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'Rogue One' to bow to 'Force Awakens,' but incinerate holiday competition

It's time.

Walt Disney Co. is powering up its Death Star, ready to activate its box office superlaser, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," which will likely incinerate the competition.

The new installment in the Star Wars universe is set to hit a December record in theaters, behind only its predecessor, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." BoxOffice.com pegs the opening at $155 million. Deadline Hollywood offers a less-specific "north of $140 million" forecast. Variety delivers a slightly more conservative range of $120 million to $150 million, with the caveat that for movies this size, "it can be difficult to accurately project ticket sales. There's a lot of predictive room between huge and massive."

Even if "Rogue One" falls short of the high bar set by "The Force Awakens," it is still in good company. It is shaping up as the fourth highest-rated Star Wars title on Rotten Tomatoes, falling behind "The Force Awakens" and ahead of "Return of the Jedi."

But by most estimates, "Rogue One" is the less impressive of the two most recent Star Wars films. Besides forecasts putting its debut about $100 million below "The Force Awakens'" eye-popping $248.0 million domestic opening, the film is also not playing as well with critics. Rotten Tomatoes dubbed it with a "Certified Fresh" rating, but its score was 84% as of 5 p.m. ET Dec. 15. "The Force Awakens," on the other hand, carried a 92% "Certified Fresh" rating. Further, Fandango is reporting that "Rogue One" is seeing more presale tickets than any other movie in history except one: "The Force Awakens."

However, regardless of its position in the Star Wars universe, "Rogue One" will still be a major victory for Disney, capping off the company's best year in theaters, or potentially any studio's best year for that matter. Many weeks before the end of the year, Disney announced that it already saw its best box office year. After "Rogue One," which looks to be heading for the studio's fourth $1 billion-plus film of the year, Disney could crest a record $7 billion for 2016.

The comparisons span some of the most successful theatrical releases in recent history, alongside prior Star Wars franchise films. "Rogue One" will likely show up beneath "The Force Awakens" and "Jurassic World," which both surpassed the $200 million mark at opening. But it will also do better than the Star Wars episodes one, two and three, which are the least successful Star Wars films, critically speaking. Only "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" broke the $100 million mark among those episodes. Regardless, Disney is looking down the barrel of profit margins above 50%, based on similar titles.

The band of intragalactic rebel heroes will not be the only players on the stage during the weekend of Dec. 16. Two other films will debut in wide release, even if they do so in the shadow of the Death Star.

For audiences that are looking for something with a little more emotional reality than "Rogue One," Will Smith will lead an ensemble cast in tearjerker "Collateral Beauty." That title is expected to pull in between $10 million and $12.5 million among BoxOffice.com, Variety and Deadline. Keeping a lid on sales, it was tracking at a dismal 14% "rotten" score on Rotten Tomatoes as of 5 p.m. ET Dec. 15.

Comparisons for the drama are decidedly mixed. Among a group five similar films selected by S&P Global Market Intelligence — which includes "The Pursuit of Happyness," "Seven Pounds" and "The Legend of Bagger Vance" — the average profit margin was 22.6%. Looking at the extremes in the comparisons, "The Pursuit of Happyness" delivered 48.9% for Warner Bros. and "Concussion" was 86.7% in the red.

The most critically acclaimed wide release is "Manchester by the Sea," tracking a "Certified Fresh" 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That film is expected to collect in the mid-single digits, according to Deadline and BoxOffice.com.

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