Break box-office records, the new "Star Wars" movie could.
Cinema chain owners have been salivating for months over the potential windfall from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Now they're preparing to cash in when the first "Star Wars" movie in a decade hits theaters Thursday night.
The J.J. Abrams-directed space opera will certainly post huge numbers. But just how big remains to be seen. According to people who have reviewed pre-release audience tracking surveys, the new picture could take in $180 million to $220 million in ticket sales through Sunday in the U.S. and Canada. Analysts say it could eventually bring in $1.5 billion to $2 billion over the course of its global run.
Hollywood is waiting to see if "The Force Awakens" can set a new benchmark for the cinema industry, after Universal's "Jurassic World" broke the record for the biggest domestic opening with $208.8 million in June.
Helped by a surge in early ticket sales, theaters have been selling out screenings, even at 2 and 5 a.m., and theaters have been adding showtimes around the clock to satisfy the audience appetite.
"It's sort of strange that it's actually here," said Mike Sherrill, chief creative officer of the theater chain Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. "It's crazy. We're selling out shows in the middle of the night. We've never seen demand like this."
Theaters across the country will be open and fully staffed 24 hours a day during opening weekend. Some are holding "Star Wars" marathons starting at 4 a.m. Thursday, where fans will watch all six previous movies in the series before seeing "The Force Awakens."
Walt Disney Co., which has much riding on the revival of the "Star Wars" franchise, has waged a sustained marketing campaign to appeal to the franchise's core fan base and tap into the nostalgia for the original trilogy, which began in 1977. Anticipation drove record-breaking advance ticket sales that reached $50 million by mid-November, a total that has surely grown significantly since then.
The hype reached a new level Monday after Disney held the world premiere in Hollywood, where it showed the film in three theaters and closed down four blocks of Hollywood Boulevard for the festivities. Reviews were not yet out Tuesday, but social media posts about the film from those who saw the movie early, including celebrity guests, were overwhelmingly positive. That's a good sign for the film's box-office prospects, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at the entertainment data firm Rentrak.
"There's got to be a collective sigh of relief over at Disney," Dergarabedian said. "The movie's already feeling the love from social media, and that's very important."
Disney and theater chains have done virtually everything possible to fill as many seats as they can, including promotions offered at certain multiplexes. AMC Theatres, for example, is giving out new "Star Wars" posters to people who buy tickets to see the movie in Imax 3D on Sundays through Jan. 10. In a quirky example, Alamo Drafthouse is unveiling a "Star Wars"-themed dine-in menu designed to look like the Millennium Falcon.
"At that point, you're really talking about what is the capacity of the theater industry to sell tickets and get people into seats," said Bruce Nash, president of film industry research firm Nash Information Services.
Theaters also are taking added security precautions for the big opening, which is expected to draw multitudes of costumed fans, some of whom have been camped out in front of theaters since Dec. 8. Theater safety has been a topic of concern after shootings in Aurora, Colo., in 2012 and Lafayette, La., in July.
AMC, the nation's second-largest theater chain, will allow costumes, but not masks, face paint or fake weapons (light sabers are permitted, however). High-end theater company ArcLight Cinemas last week sent an email to customers saying it will not allow large bags, masks or props that could be a safety hazard.
Theater chains are counting on "Star Wars" to help push the industry toward a possible record level of business this year and also reinforce the habit of visiting the multiplex at a time when theaters face more competition from entertainment viewing in the home.
"Everyone is expecting that 'Star Wars' is going to be a blockbuster with huge revenues on opening night and opening weekend, but I think there's the potential to do more," said Adam Aron, newly named chief executive of AMC Entertainment. "It will remind people that going to a local movie theater is a wonderful way to spend the night with your family, spouse or significant other."
A weekend of $180 million or more would be unprecedented for a movie released in December. The biggest opening for that month was "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," which grossed $85 million when it premiered in 2012. If "Star Wars" manages to hit the $2-billion mark worldwide, it will join a club that only includes "Avatar" and "Titanic."
It's still unclear whether "Star Wars" will succeed in pushing the domestic box office to an annual record of $11 billion. At the beginning of the year, analysts widely predicted the industry would reach that mark, but the box office lagged in October and November. As of this week, box-office revenue in the U.S. and Canada totaled about $10 billion — about even with the record pace of 2013.
"We're literally neck and neck with the record box office," Dergarabedian said. "We've got 15 to 16 days to earn a billion dollars in North America, and that's no small feat."
Times staff writer Richard Verrier contributed to this report.