(Bloomberg) –“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” took in $177.4 million in its opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada, delivering yet another hit in what has been a record year for Walt Disney Co.
While still ranking as the third-biggest December opening of all-time, the results trailed what some forecasters were estimating. Ticket sales came in 29% below “The Force Awakens,” the first film in the Disney-produced trilogy. Receipts were higher on Thursday and Friday than over the weekend, suggesting that die-hard fans saw it immediately, while other moviegoers may have been distracted by holiday shopping.
The new film, directed by J.J. Abrams, had to navigate tricky waters, pleasing legions of Star Wars fans while also delivering a conclusion to the current trilogy of pictures. At a press event this month, Abrams said he relied on the actors to help him pull it off.
“The scale of the movie is pretty enormous and none of that would work if you didn’t care deeply,” Abrams said. “The most important thing is the people. We have this incredible cast.”
Internationally, “The Rise of Skywalker” raked in $198 million, Comscore Inc. estimated. The film got $12.1 million in China, where generally the Star Wars movies have been less popular.
Other films opening this weekend did far less well, with “Cats” an adaptation of the Broadway show, taking in $6.62 million and “Bombshell,” about the sexual harassment scandal at Fox News, generating $5.11 million.
“We’re just excited that fans came out, given that this is a saga that evolved over more than 40 years,” said Cathleen Taff, who oversees worldwide film distribution for Disney.
Taff said audience demographics, which included 71% adults, were comparable to the other films in the series. The picture likely benefited from other Star Wars events this year, such as the opening of two lands at the company’s theme parks and a hit show “The Mandalorian” on Disney’s new streaming service. “Those events give it a halo,” she said.
Disney pitched its new movie as the “riveting conclusion of the Skywalker saga.” It features fresh faces from 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” as well as beloved characters from the original “Star Wars” picture in 1977.
The lineup included relative newcomers Daisy Ridley, as the heroine Rey, and Adam Driver as her evil foil Kylo Ren. Original players returning to the series included Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO. Abrams used outtakes from “The Force Awakens” to a deliver a performance by the late Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia.
Attendees at the premiere in Los Angeles last week gushed about the film on social media, and presales at ticketing sites were strong. But “The Rise of Skywalker” fared poorly with critics, scoring just 57% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates reviews. The general public was far kinder, rating it 86% fresh on the same site. Moviegoers polled by Cinemascore gave the film a B+ grade, the first time a Star Wars picture has scored less than an A.
Disney is now at a bit of a turning point with the brand. “The Force Awakens” set records in 2015. But its sequel “The Last Jedi” made less money. And a stand-alone film based on the Han Solo character bombed last year. Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger told Bloomberg News earlier this year that the film series would go on a “hiatus” after this film. The next Star Wars picture isn’t scheduled until December 2022.
“The Rise of Skywalker,” caps what has been a momentous year for Disney’s film division. The movie looks to be the seventh Disney release in 2019 that exceeds $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales. That’s an unprecedented accomplishment for the company, which has already topped $10 billion in total box office worldwide.
The company enjoyed its best year ever at the box office, fueled by megahits such as “Avengers: Endgame” and “The Lion King.” The rest of the industry hasn’t been so fortunate. Overall domestic revenue is down 4.6% from 2018, when ticket sales generated a record $11.9 billion, according to Comscore.