Was ‘Star Wars: Rise Of Skywalker’ Hollywood’s Last $1 Billion Blockbuster?
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Was ‘Star Wars: Rise Of Skywalker’ Hollywood’s Last $1 Billion Blockbuster?

Scott Mendelson

If domestic grosses remain suppressed by coronavirus and China continues to pump out their own tentpoles and thus stop caring about Hollywood’s, the era of the $1 billion-grossing blockbuster could have ended with Frozen II and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’

Today marks the ten-month anniversary of the domestic debut of Walt Disney DIS and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio’s divisive series finale for “The Skywalker Saga” remains the last $1 billion-plus global grosser since pretty much every movie that had a shot in hell at that milestone got pushed to 2021. With $515 million in North America, it is also the last movie to get anywhere near $300 million domestic, but I digress. When will Hollywood get their next $1 billion-plus movie? Might the answer be… never again?

The Contenders

Even if had it opened in ideal circumstances, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 likely would have debuted with over/under $140 million, legged out to around $375 million while earning more overseas (especially in China thanks to the recent Marvel/DC superhero boom) than its predecessor and ended up with around $900 million global. Under current circumstances, I’d be thrilled if the Gal Gadot/Chris Pine DC Films superhero sequel, whose predecessor earned $821 million global in 2017, became this year’s only $600 million global grosser.

No Time to Die is 2021’s first “possible but not guaranteed” contender for $1 billion. Skyfall earned $304 million domestic and $1.108 billion worldwide in 2012 but did so under the best possible circumstances. It had rave reviews, featured Adele singing the title track, capitalized on the 50th anniversary of Dr. No and played in a year-end season where the big November fantasy flick (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part II) and the big Christmas fantasy flick (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) were both “for fans only” affairs.

This left Skyfall as the lone year-end “for everyone” general audience event movie. Comparatively, Spectre earned $200 million domestic and $881 million against Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015. Under $1 billion is no failure as long as it still A) makes a lot of money and B) gives Daniel Craig a better swan song than Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan got. But the notion of the fifth and final Daniel Craig 007 flick passing $1 billion is not remotely a guarantee.

The next likely contender is Marvel’s Black Widow on May 6. Walt Disney’s  Scarlett Johansson prequel, starring a character who died in Avengers: Endgame, may end up closer to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($869 million), Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million) and Spider-Man: Homecoming ($881 million) than Captain Marvel ($1.128 billion) and Spider-Man: Far from Home ($1.131 billion). As long as it makes money and is well-received, especially as the first MCU movie since in almost two years, that’s no failure.

F9, opening on May 29, which pits Vin Diesel against his evil brother (Jon Cena) and brings back Sung Kang's (not-quite-dead) Han Seoul-Oh, is almost certain to be the next $1 billion-grossing blockbuster. With Jurassic World: Dominion and Avatar 2 both delayed to 2022, F9 is as likely to rule 2021. Furious 7 earned $1.517 billion in 2015 and Fate of the Furious earned $1.236 billion in 2017. The series is still the only “not a DC or Marvel movie” brand that still kicks butt in China.

Fate of the Furious earned $226 million, way down from Furious 7’s $353 million gross but on par Fast Five’s $210 million gross in 2011 and Fast & Furious 6’s $238 million cume in 2013. Even before coronavirus struck, F9 might have been the first movie to top $1 billion global with an under-$200 million domestic cume. If F9 doesn’t cross the magical finish line, Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru is the next likely candidate. Despicable Me 3 was summer 2017’s only $1 billion movie despite “only” grossing $264 million domestic.

Other likely contenders for 2021 include Marvel’s Shang-Chi (July 9) and Marvel’s Spider-Man 3 (December 17). Likely biggies that could aggressively overperform include Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon (March 12), Venom: There Will Be Carnage (June 25), Jungle Cruise (July 30), The Suicide Squad (August 6), Marvel’s The Eternals (November 5, 2021), Mission: Impossible 7 (November 19), and The Matrix 4 (December 22). Most of those potential overperformers would be thrilled with over/under $650 million, so this isn’t so much a line in the sand as covering by butt in case any of these films really go bananas.

None of the above…?

What if The Rise of Skywalker is the last $1 billion-plus grosser until, at best, Jurassic World: Dominion? Okay, sure, Thor: Love and Thunder and Black Panther 2 (presuming it opens on May 6, 2022 as scheduled) are likely contenders, but what are the two things that almost every big Hollywood movie needs to pass $1 billion? The answer is A) aggressively strong domestic grosses and/or B) strong Chinese box office. One can substitute for the other, but there is absolutely a ceiling if you don’t have either variables.

Not every $1 billion earner has relied upon China. Joker and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest didn’t even play in China. Not every $1 billion earner was massively successful in North America. Transformers: Age of Extinction earned $240 million domestic and $320 million in China for a $1.1 billion cume. Minions earned $1.159 billion in 2015 with “only” $68 million in China as it earned $335 million domestic. Despicable Me 3 needed a surprisingly robust $158 million Chinese haul to pass the $1 billion mark.

Furious 7 didn’t need $391 million in China to pass $1 billion because it earned $353 million domestic, but Fate of the Furious (which earned $226 million domestic) absolutely did. Likewise, when Black Panther earns $700 million in North America, its $105 million Chinese gross is essentially gravy toward its $1.346 billion cume. Ditto the Star Wars episodes ($937 million domestic/$123 million in China, $620 million/$42 million and $515 million/$21 million) and Frozen II ($447 million/$122 million) and its $1.45 billion cume. But you still need “option A” or “option B.”

We don’t have a clue when/if domestic box office numbers are going to revert back to pre-2020 normalcy. We could be dealing with Hollywood tentpoles with comparatively suppressed grosses until there’s a safe, reliable and affordable treatment or a vaccine for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, China drowning in a deluge of local blockbusters and (thus far) mostly rejecting what little Hollywood has offered this year (Tenet is tops with $66 million). We don’t know if Chinese moviegoers will care about the next batch of delayed Hollywood biggies.

As much as we talk about overseas box office ruling Hollywood, the biggest biggies still rely on domestic grosses. Disney is huge precisely because movies like Beauty and the Beast, Black Panther, Toy Story 4, The Rise of Skywalker, Incredibles 2 and The Lion King regularly pull in $400-$700 million domestic totals. Ditto Universal and its overseas might, which is why we went almost five years (from Paramount’s PGRE Transformers: Age of Extinction in June 2014 to Warner Bros.’ Aquaman in December 2018) whereby every $1 billion grosser came from Disney or Universal.

Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal don’t rely on China so much as expect China to artificially inflate the already massive global grosses for their biggest movies. Aquaman got to $1.148 billion partially thanks to $298 million in China, but it’s not like WB would have wept if Aquaman had only earned $100 million in China and $950 million worldwide (like the Hobbit prequels). Universal’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which earned $267 million in China and $1.308 billion global, would have crossed $1 billion global without a penny from China precisely because it earned $417 million domestic.

You can make the case that the last five years’ worth of $1 billion-plus grossers was a direct result of 3-D/IMAX IMAX /PLF ticket price inflation and overseas expansion, especially in China, which served to artificially inflate the global grosses of already successful movies. And if the new normal involves both comparatively depressed domestic grosses due to pandemic concerns and further shifting toward VOD/streaming, combined with China finding less need for Hollywood imports, well, you can’t get a $1 billion-plus grosser without one of those two elements.

The end of the $1 billion blockbuster?

You can overperform in North America on your way to $1 billion. Think Joker ($335 million in 2019), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest ($423 million in 2006) and Skyfall ($304 million in 2012). You can also compensate for a domestic downturn with robust Chinese grosses. Think Despicable Me 3 which earned $1 billion including $158 million in China, or Transformers: Age of Extinction which dropped to $240 million domestic in 2014 but earned $320 million in China for a $1.1 billion finish. But you generally need one or the other.

Domestic box office could remain comparatively suppressed long enough for audiences to acclimate to streaming/VOD especially as the few remaining big-ticket non-Marvel/DC franchises (Daniel Craig’s 007 movies, Mission: Impossible, Jurassic, Fast & Furious, etc.) come to an end. Concurrently, China’s ability to make their own mega-movies could render most of Hollywood’s output redundant and irrelevant. That was starting to happen last year as superhero movies squashed other Hollywood tentpoles in North America AND China. As such, the $1 billion blockbuster may be a thing of the past… at least until Avatar 2.

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I've studied the film industry, both academically and informally, and with an emphasis in box office analysis, for nearly 30 years. I have extensively written about all

I've studied the film industry, both academically and informally, and with an emphasis in box office analysis, for nearly 30 years. I have extensively written about all of said subjects for the last 11 years. My outlets for film criticism, box office commentary, and film-skewing scholarship have included The Huffington Post, Salon, and Film Threat. Follow me at @ScottMendelson and "like" The Ticket Booth on Facebook.