'Rogue One' Makes Soaring Debut

Industries Dow Jones Newswires

This image released by Lucasfilm Ltd. shows Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso in a scene from, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." (Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm Ltd. via AP) (Associated Press)

Walt Disney Co.'s "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" hit blockbuster status with light speed at the box office this weekend, collecting an estimated $155 million in the U.S. and Canada. 

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The movie's haul is the second largest ever for a December opening, bested only by last year's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which broke nearly every record when it made its debut to $248 million in the domestic market, where it eventually grossed $937 million. 

No analyst expected "Rogue One" to top its "Star Wars" predecessor, since it is a spinoff that explores other characters in the franchise universe beyond the core trio of Luke, Leia and Han Solo. "Rogue One," the first spinoff produced by Disney since it bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, follows a band of rebel fighters who play a key role leading up to the events of the original 1977 "Star Wars." 

The movie's domestic showing was on the high end of analyst expectations, and school vacations and the holiday season should give it several solid weekends to come. Audiences gave the movie an "A" grade, according to the CinemaScore market research firm. 

Critics' reviews were more mixed than on "The Force Awakens," and the movie is considerably darker than most Star Wars installments. 

About 75% of the "Rogue One" moviegoers this weekend were adults, similar to the audience demographics on "The Force Awakens." The studio saw ticket sales increase through the weekend to a greater degree than for "The Force Awakens," which was heavily front-loaded with moviegoers at Thursday and Friday showings, said Dave Hollis, Disney's executive vice president for distribution. That suggests repeat viewings and solid word-of-mouth, said Mr. Hollis. 

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By releasing stand-alone "Star Wars" films alongside installments of the "Skywalker saga," Disney hopes to pull in new fans coming to the series for the first time, said Mr. Hollis. 

"You can create a way in for the uninitiated," he said. The studio will be diving into exit poll data later this week to determine how many new Star Wars viewers went to see "Rogue One" this weekend. 

Disney expects overseas audiences to be drawn to the film's diverse cast and extended action sequences, said Mr. Hollis. Internationally, "Rogue One" grossed an additional $135.5 million opening in about 70% of the overseas market. That was a bit below analyst expectations of a world-wide gross exceeding $300 million. 

The only major Asian market showing "Rogue One" so far is Japan, where the movie grossed $7.9 million. The movie will begin screening in South Korea on Dec. 28, followed by China on Jan. 6. Interest in China, the world's second-largest box-office market, is expected to be boosted by the casting of Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen, whose performance as a blind rebel fighter has emerged as a standout of the movie. 

As with every blockbuster opening weekend, "Rogue One's" performance boosted the bottom line for firms across the exhibition industry. Audiences were willing to pay top dollar for IMAX Corp. screens, which delivered $19 million in domestic grosses, and for premium large-format auditoriums operated by exhibitors, which collected $17.9 million of the weekend total. 

Die-hard Star Wars fans have watched Disney's handling of the franchise closely, and several who attended the "Rogue One" premiere in Los Angeles earlier this month said the spinoff met their high expectations. 

"They could make 'Star Wars' movies from here to eternity," said Karl Gehring, an art director from Houston who traveled to California for the premiere. "Quite frankly, I hope they do." 

The weekend's only other new wide release, "Collateral Beauty," grossed a disappointing $7 million. The movie, starring Will Smith as a grieving father, was released by Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. 

In other box-office news, "The Great Wall," starring Matt Damon as a European soldier who helps fight monsters trying to breach the Great Wall of China, performed solidly in its China debut with $67.4 million for the weekend. 

That's on par with the China opening of "Warcraft," which went on to collect $220 million in the market. The movie's backers, which include Legendary Entertainment and China Film Group, were looking to China for blockbuster grosses ahead of a U.S. opening on Feb. 17. 

Write to Erich Schwartzel at erich.schwartzel@wsj.com