'Last Jedi' will play a big role for Disney

Studio aims to take on Netflix

Disney, Lucasfilm

“The Last Jedi” will introduce the porg (right), with Chewbacca.
Disney, Lucasfilm “The Last Jedi” will introduce the porg (right), with Chewbacca.

LOS ANGELES — Few would dare underestimate the cultural and commercial power of “Star Wars.” The latest movie in the Skywalker saga, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” is sure to have one of the biggest opening weekends of the year, with an estimated $425 million in its global premiere.

The movie will debut today.

That’s another good omen for Walt Disney, which has staked a big piece of its future on the enduring appeal of the decades-old series, with an expanding universe of “Star Wars” content coming to big and small screens in the next few years.

“Stars Wars’” value to the Burbank entertainment giant goes well beyond the box office. Aside from spawning new video games, toys and theme park attractions, the space opera franchise will play a pivotal role in Disney’s efforts to build an online destination that can rival Netflix.

A live-action “Star Wars” TV show will be a main attraction of the Disney-branded streaming service set to launch in 2019.

“The fact is that Disney is the only company out there that can go toe to toe with Netflix, and ‘Star Wars’ is a huge part of that,” said Jeff Bock, a box-office analyst with Exhibitor Relations.

Essential to Disney’s streaming strategy is having the programming that will attract consumers. Netflix has courted millions of subscribers worldwide with shows such as “House of Cards,” “Stranger Things” and “The Crown.”

The Los Gatos, Calif., streaming giant said it will release 80 original films next year and spend $8 billion on content, raising the competitive stakes for traditional studios.

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Securing content for Disney’s streaming service is a driving factor behind the company’s planned purchase of assets from Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, in a deal that is expected to happen this week.

Along with the “Star Wars” live-action series, Disney is planning a show based on Pixar’s “Monsters Inc.” franchise, along with a “High School Musical” series and a new program from superhero brand Marvel Entertainment. The studio also will produce four or five feature films a year exclusively for the service, Disney CEO Robert Iger told analysts recently.

Disney also said it plans to launch an ESPN-branded over-the-top service for sports programming in 2018.

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