Analysts now think it could beat top-grossing-film-of-all-time Avatar (I’ve never seen that either). Its opening in China next moth could be crucial to that as the last Star Wars movie 10 years ago didn’t do so well there. But Disney has been marketing it heavily in the country.

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Hype, women and toys

The latest blockbuster got to its top box office slot on a wave of hype, generally rave reviews and a merchandising programme second to none. And it needed to succeed to justify Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm for $4bn three years ago and the $200m budget to make the film.

It may have been the first Star Wars movie in a decade but Disney has plans for four more up to 2019, as well as massive Star Wars-focused theme park expansion. A Reuters Breakingviews analysis last week calculated that Disney could triple that investment in the next six years.

For now, the movie is simply the pop culture phenomenon of the year. From the Australian couple who got married while queueing to see it, to Hillary Clinton ending Saturday’s Democratic debate saying, “May the Force be with you” (the most Tweeted comment from the debate), to President Obama ending a news conference by saying he was off to a White House screening of the movie.

The fact is that this particular reboot of the franchise has been very successful in expanding beyond its traditional young male target audience. It has reached out to women and girls too and Disney said that 42% of its audience in the opening weekend was female. We have to assume they weren’t all dragged there under protest.

We don’t know much about the age of the audience but, presumably, nostalgia and the presence of Harrison Ford would have helped to widen its appeal beyond younger demographics.

Even before the opening, Star Wars toys were flying off the shelves and were easily outselling Disney’s previous most lucrative franchise, Frozen.

Topsellers have included Jedi Lightsabers (is there anyone left in the developed world who doesn’t have one of those?) plus Lego sets, and BB-8 droid toys with adults buying toys for themselves too in a collectibles-meets-nostalgia frenzy.

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