Editor's pick: This article originally was published on Dec. 15.
When it staged the premiere for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the media company spared no expense, even closing down Hollywood Boulevard so it could build a full-sized X-Wing fighter in front of the theater where the event was held.
Little wonder. Rogue One, which Disney is billing as a standalone movie rather than part of the George Lucas Star Wars story line, is a pricey attempt to keep the franchise alive and well, boosting revenue within its empire of assets while the company prepares next year for the eighth in the main line of films that have generated more than $6.7 billion in worldwide ticket sales.
"We'll keep fans engaged in the Star Wars universe and further expand the franchise with the release of Rogue One," Disney CEO Bob Iger said earlier this year on an earnings call with analysts.
Made for more than $220 million, Rogue One takes place just before Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and the other characters in Lucas' initial films began their battle. In the latest film iteration, a band of rebels steal the plans for the Galactic Empire's Death Star.
The eighth in the core Star Wars saga is due in theaters Dec. 15, 2017.
Disney needs the heroics of Rogue One primarily to hyperdrive its studio and consumer products units, which license everything from Hasbro's (HAS) - Get Report $7.99 action figures of the rebel fighters to $3,000 necklaces from Signet's (SIG) - Get ReportKay Jewelers.
The film is especially crucial to Disney as the company continues to struggle with falling subscribers at the ESPN cable sports franchise, the largest part of the company's cable unit. Last year it provided 45% of its overall earnings.
"Disney is about monetizing brands in every way they can," said Drexel Hamilton analyst Tony Wible, who has a hold rating on Disney's stock. "There is the more identifiable stuff like film and consumer products, but [Rogue One] will also help boost their awareness in China and [Latin America]. It will also build interest in the park expansions."
The last Star Wars installment, 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, generated $936.7 million in U.S. ticket sales and an additional $1.13 billion worldwide, according to audience measurement firm comScore. Disney collects about half the U.S. ticket sales and a lesser amount in some foreign countries.
Rogue One could do nearly as well, according to some Hollywood insiders. Paul Dergarabedian, comScore's senior media analyst, figures Rogue One will open with more than $150 million, Hollywood's second-largest December opening behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Box Office Mojo reported Friday that the film took in $29 million Thursday night for the largest preview gross of the year.
The Star Wars franchise is one of 11 Disney franchises that generate more than $1 billion a year in retail sales for its products, Disney executives have said. That jumps whenever a new Star Wars movie hits theaters. When Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened last December, it generated retail sales of $3 billion in Disney's first quarter, ended Jan. 2, Iger said, as well as what he called "unprecedented growth" of Disney's mobile games.
That was enough to push the operating income for Disney's studio to more than $1 billion for the first time and to hike the company's consumer product earnings by 23% to a record $860 million.
Disney needs Rogue One to warp drive to similar heights. By Disney's second quarter, ended April 2, Star Wars' momentum waned, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Earnings at its consumer products division fell by 8% from a year earlier to $357 million, as increased Star Wars merchandise wasn't enough to offset a falloff in those from Disney's Frozen animated film. Studio operating income dipped to $542 million, still up 27% year over year.
Disney is also counting on Rogue One to keep company fans salivating for the opening of two new Star Wars "lands," with rides and restaurants based on the movie at its Disneyland park in Anaheim, Calif., and Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Fla. Construction began in April on the two 14-acre park expansions, where rides will include one allowing riders to control the Millennium Falcon space ship and another that places guests in the middle of a battle between the First Order and the Resistance.
No date has been announced for the opening of the two Star Wars lands.
Disney hasn't been shy about using the allure of the Star Wars films to help its ailing ABC network, either. Taking advantage of the publicity surrounding Rogue One's premiere, ABC staged a special one-hour show hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, in a battle with CBS's (CBS) - Get Report Stephen Colbert for second among late night shows after Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show on Comcast's (CMCSA) - Get Report NBC.
The attraction: the movie's stars talking about making the film. And, of course, a look at the X-Wing fighter on Hollywood Boulevard, not far from the studio where Kimmel's show tapes.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held positions in Disney, CBS and Comcast.