When Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens on Dec. 18, many questions will be answered: Where is Luke Skywalker? Why is Princess Leia a general? What’s Han Solo been up to? How much money can a movie actually make? But perhaps the most pressing mystery for the J.J. Abrams-directed spectacle, which could gross north of $600 million worldwide in its opening weekend: Does it have real Oscar potential? “There’s no reason to rule it out,” says an Oscar consultant. “It could win more than any other film.”
Should it captivate the globe as expected while also exploring themes like self-discovery and rebirth — as Abrams has promised — it could be too big a cultural touch point to ignore in the major categories. In fact, The Force Awakens has plenty in common with James Cameron’s epic Titanic, a late-breaking, under-estimated phenomenon that destroyed everything in its path 18 years ago, earning $600 million in the U.S. and nabbing 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Director.
To get to the Oscar stage, The Force Awakens has to overcome obstacles greater than some measly iceberg. The movie can’t just be good — it has to be amazing. There may be no front-runner in this year’s Best Picture race, but that just means more competition. In 2009, when the Academy expanded the category from 5 nominees to up to 10, the intention was to recognize blockbusters — enough to make the general public actually care about the Oscars. Instead, a trend of nominating well-made but smaller indie films emerged.
This year, to the Academy’s delight, commercial hits The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Straight Outta Compton — films that mixed spectacle with cultural relevance — are making a play for the race. Add The Force Awakens, and it gets interesting. For the first time in a long while, the category may include a broad range of titles, with quieter, well-received movies also vying for love (Spotlight, Brooklyn) and many anticipated flicks yet to debut (Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, David O. Russell’s Joy, and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight).
Competition aside, the bigger challenge could be that the Academy rarely recognizes a sequel. When George Lucas’ original space odyssey debuted in 1977, it was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. The trophy proved elusive, and the saga would never again see a Best Picture nom. In fact, with the exception of the Godfather series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, sequels never land in the race. “The Academy doesn’t give points for extending a narrative,” says another Oscar consultant. “Taking existing characters and extrapolating on them doesn’t win.”
The Oscars aren’t the only awards game in town, however. The American Film Institute announced on Nov. 17 that it will push back its year-end ranking to allow The Force Awakens to be considered, a move that suggests it’s taking the film seriously. Like everyone else, they’re eager to see if Abrams and company have the goods to best Titanic‘s record. And that answer will only come in time, young Padawan.
HIGHEST-GROSSING BEST PICTURE WINNERS (ADJUSTED FOR INFLATION)
1. Gone With the Wind (1939)
2. The Sound of Music (1965)
3. Titanic (1997)
4. Ben-Hur (1959)
5. The Sting (1973)
6. The Godfather (1972)
7. Forrest Gump (1994)
8. Around the World in 80 Days (1956
9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003
10. My Fair Lady (1964)
NOTE: DOMESTIC BOX OFFICE, SOURCE: BOX OFFICE MOJO. Asterisk denotes box-office totals of multiple releases.