Strong reviews put 'Star Wars' in reach of 'Jurassic' box office record

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[December 17, 2015]   By Lisa Richwine

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Glowing reviews on Wednesday boosted weekend forecasts for Walt Disney Co's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," according to box office analysts who projected the long-awaited film will open near the record set this year by "Jurassic World."

The first "Star Wars" movie in a decade will likely haul in between $180 million and $223 million in the United States and Canada from its Thursday night debut through Sunday, experts said after the film scored a 97 percent positive rating on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.

But to become one of the top three biggest ever movies worldwide over the long haul, The Force will need to work its power on China, where the movie opens in January.

The current all-time box office champ is 2009's "Avatar" with $2.8 billion in global ticket sales, followed by the 1997 movie "Titanic" with $2.2 billion.

"The Force Awakens" needs repeat customers in China to reach those numbers. The last "Star Wars" film, 2005's "Revenge of the Sith," collected just $9 million in China.

"That all depends on China,” said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co. “Outside of 'Avatar,' sci-fi hasn’t had a really good track record overseas.”

The positive reviews will draw people outside of the rabid "Star Wars" fan base, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak.

"That's what's going to get it into the billion-dollar club, then the two-billion-dollar club," he said. "Even more important, this sets the stage and the tone for the whole rebooted franchise."

The long-term success of "Force Awakens" is crucial for Disney, which paid $4 billion in 2012 for "Star Wars" producer Lucasfilm and plans several related movies and theme park attractions.

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In North America, the big question this weekend is whether The Force can defeat a herd of dinosaurs. "Jurassic World" debuted with $208.8 million in domestic theaters in June. No movie opening in December, which is slower than the summer, has come close to that level.

"'Star Wars' fans want ownership of this record," Bock said.

Advance ticket sales have been "astounding," said Dave Hollis, Disney's head of theatrical distribution. But he added that millions of seats remain available for this weekend.

"Theaters have been continually adding shows to accommodate demand," he said.

"Force Awakens" powered ahead of "Jurassic World" in social media comparisons from, with more than 739,000 Twitter mentions in the past five days, nearly triple the dinosaur film's 253,000.

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Jonathan Oatis)

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