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Star Wars doesn't really need help in the fan department.
But loyal followers could propel the franchise's already-formidable box office to rarefied air when Star Wars: The Last Jedi is released Dec. 15 — because the saga is bidding a poignant screen farewell to their beloved Leia.
Carrie Fisher, who made a universal splash as the sharp-tongued princess in 1977's Star Wars, died last December.
"What's making the The Last Jedi special is that this is the final role for Carrie Fisher," says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "People will want to tip their hats."
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Fisher had finished filming The Last Jedi at the time of her death, and director Rian Johnson describes it as a "beautiful and complete performance." Bock predicts her last appearance will catapult The Last Jedi to an opening weekend of $215 million to $220 million.
Without that sentimental journey, he says, the film would more likely open with less than $200 million.
"There will be a Princess Leia bump for The Last Jedi," Bock says.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens exploded to a record $248 million liftoff in December 2015 — reflecting fans' joy at seeing cherished characters like Harrison Ford's Han Solo and Fisher's Leia alongside new faces such as Daisy Ridley's Rey.
"I don't know how you recreate that Force Awakens moment," says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore. "It was special, unrepeatable and historic for cinema."
Eight months prior, in April 2015, Fast & Furious fans said goodbye to standout performer Paul Walker, who was killed in a 2013 car crash during a break in filming.
Walker's last screen appearance led Furious 7 to a $147.2 million opening, the first time the franchise had pushed past the $100 million mark.
"Furious 7 shows the power of that final, bittersweet appearance of a beloved star, which we will see again in The Last Jedi," Dergarabedian says.
Since The Force Awakens' brilliant re-entry two years ago, Disney also has found box-office success with the first Star Wars standalone movie, 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Rogue One was second film ever to make more than $100 million in a December opening weekend (the first was The Force Awakens), scoring a stellar $155 million.
Dergarabedian says The Last Jedi will soar past that mark with its return to the original saga and characters, including Mark Hamill, whose Luke Skywalker was glimpsed at the end of The Force Awakens.
Now that the hype behind high-profile Thanksgiving openings such as Pixar's Cocohas passed, Dergarabedian predicts all things Star Wars are going to get even hotter — especially after Johnson unveils the as-yet-unseen film at the Los Angeles premiere on Dec. 9.
"Giving Rian Johnson the reins for more movies tells me that The Last Jedi is a great movie," says Dergarabedian. "Things are going to hit a fever pitch real soon."