Why Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a Box Office Wild Card

Scott Mendelson at Forbes (no relation to Director Krennic) recently wrote an interesting piece regarding the challenges of predicting the box office success of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.  Mendelson discusses how there has never been a film quite like Rogue One in recent Hollywood history.  The fact that the film is a spin-off of a recently revitalized major franchise, yet will not star any of the primary characters from The Force Awakens or the original films, makes Rogue One somewhat of a wild card.

To be clear, Mendelson doesn’t suggest at all that Rogue One won’t be a success:

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For the record, this does not mean to suggest that Rogue One won’t be, barring unforeseen variables, a big hit this year. The trailers are great, the fans are psyched, and the there is little reason to presume it won’t clean house this December. But how big of a hit it will be is where the fun lies. Because this is arguably something of an unprecedented release, at least in modern time.

It’s a fairly safe bet that Star Wars will once again dominate December for the second straight year.  And personally, I’ve enjoyed having the holiday film season be so focused on Star Wars.  It gives me the feeling that Star Wars, rightly, is above the other summer blockbusters.  Let the other franchises fight for every summer dollar while Star Wars dominates a whole season.  However, Mendelson rightly points out that in many ways, Rogue One is an experiment. “It’s a test case as to what you can get when you slap the Star Wars name on a somewhat stand-alone story that doesn’t star Skywalkers or Solos,” writes Mendelson.  I think many of us know this to be true.  Lucasfilm seems to have approached these “Star Wars Stories” with a desire to stretch the brand, tell unique stories of different genres, and give the helm to up-and-coming directors.

Ultimately, Mendelson raises some great questions that can only be answered after Rogue One premieres:

Will it play better in some overseas territories than The Force Awakens because of the ethnically diverse cast and the “not relying on generational nostalgia” narrative? Will the alleged reshoots and tinkering create a better version of the intended product or something (relatively speaking) resembling Suicide Squad‘s “more crowdplease-y” compromise? Will it do enough to convince Disney and Lucasfilm to do more spin-offs that aren’t “Young Han Solo” or “Yoda: Origins” prequels? Will the surefire family-bait that is Illumination and Universal/Comcast Corp’s Sing bite into the family audience, especially after the holidays?

How Rogue One answers these questions could go a long way towards determining the future of the “Star Wars Stories” going forward.  I really hope that Rogue One gives Lucasfilm the confidence to continue exploring various genres in a Star Wars setting, to continue tapping somewhat unproven directors and writers to give them a chance to play in this incredibly vast sandbox, to create and feature original characters that are in no way connected to the main saga, and, most important to me, to continue to cast and star a diverse range of actors.  In many ways, Rogue One has more depending on its success than even The Force Awakens did; It’s certainly less of a sure thing.

It will be particularly interesting to see how Rogue One performs internationally, and specifically in China.  As others have noted, Star Wars isn’t as popular as might be expected in China, which didn’t even have a Star Wars film release domestically until The Phantom Menace in 1999.  Indeed, the first time A New Hope screened in China was just last year!  Essentially, the Chinese audience is the Prequel generation.  There is considerably less–if any–nostalgia connected to the Original Trilogy in China and perhaps that is why Star Wars as a franchise doesn’t quite have the foothold in that market than Lucasfilm and Disney might desire.  Rogue One is the first Star Wars film ever to feature three Asian actors (Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, and Riz Ahmed) in the main cast.  Yen, who according to Forbes was one of the 10 highest-paid Asian actors in 2015, certainly brings some East Asian star power to the film, and Wen is well known in that market as well.  Will they give Rogue One the edge that it needs to make a larger cultural impact in the much heralded Chinese market?  If Rogue One turns out to be an Asian box office powerhouse while being a moderate success here in the United States, it would be interesting to see how that impacts Lucasfilm’s decisions going forward.  It’s an exciting era of Star Wars filmmaking that we’re living in and I certainly can’t wait to see how it unfolds!

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