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Walt Disney Co.'s 'Rogue One' to power 'Star Wars' franchise and possible $300-million debut

Walt Disney Co.’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” premiered at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood on Dec. 10. The film could gross $300 million worldwide over its opening weekend.

For months, the Walt Disney Co. downplayed expectations for its forthcoming “Stars Wars” film.

Speaking at a Wall Street conference in September, Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger said the new movie, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,”  was “an experiment of sorts” and one he didn’t expect to top the performance of 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Although Rogue One” isn’t expected to best the previous film’s $2.07-billion haul, the new movie is still shaping up to be a box-office juggernaut, potentially grossing as much as $300 million worldwide in its opening weekend. That would set the film, a stand-alone from the main “Star Wars” series, on the path to blockbuster status and help Disney further its strategy of pumping “Star Wars” through its diverse businesses.

A strong debut would be welcome for Disney, whose television operation — the biggest of its businesses — has run into headwinds as consumers’ viewing habits are changing. Disney, which long relied on having ESPN and other premium channels distributed to nearly all pay-TV homes, has been hurt by cord-cutting and the slimmed-down television packages offered by service providers. According to Nielsen data, ESPN has lost more than 9 million subscribers since 2013.

"I don't think it is so simple that you can say the studio is doing well, so it can make up for the softening growth at ESPN," said JPMorgan analyst Alexia Quadrani. "But there is no question it is easier to remain relatively calm about the outlook at ESPN when you have such success elsewhere at the company."

Shares of Disney have jumped nearly 7% over the last month, Quadrani said, in part because of "Rogue One" and the success of the film studio, whose 2016 hits have included "Zootopia" and "Doctor Strange." Shares closed Thursday at $104.39, up 0.33%.

Few entertainment companies have the diversity of businesses — TV networks, theme parks, stores  — that Disney boasts. "Star Wars" occupies an important place in this ecosystem because the franchise can be tapped by each of these businesses, giving them an infusion of fresh intellectual property on which to capitalize.

Disney clearly had a sense of the possibilities for "Star Wars" when it acquired Lucasfilm, the company behind the franchise, for $4.06 billion in 2012. Some analysts questioned the purchase, but now it is widely seen as a stellar one. A lot of that goodwill has to do with "The Force Awakens," which became the third-highest-grossing film of all time behind "Avatar" and "Titanic." The movie, the first in the franchise in more than a decade, also generated significant business in other arenas, such as consumer products.

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"The movies are the hype engine that push [the franchise] forward every year," said Scott Krisiloff, chief investment officer at Avondale Asset Management, which is not an investor in Disney. "Really, the value is in consumer products and things like that."

"The Force Awakens" was a key reason for Disney's record fiscal first-quarter profit.  The film led the studio to a record $1-billion profit, an 86% increase over the same quarter a year earlier, and helped the consumer products and interactive division post a $860 million profit — an increase of 23%.

A recent report by Quadrani of JPMorgan projects the studio to deliver a profit of $869 million in the first quarter of 2017 and the consumer products and interactive division to record a profit of $685 million, partly fueled by "Rogue One."  Although below last year's figures, the results would still be strong by historical standards.

How much Disney pockets from its "Star Wars" business is hard to calculate. The company has not disclosed how it divides revenue with retailers, exhibitors, toy makers, video game developers and other partners.

Box-office analysts predict "Rogue One," which opened Thursday and is largely well-liked by critics, will gross as much as $150 million in the U.S. and Canada during its debut weekend. That's a notable drop-off from the record domestic opening of "The Force Awakens," which raked in $248 million over its first weekend in theaters. Still, Quadrani said the movie, which had an estimated budget of $200 million, could tally $1.7 billion in total box-office receipts throughout its theatrical run. That would place it in a rare class: Only six films have topped $1.5 billion.

They have really rekindled the awareness in the public’s mind, and in a very smart way.


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Four more "Star Wars" films will roll out over the next four years — two in the main series and two stand-alone movies — and Iger said at the September event that he had recently met with Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy to discuss the next decade.

"We started talking about what we're going to do in 2021 and beyond," he said. "She is making a 'Star Wars' universe of sorts."

That would likely infuse the other businesses in Disney's portfolio with many more years of "Star Wars"-related projects.

Disney is now building 14-acre Star Wars lands at Disneyland and Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla. The themed lands will both feature an attraction that allows users to take control of Millennium Falcon, the iconic ship used by the Han Solo character, and guide it on a mission. Disney also announced that it would add characters from "Rogue One" to a "Star Wars" daytime show at Hollywood Studios.

This holiday season, stores will be stocked with "Rogue One" action figures from Hasbro and Lego toys as well as a variety of apparel, among other items. While not as extensive as the consumer products push for "The Force Awakens" — which benefited from one of the most coveted toys of the 2015 holiday season, the BB-8 droid —  the retail campaign around "Rogue One" is still ambitious.

Disney began marketing "Rogue One" months ago, releasing the first teaser trailer in April. Partnering companies Duracell, General Mills, Gillette and Verizon and Nissan have also put out advertisements that promote the film. And Nissan has launched a limited edition of one of its existing SUVs — the conveniently named Rogue — that includes "Star Wars" logos and other unique features.

There have been other synergies: Disney-owned ABC recently aired an episode of "The Goldbergs" featuring a "Star Wars" subplot, and the "Rogue One" cast has appeared on "Jimmy Kimmel Live."

"They have really rekindled the awareness in the public's mind, and in a very smart way," said Tuna Amobi, an analyst with CFRA Research.

Times Staff Writer Ryan Faughnder contributed to this report.

Follow @DanielNMiller on Twitter for film business news.

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