Star Wars: The Force Awakens was always going to be a success. Whether or not it was embraced by critics, the rabid fan base for the franchise combined with the curiosity surrounding the first Star Wars movie to be made without George Lucas, the first under Disney and the first to reunite the original film’s star trio (and a couple of droids and a Wookie) were all going to drive ticket sales through the roof. As it turned out, fans and critics did embrace the film, which became the top grossing film of all time in the U.S., taking in nearly $1 billion domestically (and more than $2 billion globally).
Now, with the holiday season release of Rogue One, the real test for Disney and Star Wars is about to begin.
Largely divorced from the Skywalker saga (though at least one member of that family does make an appearance), and with a darker tone than The Force Awakens, Disney executives have acknowledged that the new film can’t match last year’s blowout numbers. The company is reportedly projecting domestic box office of $120 million to $150 million and global sales between $250 million and $300 million on opening weekend. Analysts expectations range slightly higher, but still shy of the $179 million opening for Captain America: Civil War, the best so far this year — and well short of the $248 million domestic opening weekend for The Force Awakens.
But if Disney’s plans for the Star Wars franchise are to be successful, Rogue One needs to hit those marks or better.
The list of 2016’s top grossing films now has Finding Dory and Captain America: Civil War in the top two spots, with both grossing between $400 million and $500 million domestically. (It is worth noting that both are also Disney films, as Pixar is a subsidiary of the Mouse House.) Rogue One can be expected to at least challenge for the top spot, helping Disney to become the first studio to top the $7 billion mark in annual ticket sales.
Just how well Rogue One does will have implications far beyond this calendar year. It will signal just how high Disney can pin its hopes for the Star Wars franchise overall and the $4 billion investment it made when it bought Lucasfilm in 2012. If Rogue One succeeds, that will bode well for the plan to use the Star Wars universe’s multitude of alien races, distant planets, iconic aesthetics (we all know what a lightsaber or a Stormtrooper looks like) and cosmology (The Force, The Dark Side, The Empire) to release a new film every Christmas more or less for the rest of your natural life.
While 2018 and 2020 promise us Episodes 8 and 9 in the core Star Wars story, and a return of the surviving heroes of The Force Awakens, the odd years are to be populated by stand-alone films that do not directly play into the Skywalker family drama. Disney can’t (or at least shouldn’t) milk that saga forever, and as such, it needs to be able to prove that it can make a standalone film work.
Beyond that, Rogue One gives the company an opportunity to see if this universe can accommodate other genres beyond the straight hero’s journey/space Western of the original trilogy. While still very much a Star Wars film, Rogue One hews closer to a film like The Dirty Dozen. It is a Mission Impossible movie set in space. If it works, there is no reason to expect this universe can’t support a noir-ish detective movie, or Alien-style horror movie or a goofy meta comedy about bumbling stormtroopers who can’t shoot straight or lazy Jedis who use their mind tricks to get free pizza.
Diehard fans of the series, who have kept up not only with the films, but also the books, comics and videogames — and spent billions on merchandise of all sorts, too, including a reported $700 million last year — are used to this approach, but it’s new and untested on film and with a broader audience. And so Rogue One represents a roll of the dice. Fail, and Disney will almost certainly take a more cautious approach going forward. Succeed, and the franchise will have taken its first step into an even larger galaxy.