When Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuts on December 18, 2015 in domestic theaters, it will debut to "around 3,900" screens, according to BoxOffice. That number may not mean much to the casual fan, but to industry trackers it's surprisingly low.
When talking about arguably the most anticipated movie in a decade, seeing this relatively low number of 3,900 is surprising. The film has already set records for pre-sales, after all, and industry pundits have already talked about it being the highest grossing movie of the year, if not of all-time, with the highest opening weekend of December, the year, or again all-time, depending on who you ask.
To put the number of screens into context, at 3,900 it would come in as the #11 widest release of the year. Minions topped the year with 4,301 screens at opening the week after 4th of July. Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World also came in at 4,276 and 4,275 respectively. Mockingjay Part 2, Furious 7, Fantastic Four, Tomorrowland, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Inside Out, and Spectre (3,929) round out the top ten. That's three films distributed by Buena Vista, Disney's distribution arm handling Star Wars, and every other film outside of Minions is a big-budget action film aimed squarely at the same audience as The Force Awakens. Now, they say "around 3,900," so that could put this movie over the last one or two, but it's still nowhere near what was expected.
In the even grander scheme of things, the widest release ever belongs to The Twilight Saga: Eclipse with 4,468. The Dark Knight Rises clocks in at 4,404. The widest for a December release was the first The Hobbit film at 4,045, though, a bit closer to the reported Star Wars numbers.
Still, the low screen count is a mystery thanks to the other factors above. Perhaps Disney wants every theater completely sold out, or as close to it as possible. It may not seem like 300-400 screens makes that much of a difference, but if each of those can hold, let's say an average of 200 people for, on the low end, 4 showings a day, that's the potential for 320,000 tickets sales per day, and at an average (and this number seems low) movie ticket price in the US of $9, that's a whopping $2.88 million dollars per day being left on the table.
But if Disney thinks those tickets will fill out the empty seats in other theaters, rather than just causing more empty seats in new ones - cramming 320,000 people into mostly-full screenings, they'll give the public perception that the opening weekend was just flat-out sold out. They can potentially expand the number of screens then, (6 out of the 10 listed above did that in their second weekend), and sell even more tickets, as people perceive it to be a must-see and difficult-to-get ticket. It's the old "people want what they can't have" trick, and it's remarkably effective.
Of course, this number could change in the next week, as well, or could be simply mis-reported. One other factor is that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be on every IMAX screen in the domestic market for the first month of its release. That's around 400 screens being sold exclusively at ticket prices more than double the national average (even more if it's IMAX 3D), which certainly makes up for a lot of those other screens. It is, contextually, also the largest opening of a Star Wars film, even at the low 3,900, it would beat out the next highest by about 240 screens.
Besides, Chipmunks needs to have a few theaters for it on the 18th, right?