With no Star Wars, cinema industry is divided over the biggest hit

For the past three Boxing Days, there was no doubt what the most popular movie would be.

A Star Wars instalment released just before Christmas dominated the biggest day of the cinema year then went on to become the summer's biggest hit.

Jason Momoa in Aquaman.Credit:Warner Bros

All three movies cracked the top 10 of the all-time Australian box office led by Avatar's $115.6 million – The Force Awakens is second with $94 million, The Last Jedi third with $57.6 million and Rogue One eighth with $51.4 million.

But with neither lightsabre nor X-wing fighter in sight this Boxing Day – and no fantasy epic of Lord of the Rings, Avatar or Hobbit proportions – the cinema industry is facing different questions this year.

What will be the day and potentially the summer's biggest movie?

"I'd put my money on Aquaman," says the managing director of Universal Pictures in Australia, Mike Baard, citing its strong opening in China and other parts of the world.

But the general manager of content for Event Cinemas, Claire Gandy, reckons a Disney animated sequel will be bigger.

Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz, (Sarah Silverman) in Ralph Breaks the Internet.Credit:Disney

"I think it's going to be Ralph Breaks The Internet," she says. "Adults are going to love it just as much as the kids."

The managing director of Sony Pictures Releasing, Stephen Basil-Jones, also believes Aquaman will open ahead of Ralph Breaks The Internet.

Another key question is how many Will Ferrell fans will turn up to the Hollywood comedy Holmes & Watson. While heavily promoted, his latest movie with John C. Reilly is opening without previewing either here or in the US, which raises suspicions that it is a dud.

Basil-Jones, whose company is distributing Holmes & Watson, says it has only just been finished.

"It's not going to be as big as Aquaman but people always like to see something funny and fun at Christmas," he says. "If you want a John C. Reilly-Will Ferrell stupid comedy, we've got it."

While algorithms shape so much of our online lives, including social media and streaming choices, cinema still relies on an old-fashioned formula every Boxing Day.

There is always a big fantasy movie, a Disney or Pixar animation, a broad Hollywood comedy, a quality British drama, an Oscars contender and a foreign-language charmer to appeal to different audience segments.

This year there is also a second foreign-language film and an arts documentary (see the full line-up below), with continued ticket sales expected for the Transformers instalment Bumblebee, the animation Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the Queen bio-pic Bohemian Rhapsody .

While the top film on Boxing Day is generally the summer's biggest hit, that might not happen these holidays.

While Baard sticks with Aquaman, believing it will take $30 million to $35 million, Gandy believes the long-time-coming sequel Mary Poppins Returns will top that when it opens on January 1.

Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Watson (John C. Reilly) in Holmes & Watson.Credit:Sony

"It could have been a disaster because the original is so beloved," she says. "But you walk out with a smile on your face."

Basil-Jones expects the musical to appeal to children, families and an older audience. "Mary Poppins might have its umbrella in front," he says.

Despite the popularity of streaming and television catch-up services this year, annual box office was up 6 per cent in mid-December on the same period last year.

But without a Star Wars, Baard expects the year to finish just 1 to 2 per cent up on last year's $1.201 billion but likely behind the 2016 record of $1.259 billion.

He is content with little annual growth given all the competition from other forms of entertainment.

"Flat is the new up," he says. "Whether or not it breaks the record, it's probably going to be the second biggest year ever."

One troubling issue for cinema operators is that admissions – the industry measure for tickets sold – fell from 91.3 to 85 million last year and is unlikely to recover much this year, especially as many refurbished cinemas have introduced bigger seats, which reduces numbers.

"It's going to be hard to build admissions," Basil-Jones says. "Box office is going to be healthy but it's more just keeping it going rather than seeing any declines."

THE BOXING DAY MOVIE LINE-UP

AQUAMAN

Director: James Wan (Fast and Furious 7)

Stars: Jason Momoa, Nicole Kidman, Amber Heard

Buzz: A solid DC Comics superhero movie, more Wonder Woman than Batman v Superman.

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET

Director: Phil Johnston and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph)

Stars: Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman and Gal Gadot

Buzz: An entertaining animated sequel likely to appeal to adults as well as children.

HOLMES & WATSON

Director: Etan Cohen (Get Hard)

Stars: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Ralph Fiennes

Buzz: Seems promising but opening without any preview screenings – never a good sign.

Rachel Weisz and Olivia Coleman in The Favourite.Credit:Fox

THE FAVOURITE

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster)

Stars: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz

Buzz: Witty and well-acted British costume drama about a rivalry at court.

Christian Bale in Vice.Credit:eOne

VICE

Director: Adam McKay (The Big Short)

Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell

Buzz: Breezy takedown of former US vice president Dick Cheney that's a likely best picture nominee

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig in Cold War. Credit:Palace Films

COLD WAR

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida)

Stars: Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig, Agata Kulesza

Buzz: Aching beautiful Polish romance that is one of the year's best foreign-language films

THE WILD PEAR TREE

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Winter Sleep)

Stars: Dogu Demirkol, Murat Cemcir, Bennu Yildirimlar

Buzz: Long, unhurried but ultimately rewarding coming-of-age Turkish drama

Yayoi Kusama in Kusama: InfinityCredit:Madman

KUSAMA: INFINITY

Director: Heather Lenz (Intertwined Lives)

Stars: Yayoi Kusama

Buzz: Documentary portrait of a famous Japanese artist and her eventful life

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