Disney’s ‘Rogue One’ reaps $29 million in year’s top preview

Felicity Jones in “Rogue One.”  Jonathan Olley, Lucasfilm-Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

First-night ticket sales of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” put it on track to top the box office and post one of the biggest opening weekends of the year, validating Walt Disney Co.’s strategy of spinning new stories and characters off of the sci-fi classic.

The feature, a prequel to the original 1977 “Star Wars,” collected an estimated $29 million in theaters in the U.S and Canada in previews Thursday night, Disney said in an email Friday. It generated $33 million from international ticket sales from countries including the U.K., Australia and Germany that account for about 60 percent of the total international box office. It will debut in South Korea on Dec. 28 and China on Jan. 6.

The domestic Thursday night preview record is held by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” with $57 million. Only a handful of films have topped $30 million from preview screenings, including “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” and some of the “Twilight” films. Before “Rogue One,” the biggest preview this year had been Warner Bros.’ “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” with $27.7 million.

Disney estimated Friday that the film’s full opening weekend will generate $135 million to $140 million domestically, compared with an earlier range of $120 million to $150 million. Projections for the total through Friday are higher than $65 million, Disney said.

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The studio also sees the film bringing in $130 million to $150 million outside North America. Some box office analysts had more aggressive forecasts. Box Office Mojo put the domestic debut at $166 million, Hollywood Stock Exchange put it at $166 million, and BoxOfficePro.com forecast an opening weekend for the sci-fi feature at $155 million.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” holds the record for the largest opening weekend in North America, with $248 million.

With “Rogue One,” Disney is testing its ability to expand the “Star Wars” franchise beyond the trilogies created by George Lucas, following its $4 billion takeover of Lucasfilm Ltd. in 2012. Like the strategy Disney applied successfully with its Marvel Entertainment superheroes, the studio is creating a universe of characters and storylines that can be interwoven to create new movies. The pressure on Disney will be to keep fans coming back to theaters for at least four more Star Wars installments.

Disney has scheduled “Star Wars: Episode VIII” for December 2017 and another stand-alone movie, about a young Han Solo, for May 2018. Episode IX and another stand-alone film are expected.

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“Rogue One” cost $200 million to produce, not including marketing costs, according to Box Office Mojo.

In 1977, the first “Star Wars” movie depicts a rebel alliance led by Princess Leia that attempts to destroy the Galactic Empire’s space station, the Death Star, by using stolen plans. “Rogue One” is the story of how they get those plans. Felicity Jones plays reluctant rebel Jyn Erso, whom the rebel alliance drafts to help find out about a weapon of destruction the Empire is building and how to destroy it to save the galaxy.

The movie scored highly with many critics, with 85 percent giving positive reviews, according to aggregator Rottentomatoes.com. The movie is “a tense, well-made spacefaring war movie about a desperate and demoralized band of insurgents standing up against a rising authoritarian regime,” according to NPR critic Chris Kilmek.

The weekend’s only other new wide release is Warner Bros.’ “Collateral Beauty,” featuring Will Smith and Helen Mirren in a critically panned tale about a New York advertising executive trying to recover from the death of his daughter. It was forecast to generate $10.9 million, according to Hollywood Stock Exchange.

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Bloomberg’s Christopher Palmeri contributed.