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Rogue One Had the Best Opening Yet for a Star Wars Prequel

By  · Published on December 19th, 2016

So why does everybody think it’s a box office disappointment?

The second Star Wars movie since Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm opened over the weekend, and looking at its debut compared to the first one seems troublesome for the studio. Last year at the same time, Star Wars: The Force Awakens made $248m in its initial weekend. Now it’s followed by Rogue One taking in nearly a hundred million less, with only a $155m start. Not only did it open much shorter than its immediate franchise precursor but it also had only the third-best debut of the year, behind Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Yes, that latter title makes Rogue One seem especially embarrassing. But seeming to be troublesome or embarrassing isn’t the same as being so. Disney had projected somewhere between $120–150m, so they wound up exceeding their expectations. But some box office analysts, believing the studio was lowballing to be safe, were predicting it could go as high as $175m. By that measure, it’s a disappointment. With the movie actually falling between the two guesses, its opening gross is fair. Especially if it’s true that Rogue One also cost a hundred million less than The Force Awakens.

There are also a lot of ways to spin Rogue One as a success at this early stage. For one thing, it had the best opening for a Star Wars prequel. Even with adjustments for inflation, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith can only boast debuts of $110m, $119m, and $146m, respectively. Sure, that’s with fewer screens, more with each subsequent release, so let’s compare averages: Episode 1 did $37k (and let’s not forget that movie had round-the-clock showings its first weekend), Episode II did $37.5k, Episode III did $39.8k, and Rogue One did $37.3k. All pretty similar.

This isn’t the first Star Wars movie to not have the best opening of the year, either. While most of them do have that honor, 2002’s Attack of the Clones also fell behind a topper featuring Spider-Man – the first Spider-Man – plus the second Harry Potter movie, Chamber of Secrets. There’s also the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but they both began in limited release. When the latter went wider, it took in almost as much as the year’s champ, Smokey and the Bandit II, though it also had already made a ton of money in the three weeks prior. And opened in limited with a $39k average.

Spin or not, though, the truth is that Rogue One has some serious handicaps to consider compared with The Force Awakens. The latter is a long-awaited sequel featuring beloved characters from one of the most popular movie series of all time. Characters we hadn’t seen in non-baby form for 32 years. It wasn’t just a movie, it was a massive event. And it helped that reviews were very positive ahead of release. Rogue One has the name but wasn’t sold as being so essential to follow an ongoing narrative. It’s a little treat on the side with mostly unfamiliar characters and a different, less-family-friendly tone.

Next year, Star Wars: Episode VIII will arrive and be much bigger. It’s hard to imagine it being as big as The Force Awakens either, unless the audience is hungering for answers. It will be missing one of the most popular characters, but perhaps more Luke Skywalker will make up for that. But as more and more of these installments in both the regular Saga and as part of the spinoffs/standalones/prequels/etc. Anthology group are released, the more diluted the overall excitement could be. Or not. There’s a chance Star Wars will be like Marvel and continue to have ups and downs with its openings.

The Rises and Falls of Marvel’s Opening Box Office Numbers

The main, numbered Star Wars Saga movies are sort of like the Avengers titles of the franchise now (plus Marvel Cinematic Universe sequels featuring crossover ensembles, as Civil War does). Rogue One is then akin to the side series of the MCU that introduce new characters. Because it’s about a ragtag team of antiheroes, the best comparison is Guardians of the Galaxy, which opened better than most MCU offshoots but still only did $100m to start. It went on to a domestic gross higher than that of Batman v Superman. Rogue One will also certainly top the DC Extended Universe movie, as well.

Thinking more about the future box office of Star Wars, the other Anthology titles look to be mostly origin prequels and other side stories of characters we already love, and they will therefore have an advantage over kicking off unknowns like Doctor Strange and Ant-Man. But if not every Star Wars movie has to cost and make as much the peak performers, we ought to (hopefully) eventually see more new singular characters given their own movies and series. Ultimately, The Force Awakens gave us new characters we immediately loved and would follow further without the original leads. Rogue One, too.

Disney’s Best Year Ever, By Brand

If positive reception and discussions of Rogue One continue, it’ll do pretty well. Maybe it’ll even snare in some of the people who had to go see a new Star Wars movie starring Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, and C-3PO but weren’t in any rush to see another prequel featuring Darth Vader (if interested at all) and a known ending. It is possible Rogue One won’t even crack half of The Force Awakens’ $2b worldwide gross (let alone the $1.5b of Furious 7, which opened domestically to less than Rogue One’s take). And that’s OK.

Actually it’s probably preferable, in that it shows not all Star Wars movies have to be huge or do huge numbers if we’re going to keep the brand going. If everything was a gigantic event then that doesn’t leave a lot of room for different things. It’d all be the same sort of movie over and over again in order to get the same sort of result over and over again. Rogue One tries some stuff we haven’t seen in a Star Wars movie before, and so far it’s been relatively successful with reviews, CinemaScore, and now box office opening. Its debut gives me hope, and it should do so for Disney, as well.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.