‘Sisters’ and a History of the Movies That Opened Against ‘Star Wars’
On December 18, Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in the movie theaters and most of the weekend’s showings are already sold out. Tickets were in such high demand that ticketing web sites like Fandango and MovieTickets.com crashed. Fans are already camped out in line waiting to get in. Anticipation is at a fever pitch.
But, there’s also another movie opening on December 18. Former SNL castmates and Golden Globes hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler reunite for the R-rated comedy Sisters. The two star as a mismatched pair of sisters who throw a house party in their childhood home before their parents sell it off and retire. Despite Fey and Poehler’s popularity, it’s a bold move to open any movie against a Star Wars movie. Few have tried in the past and, while most have failed spectacularly, there are some surprises. For example, can you name the only movie to beat a Star Wars movie on their opening weekends?
As Sisters gets ready to take on The Force Awakens, we looked back at the history of movies that have opened against Star Wars movies to see how they fared, and to see what hope there is for Tina and Amy.
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (May 19, 1999)
The Love Letter
Opening Weekend: $2,692,819
Total Box-Office: $8,276,228
This is a movie that I completely forgot existed on every level. It stars Ellen DeGeneres, Tom Selleck, Kate Capshaw and a young Jack Black, but I have no recollection of it, and maybe this is why. There wasn’t much that could survive up against the first Star Wars movie in 16 years, but DreamWorks tried to counterprogram with this female-leaning romantic comedy. It didn’t work. To be fair, The Love Letter would’ve bombed no matter what movie it went up against.
Opening Weekend: $125,636
Total Box-Office: $318,246
Interesting that Paramount would try to open a documentary about Star Trek against a Star Wars movie, considering that their entire demographic was camping out in line to see The Phantom Menace. The first ever release of Paramount Vantage, the low-budget arm of Paramount Pictures, was unceremoniously buried against the biggest movie of the year and lasted only two weeks before being pulled from theaters.
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (May 16, 2002)
About a Boy
Opening Weekend: $8,557,630
Total Box-Office: $41,385,278
As far as attempts to counterprogram a Star Wars movie go, About a Boy is as close to a big success as you’ll get. It didn’t hurt that the Hugh Grant dramedy was actually quite a good movie. Brothers Paul and Chris Weitz (one of which is actually writing an upcoming Star Wars movie) were nominated for an Oscar for their script adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel and the film made over $40 million. It was successful enough to spawn an NBC TV series (which was canceled after a year), and the little boy grew up to be Nux in Mad Max: Fury Road. Not bad, About a Boy!
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (May 19, 2015)
Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist
Opening Weekend: $138,311
Total Box-Office: $236,901
Now this is a classic dump job. In 2004, Paul Schrader was hired to direct an Exorcist prequel that would follow a young Father Merrin. The production company got cold feet after they saw Schrader’s version of the film and hired Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) to re-film about half of the movie and released that film as Exorcist: The Beginning. Everyone hated it. So the production company gave Schrader the chance to finish his version for Warner Bros. to release. The studio wasn’t too excited about either version, and quietly released this clumsily retitled version in 110 theaters opposite Revenge of the Sith. Dominion got better reviews than The Beginning, but only slightly.
Star Wars (May 25, 1977)
Smokey and the Bandit
Opening Weekend: $1,728,060
Total Box-Office: $5,678,950
Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: Star Wars was not the #1 movie at the box office when it opened in theaters in May of 1977. That honor went to the Burt Reynolds and Sally Field action-comedy Smokey and the Bandit. To be fair, back in the 70s, blockbusters were sometimes opened first on a limited basis, so in its first weekend, Star Wars only played in 43 theaters. 20th Century Fox would continue to slowly add theaters over the course of the summer as word of mouth grew, eventually playing in 1,096 theaters by August. While Star Wars would go on to gross over $300 million that year, Smokey and the Bandit was no slouch, coming in 2nd overall for the year with $126 million.
The Empire Strikes Back (May 21, 1980)
The Gong Show Movie
Opening Weekend: $1,476,425
Total Box-Office: $1,476,425
Yes, there is such a thing as The Gong Show Movie and, after going up against one of the best movies of all-time, it predictably failed. Billed by The Gong Show creator Chuck Barris as a version of the show that was “gonged by the censors,” it was a mostly fictional account of a week filming the 70s game show. The film showed Barris suffering from a nervous breakdown and, considering he would later write an autobiography claiming he was a covert assassin for the CIA, his mental stability may never have recovered. Not only did Universal try to hide this film against Empire, it was so bad George Burns went on the record as saying, “For the first time in 65 years, I wanted to get out of show business.”
Opening Weekend: $622,337
Total Box-Office: $44,017,374
Perhaps the most successful, from both a commercial and critical level, of all the films that have ever opened against a Star Wars movie, The Shining opened in third place (yes, behind The Gong Show Movie) during Empire’s opening weekend. It likely would have done much better, but Warner Bros. only opened the film in 10 theaters. Despite its low theater count, The Shining brought in an astounding average of $62,233 per theater, actually higher than Empire Strikes Back. While Smokey and the Bandit made more money than The Shining, it’s hard to argue with Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel as having far bigger impact on pop culture. Though it didn’t open to great reviews, audiences continued to turn out and Kubrick’s classic held its own against Star Wars.
Return of the Jedi (May 25, 1983)
Opening Weekend: $2,252,682
Total Box-Office: $6,149,983
While most Star Wars counterprogramming tends to skew towards the female demographic, Chained Heat producers went in a completely different direction: horny dudes. Paul Nicholas’ controversial women-in-prison exploitation film was released against Return of the Jedi and didn’t make much of an impact. Perhaps they didn’t realize most of the horny men out there would turn out to see Princess Leia in a metal bikini. Though the film spawned two sequels and built a cult audience, it couldn’t compete with the final film in the original Star Wars trilogy.