First of all, I want to raise the question: Will Episode One be seen as a success? Well, money-wise, from the merchandising alone, it already is. However, perhaps it is better to rephrase the question: Will Episode One be perceived as a success?
There's no question that Episode One will bring in a boatload of money. But the yardstick against which it will be measured is literally a boat: Titanic. Titanic pulled in $600,743,440 domestically Can Episode One hope to reach that total?
For those of you who automatically think, "of course", consider the following: Only one film has ever grossed more than $400,000,000 domestically, much less 150% of that total. Even with the hugely successful reissues, the original Star Wars has only made $460,935,665. But, this isn't the best way to look at these numbers.
The better way is to adjust these numbers for inflation. Adjusted to today's dollars, Star Wars would have grossed $774,992,216. In fact, three other films would have passed the elusive $600,000,000 mark, when adjusted for inflation (Gone With the Wind, E.T., and The Sound of Music). However, Star Wars and E.T. were only able to pass the $600,000,000 mark on the basis of additional revenue from reissues. Can a sequel (especially a third sequel) surpass the earnings of the original? It has happened...but usually with low-grossing original films.
When we take a look at the adjusted-for-inflation grosses of the first two Star Wars sequels, a pattern emerges. The Empire Strikes Back earned $431,710,050, and Return of the Jedi made $413,782,013 (these totals include the Special Edition revenue). Each film has earned less than the previous one.
Judging by these numbers, Episode One should be able to make $400,000,000. In fact, I think it will surpass the earnings of both Empire and Jedi...but not the original Star Wars. Why? Well, for one thing, the fans have been chomping at the bit for seventeen years, waiting for a new adventure from the Star Wars universe (those Ewok TV movies notwithstanding...) Lucas could release a complete piece of trash with the Star Wars label on it, and the fans would go...just look a the Star Wars Special Editions...
Yes, let's take a moment to examine the Special Editions, shall we. Ostensibly, they were done in an attempt to update some of the outdated special effects. In reality, their purpose was twofold: to bring Star Wars back into the limelight in preparation for the prequels, and to make oodles and oodles of money. Were they a good idea? Well, they certainly were for Fox and Lucasfilm, which made a bundle off the whole scam. They weren't as good for the fans, and certainly not for the movies themselves.
On the plus side, the fans did get a chance to see the films in theaters again. However, aside from that, the Special Editions showed a complete and utter contempt for the audience. A few token scraps were thrown at a hungry audience, most of questionable taste and/or quality (the "new" Jabba the Hutt scene, and the revised Greedo-shoots-first addition come to mind). The team at Lucasfilm didn't even bother fixing some of the glaringly bad special effects (the hopelessly dated "cardboard model" scenes during the Death Star attack, or the "fizzling lightsaber" during Obi Wan's duel, for example). The new sound mix was a mixed blessing, allowing the new films to compare with today's louder digital films, but also adding alternate sound cues...some of which completely distort the meaning from the original versions (Luke's bloodcurdling scream when he now "accidentally" falls away from Vader). All things considered, the fans (and the movies themselves) would have been better off with an untampered reissue.
But the Special Editions did show that the fans would return in numbers for a glimpse of something new related to Star Wars. (However, it is also worthwhile to note that the three Special Editions followed the same declining earnings as the three films, adjusted for inflation.)
Episode One will certainly open huge. The only impediment to it breaking every known opening weekend record is the fact Lucas is restricting the total number of screens on which the movie will be shown. (However, I think Lucasfilm is making a grave error in disallowing Advance Ticket purchases during the first two weeks. These aren't the 1970s. That move is more likely to irritate potential theatergoers than it is to deter scalpers. In fact, the only audience which it seems aimed to please are the Ewok-suited fans who are salivating to stand in line and experience the "event".)
However, the true test comes a few weeks in... After the fanboys have suffered heatstroke and have been carried away via stretchers, and after families have finally been able to squeeze in the theater, will Episode One continue to draw the repeat viewings necessary to meet the $600,000,000 goal? The sheer amount of detailed special effects will guarantee at least a few repeat viewings. But those will primarily be dedicated fans, and more importantly, primarily male. The repeat viewings of that segment of the audience may be enough to surpass the 400 million mark, but it can't get to 600 million by itself.
Once the film shows the first signs of slowing down, no matter what it's quality or current earnings, there will be a definite backlash that forms against Episode One. For one thing, even if he makes the finest movie ever imagined, there's no way Lucas is going to equal the expectations. He's got his own high bar he must jump over (the holy triumvirate of Star Wars, Empire and Jedi), as well as a huge amount of fan anticipation. That anticipation is always much more exciting than the actual event, and it would be impossible for Lucas to surpass it.
Lucas himself knows this, and has attempted to rein in the hype as much as possible. But, he has failed. The hype is uncontrollable, and is certain to leave some people disappointed (whether deservedly so, or not). Then, there's the jealousy factor. When it becomes apparent that Episode One might not surpass Titanic to become the top grossing film of all time, some Hollywood types will start to consider Episode One a failure (despite its almost assured rank of #2 all time). Be prepared to see a few articles along the lines of "Star Wars - What Went Wrong" come June/July.
Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that Episode One is going to be a bad movie. Far from it, I am hoping for the best, and from early reports on the script, am somewhat optimistic about the film. However, I advise caution. No matter what the quality of the film, those who go in believing the over-hype are certain to be disappointed. Try to low-ball your expectations if you can, and you will enjoy the experience much more. Episode One will likely not be the equal of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, or even Return of the Jedi. It probably will not gross as much as Titanic. Then again, it doesn't have to do any of those to be a good film. Just enjoy, and prepare for the inevitable backlash.
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(Thanks to Mr. Showbiz for the adjusted box office numbers)
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