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‘Star Wars’ opens to astronomical sales at box office

“Star Wars” opens to strong ticket sales
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” sold a record $57 million in tickets Thursday. Above, fans at the TCL Chinese Theatre.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Colleen Crosby, 48, saw the very first “Star Wars” movie at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in 1977.

And on Thursday she grabbed her lightsaber and homemade Jedi costume and rushed to the same spot for opening night of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — the first film from the blockbuster series in a decade.

“I can’t wait,” said the Los Angeles resident, who was particularly excited about Carrie Fisher reprising the role of Princess (now Gen.) Leia. “I’ve been a fan since I was 9.”

FULL COVERAGE: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

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Crosby was just one of the millions of people driving “Star Wars” box-office revenues to astronomical heights. The long-awaited seventh film in the space saga — “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — is already breaking box-office records, and appears to be on track for Hollywood’s biggest opening weekend ever. 

Following months of anticipation, relentless marketing by Walt Disney Co., and special promotions, throngs of fans lined up hours ahead of time at theaters around the world to participate in the biggest movie event in a generation.

More than 10,000 of the 43,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada will show the newest “Star Wars” movie throughout the weekend, making it among the highest number of auditoriums ever dedicated to a single film. And multiplexes have added additional screenings — some starting as early as 2 a.m. — to accommodate the demand.

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Phoenix Theatres, a Knoxville, Tenn., chain, set aside half of its 83 screens for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” That’s well above previous blockbusters such as the “Avengers” or “Lord of the Rings” movies, which occupied 30% of available screens at the chain, which operates in Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and several other states.

“I can’t remember ever doing that,” said Chief Executive Phil Zacheretti. “In my 40 years in the business, I’ve never seen anticipation for a movie like this…. This is going to help get some people back to the theaters who haven’t been for a while.”

Opening night of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in Hollywood

The movie began its domestic theatrical run by collecting a record $57 million in ticket sales Thursday night in the United States and Canada. That easily topped the previous record set by “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2,” which grossed $43.5 million from Thursday night shows in July 2011. According to early estimates, “The Force Awakens” could gross more than $100 million as of Friday.

Interest was also apparent on Twitter, where the movie was mentioned roughly 2 million times Thursday, making it the most tweeted-about movie ever, according to social media analytics firm Union Metrics.

Box-office analysts went into the weekend expecting the new “Star Wars” from director J.J. Abrams to gross $180 million to $220 million through Sunday in its domestic opening weekend, but those estimates are looking increasingly conservative. As of Friday afternoon, industry observers said the movie could rake in more than $250 million through the weekend.

The staggering numbers were partly due to the portion of fans who wanted to not just see the movie, but watch it on the biggest, most technologically advanced screens they could find. Nearly half of the Thursday sales were for 3-D screenings, which are more expensive than regular films. Imax, which is showing the movie on 391 screens, generated $5.7 million in sales in the U.S and Canada. That’s nearly double the Canadian company’s previous record set earlier this year by “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

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Imax has bet big on “Star Wars.” The movie, which was filmed with Imax cameras, is even showing in Imax museum theaters that typically show science and nature documentaries rather than Hollywood mega-hits.

The box-office surge also was helped by some unusual promotions. High-end chain Cinépolis brought in members of the 501st Legion — a group of enthusiasts dressed in Storm Trooper garb — to take pictures with moviegoers.

It remains to be seen if “The Force Awakens” will top the record $209 million that “Jurassic World” opened with in June. That would be a remarkable feat for a movie coming out in December, a month that has never seen an opening of more than $100 million. The hype drove record-breaking advance ticket sales from people who didn’t want to miss out. Pre-sales for the movie totaled more than $100 million by Thursday.

Even though most people had already bought their tickets, lines still stretched around the block for Thursday showings of “The Force Awakens” at TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

The “Star Wars” faithful gathered in costume, taking pictures with each other in front of theaters and lining up early to get into the multiplex, even in a modern exhibition era marked by advance ticket sales and reserved seating at many movie palaces. People began lining up for the 10 p.m. Thursday screening at the El Capitan Theatre across the street three hours before the movie started. On the sidewalk outside the TCL Chinese Theatre, three people dressed as members of the cantina band from the first “Star Wars” entertained passersby.

Staff writer Tre’vell Anderson discusses first “Star Wars” memories with actors and filmmakers at the premiere for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Inside the theater, fans cheered enthusiastically for the first bars of John Williams’ opening theme and the introductions of beloved characters like Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Carrie Fisher’s Leia and newcomer Daisy Ridley’s Rey.

“The crowd just went nuts for everything,” said Sabarish Chandramouli, a 24-year-old video game engineer. “It was a throwback to the good old days.”

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In Culver City, 24-year-old Eric Dermanouelian said the new movie bodes well for the franchise owned by Disney, which is counting on the movie to kick off years of sequels and stand-alone spin-off films. The positive response likely comes as a relief to Disney. The three prequels, starting with “The Phantom Menace,” were not fully embraced by die-hard “Star Wars” fans.

“‘Star Wars’ is itself again and I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “The future of ‘Star Wars’ is looking good.”

But some were less enthusiastic, including Christopher Brandt, a 32-year-old Encino gunsmith.

“To be honest, I was a little disappointed,” he said. “The nostalgia was done well. The introduction to new characters was forced.... Overall I’d give it a C-plus.”

It’s not just U.S. fans who are driving sales. The movie is also expected to be an international phenomenon, and it’s already breaking box-office records overseas. The film began its international rollout Wednesday and has grossed $72.7 million internationally so far, bringing its global cumulative box office to $130 million. That was in part thanks to record-breaking opening day sales in Britain, Germany, Australia and Brazil. It debuted in 12 countries Wednesday and an additional 32 Thursday. The movie won’t debut in China, the second-largest film market, until Jan. 9.

Some even crossed international borders for “Star Wars.” Father and daughter Ben and Mary Joe Menbreno flew into Los Angeles on Thursday morning from Honduras just so they could see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” at Regal LA Live.

Mary Joe, 11, dressed in a Princess Leia white gown, said she had been waiting for the moment for years.

“I wanted to come see it here for the whole experience,” she said. “I felt like this would give me a more special feeling.”

“Star Wars” mania has even hit the White House. First Lady Michelle Obama on Friday hosted a screening of “The Force Awakens” for military families. The interest was also evident in the way the president closed his news conference: “OK everybody, I’ve got to get to ‘Star Wars.’”

Meredith Woerner and Ross May contributed to this report.

Twitter: @rfaughnder 

MORE:

Carrie Fisher thinks slave Leia bikini haters are asinine

Harrison Ford on reuniting with Han’s blaster, and forgiving Lawrence Kasdan for the Ewoks

J.J. Abrams on going old school and how ‘Star Wars’ differs from ‘Star Trek’

Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan on the past, present and future of ‘Star Wars’

The women of ‘Star Wars’ speak out about their new Empire

The harsh reality of building a ‘Star Wars’ fantasy in Abu Dhabi


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