With a last-minute jolt to the 2016 box office, Disney's "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" shot past all other competition to land the third-best opening of the year.
The film brought in an estimated $155 million in the U.S. and Canada, surpassing analyst expectations of $140 million to $150 million. "Rogue One" is also a hit internationally, with $135.5 million, which is below analyst expectations of $150 million.
"This is the start you hope for. This is the start you wish for," said Dave Hollis, Disney's distribution chief. "We're ecstatic about the very excited response from audiences."
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 first spinoff film in the long-running space opera franchise, it stars Felicity Jones, Diego Luna and Alan Tudyk, among others.
"Rogue One" had the second highest December opening ever, behind only "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which opened last year.
The new film is an important one for Disney as it expands the "Star Wars" movie franchise beyond its central narrative. Its stellar performance for the Burbank entertainment giant, which paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm in 2012, bodes well for the multiple other "Star Wars" movies planned during the next several years. They include an "Episode XIII" for next year and a Han Solo anthology film for 2018.
"This was a little bit of a litmus test of what these standalone films can mean, both storytelling-wise and commercially," said Hollis, noting that the spinoffs have the potential to "create a way in" for new "Star Wars" fans. "But the bar that we have to hit is very high."
The key to the film's success is the sustained audience excitement among the core fan base for anything out of the "Star Wars" universe. A tried-and-true marketing campaign highlighting famed X-wings, TIE fighters and Imperial Walkers also hasn't hurt. One popular TV spot featured the sound of Darth Vader's mechanical breathing over the footage.
Critics and audiences appear pleased with the spinoff. It has an 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and moviegoers (59% male; 63% 25 and older) gave it an A CinemaScore.
Some 62% of viewers saw the picture in regular two-dimensional format, with the rest choosing 3D screenings. Of the film's total gross, $29.2 million came from more than 700 IMAX screens worldwide, making it the second-highest December IMAX opening in history, again behind "The Force Awakens," and the biggest domestic IMAX opening of 2016.
The film couldn't match last year's debut of "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, with $2.07 billion, behind "Titanic" and "Avatar," far surpassing expectations.
"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").
Although "Rogue One" posted the fourth-highest December opening of all-time internationally, one true test of the film's success will be its debut in China, where "Star Wars" is far less embedded in popular culture. "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 only other new release of the weekend was Warner Bros.' "Collateral Beauty." The picture, starring Will Smith as a father still struggling to cope years after his daughter's death, pulled in $7 million. It came in well below analyst projections of $12 million, but it did bring in $4.6 million from international markets.
Made for $36 million, the film also stars Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña and Naomie Harris, who is receiving awards season recognition for her work in "Moonlight."
"Collateral Beauty," which was positioned early on as a potential award season contender, was panned by critics, with a 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences (59% female; 74% 25 and older), however, have given it an A-minus CinemaScore.
The movie's performance was good enough for a fourth-place finish for the weekend.
The rest of the top five were holdovers. Disney's "Moana," in its fourth week, was second with $11.7 million. It's grossed $161.9 million to date. Paramount's "Office Christmas Party," in its second week, pulled $8.5 million for third place. Its gross to date is $31.5 million. Warner Bros.' "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," in its fifth week, landed in the fifth spot with $5 million. It has grossed $207.7 million to date.
On the limited-release front, critic's favorite "Manchester by the Sea" expanded widely to the tune of $4.2 million, good enough for a sixth-place finish overall. Emboldened by five Golden Globe nominations, the film's gross to date is $14 million.
Also expanding was Lionsgate's "La La Land," to 200 locations. It pulled in $4 million this weekend, an overall seventh-place finish. This brings the film's gross to date to $5.3 million. "La La Land" is an award season front-runner, with seven Golden Globe nominations. Another award season favorite, Paramount's "Fences," opened in limited release. In just four theaters — two each in Los Angeles and New York — it brought in $128,000. The Denzel Washington-directed picture, starring Washington and Viola Davis, is slated for a wide release next weekend.
Also releasing next weekend will be Fox's comedy "Why Him?"
Fox's "Assassin's Creed," Sony's "Passengers" and Universal's "Sing" will open Wednesday.
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9:55 a.m.: This article was updated with studio comments.