In the new film "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," reluctant rebel Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, has to help a ragtag group of fighters steal plans for the Death Star and save the galaxy. Walt Disney, meanwhile, has to make sure fans don't get tired of this.
With a budget estimated at $200 million, "Rogue One" will be a crucial test of the company's strategy of releasing a "Star Wars" film every year through 2020, alternating between episodes of a trilogy and what the company calls "standalone" films. Not everyone is convinced that will work.
"The question is whether there will be box-office interest in a non-saga film," said Doug Creutz, an analyst with Cowen & Co. "This is the first side story. What's the interest going to be? I don't know."
The film, which hits U.S. theaters Dec. 16, is the second "Star Wars" film from Disney since the company bought series owner Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012. The company successfully rebooted the franchise with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" last December.
That picture, coming 10 years after the last new release, grossed $2.07 billion worldwide, to rank third in motion-picture history. It lifted almost all parts of the Disney galaxy, especially the film studio, where quarterly profit jumped 86% and consumer products, where earnings grew 23%. The movie has generated a profit of $1.77 billion from theaters, home video and TV, analysts at SNL Kagan estimate.
"It's working for us," Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger said of Disney's movie slate at the "Rogue One" premiere on Saturday night, when many fans came out in costume and a full-size reproduction of an X-wing fighter was parked in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard. "Just look at the year we've had."
The acquisition of Lucasfilm followed Disney's equally sized purchase of Marvel Entertainment in 2009. By tapping into the comic-book publisher's universe of often underutilized characters, cross-pollinating the plots and stepping up production, Disney turned Marvel into a cinematic juggernaut, one that's sold more than $10 billion of tickets worldwide, according to the researcher Box Office Mojo.
The company's strategy of focusing on familiar characters and brands has helped Disney dominate the box office, with the highest domestic market share of any studio at 24% this year and record profit for the company's film division in fiscal 2016.
Disney's next picture in the third "Star Wars" trilogy, the as-yet-unnamed Episode 8, is scheduled for release in December 2017. Another standalone film, about the young Han Solo character, is planned for May 2018. Pictures in 2019 and 2020 complete the current six-movie slate.
"Rogue One" takes place before the events of the very first "Star Wars" film, which was released in 1977. While that picture focused on Princess Leia's efforts to destroy the Death Star, the Galactic Empire's most-powerful weapon, "Rogue One" tells the back story of how her Rebel Alliance acquired the crucial blueprints for that vessel.
The company is trying to temper expectations that the new "Star Wars" will be as stellar as "The Force Awakens." Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy told investors last month to expect a 20% drop in earnings from consumer products this quarter because sales of "Rogue One " merchandise won't match the pent-up demand seen last year.
"It is not even going to come close to 'The Force Awakens,'" said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "That hit the cultural zeitgeist button."
The world's largest entertainment company is walking a fine line with the new film, delivering familiar elements such as Stormtroopers, droids and Darth Vader, while also trying to differentiate "Rogue One" by leaving out the iconic opening crawl and the John Williams-penned opening theme. Mr. Bock questions whether the film breaks enough new ground.
"Right now we are just going back," Mr. Bock said.
More broadly, Disney faces the potential for saturation. In fiscal 2018, which starts next October, the company will release four Marvel superhero films and two "Star Wars" movies. Warner Bros. has two DC Comics films planned in that stretch and 20th Century Fox will release two films from its slice of the Marvel universe.
Mr. Creutz, the Cowen & Co. analyst, predicts "Rogue One" will produce $350 million in domestic ticket sales and $800 million worldwide, an amount that would make the film profitable on a theatrical basis alone. The picture had to undergo some reshoots, which can be a sign of trouble, he said.
Other estimates are higher. At the Hollywood Stock Exchange, where predictions are based on fans' fictional movie investments, the forecast is for domestic opening weekend sales of $167 million, one of the biggest debuts ever, and $440 million through the first four weeks. "The Force Awakens" holds the all-time weekend record at $248 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
Feeding the Empire
Disney's strategy is also about keeping "Star Wars" in consumers' minds and feeding other parts of the company's empire. Already "Rogue One" characters and memorabilia are being added to Disney's theme parks. The 6-inch, fully-poseable Jyn Erso action figure is available at Disney stores for $20.
"While I find the latest 'Star Wars' films hard to watch, I don't think they are poorly thought out," said John Baxter, author of "George Lucas: A Biography." "It's not a case of squeezing the golden goose, but rather of breeding goslings."
The "Star Wars" faithful seem to be eating it up. Christopher Wistock, a 26-year-old salesman from Santa Rosa, Calif., came to the premiere Saturday night with members of his club devoted to the Mandalorians, a fictional people from the series. Mr. Wistock, who has multiple "Star Wars" tattoos and wore a helmet he'd designed, said he considers the franchise to be in good hands.
"I loved it,"Mr. Wistock said of the new film. "I got everything I wanted and then some."