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‘Rogue One’ Box Office Success Proves ‘Star Wars’ Can Get Marvel Treatment

Variety logo Variety 12/18/2016 Brent Lang
© Provided by Variety

The success of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” shatters any doubts that the world of Jedi knights, shadowy totalitarian governments, and bug-eyed aliens is much bigger than the saga of the Skywalker clan. The first of several planned standalone films debuted to a massive $155 million domestically this weekend and took in nearly $300 million globally, despite having a darker storyline than previous “Star Wars” films and a higher mortality rate for central characters.

This was always the plan. When Disney shelled out $4 billion for Lucasfilm in 2012, CEO Bob Iger promised to “grow” the franchise. He wasn’t just talking about making a new trilogy, though one started with the release last year of “The Force Awakens,” nor was he intent on doing a few theme park rides and cartoon TV series. He wanted to, in essence, Marvel-ize the galaxy far, far away.

It’s easy to understand why Iger would look to the comic-book company for inspiration. Disney and Marvel have successfully pulled off what few other studios have managed to create, building a sprawling cinematic universe, populated by heroes and villains, who team up, square off, or go off on solo adventures. The multiplicity of scenarios and the vastness of the Marvel library of superheroes has enabled the company to offer up two films annually. That, in turn, gives Disney enormous stability in a business that’s infamous for its volatility. Each Marvel movie can routinely be counted on to make between $500 million and $1 billion globally.

With “Rogue One” and an upcoming Han Solo origin story, Disney is hoping to establish new characters and forge fresh storylines that can move the “Star Wars” universe beyond Luke, Leia, and their tangled family tree.

So far, the results have been a resounding success. “Rogue One” had cameos from Darth Vader and other familiar “Star Wars” faces, but most of the characters were entirely new creations. Some analysts and observers even think that the movie and its more adult tone, to say nothing of a central cast that included Asian, Mexican, and actors of other ethnicities, helped broaden the saga’s reach. Tonally, the film took pains to differentiate itself from the canonical “Star Wars” films. “Rogue One” was structured as a war film with heist elements, following a band of rebels as they steal plans for the Death Star.

“The audience expanded on this,” said Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment. “There’s still a nostalgia element, but I feel like the way this film was released was part of a larger effort to cultivate a new audience and new generation of ‘Star Wars’ fans.”

Fans of the series may thrill to the prospect of a new “Star Wars” adventure hitting screens in 12-month intervals. However, there are risks to having sequels, prequels, and spinoffs pop up too regularly. Part of the reason “The Force Awakens” was such a phenomenon was that there had been more than a decade between “Star Wars” films.

“Sometimes making people wait and creating the perception of scarcity is what makes them seem so special,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore.

In an interview with Variety last month, “The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams noted that a balance has to be maintained behind growing the franchise and retaining its novelty.

“The question becomes at what point is there saturation and at what point is it reductive,” he said, while noting that, “among the many wonderful byproducts of the incredible universe that George Lucas created is nearly anything can happen within it.”

Disney executives acknowledge that there are risks associated with making Star Wars ubiquitous. The best safeguard is the films themselves, they assert.

“The bar is high for delivering on the promise of quality,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief. “Look at how we approached things on the Marvel side by staying true to delivering unbelievable characters and world creation, and creating epic events that are deeply satisfying.”

That kind of quality control can be an expensive proposition. In the case of “Rogue One,” there were reports of extensive reshoots as the studio and the film’s director Garth Edwards and screenwriter Tony Gilroy labored to find the right tone and to hammer out a more satisfying ending. Whatever production headaches were involved in bringing “Rogue One” to screens, audiences seem to have responded enthusiastically to the finished product, turning out in droves and handing it an A CinemaScore.

As Disney and Lucasfilm continue to chart the course for its universe of Jedis, rebels, and dark lords, it would do well to heed Abrams advice.

“What makes ‘Star Wars’ so special isn’t the action figure,” he said in that earlier interview. “It’s not the video games or the toys or the Kylo Ren and Darth Vader hoodies. At the hub of this crazy wheel are stories about people you care about.”

If Disney makes more of those films, people will keep coming.

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