Global audiences are expected to display a Sarlacc-sized appetite this weekend for "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," Walt Disney Co.'s first spinoff film in the long-running space opera franchise.
The question is how big of a hit it will be, coming only a year after "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" smashed box-office records in its debut.
The new movie is expected to open with $140 million to $150 million in the U.S. and Canada alone through Sunday after hitting theaters Thursday evening, according to people who have reviewed audience surveys, probably making it one of the biggest domestic openings of the year. It could also post up to $150 million in international ticket sales this weekend for a possible global total of about $300 million.
"Rogue One" is an important film for Disney as it tries to expand the "Star Wars" movie franchise beyond its central narrative. With an estimated $200-million production budget, "Rogue One" takes place before the events of George Lucas' first "Star Wars" film from 1977 and focuses on a band of rebels that must steal plans for the Death Star.
The Burbank entertainment giant, which paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm in 2012, has multiple "Star Wars" movies planned during the next several years, including an "Episode XIII" for next year and a Han Solo anthology film for 2018.
For "Rogue One," sales will be driven by sustained audience excitement among the core fan base for anything out of the "Star Wars" universe and a tried-and-true marketing campaign highlighting famed X-wings, TIE fighters and Imperial Walkers. One popular TV spot featured the sound of Darth Vader's mechanical breathing over the footage.
"If you're going to get into that top echelon, you really have to be the must-see movie," said box-office analyst Bruce Nash of Nash Information Services. "This is another film in that category."
Nobody expects "Rogue One" to match the debut receipts of last year's "The Force Awakens," which earned a record-breaking $529 million in its first weekend of worldwide release, including $248 million in the U.S. and Canada. The J.J. Abrams-directed epic ended up being the third-highest-grossing movie ever ($2.07 billion), behind "Titanic" and "Avatar."
"The Force Awakens" was the first "Star Wars" movie in a decade, propelled by pent-up demand for the return of the Jedi saga and beloved characters like Princess Leia, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. The new movie, in contrast, features a cast of almost entirely new characters. It was directed by Gareth Edwards ("Godzilla"), and stars franchise newcomers including Felicity Jones and Diego Luna.
One big question is how well the movie will do in China, where "Star Wars" is far less embedded in popular culture than it is almost everywhere else. "The Force Awakens" took in $124 million in that country — a sizable sum, but less than many prognosticators had predicted. "Rogue One" opens in China in early January.
The rebellion won't have much competition stateside. "Collateral Beauty," a weepy Will Smith drama from Warner Bros., is likely to open with $12 million on a $36-million production budget. Meanwhile, critical favorite "Manchester by the Sea" will capitalize on its five Golden Globe nominations by expanding into about 1,200 theaters.