Co-writer/director J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens continues to increase its record-breaking global box office run with every passing day, but at this point the movie has already accomplished its most important goal: properly re-invigorating interest in the Star Wars franchise as a multi-platform property. Hence, Walt Disney Pictures and Lucasfilm is moving full-speed ahead with its plans for the Star Wars shared cinematic universe - a plan that includes a spinoff movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, arriving in between now and Star Wars: Episode VIII's theatrical release.
Episode VIII, which is being written and directed by filmmaker Rian Johnson of Brick and Looper fame, was previously slated to hit theaters in May 2017, close to six months after Rogue One hits the scene. However, Johnson's movie has been officially moved back to December of 2017 instead, which will be approximately two years after The Force Awakens debuted in theaters. Meanwhile, Walt Disney Pictures has also bumped up Pirates of the Caribbean 5 (aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) to take Episode VIII's old spot.
Here is the relevant excerpt from Disney/Lucasfilm's press release, concerning Episode VIII:
Star Wars: Episode VIII, originally scheduled for release on May 26, 2017, will now debut on December 15, 2017. The move follows the extraordinary success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was the first Star Wars movie to premiere in December. In the popular holiday moviegoing corridor, it smashed numerous records, including biggest domestic and global debuts of all time as well as the biggest domestic second and third weekends, en route to becoming the highest grossing domestic release of all time with over $861M and the third biggest global release ever with $1.887B.
The release date change for Star Wars: Episode VIII (which Johnson has already "commented" on via his Twitter account) makes sense for a few reasons. For starters, now that Disney/Lucasfilm is moving ahead with its plans to release one new Star Wars movie per year, spacing them out by one whole year is a smart move to avoid over-saturating the market with new big screen installments in the Star Wars franchise. The second planned Star Wars spinoff film, a young Han Solo adventure from directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The LEGO Movie), is all the more likely to move back to December 2018 now, for related reasons.
The Force Awakens has also performed impressively in terms of tie-in merchandise sales, no doubt in part because it hit theaters so close to the winter holiday season - providing Disney/Lucasfilm all the more incentive to vie to repeat that trick, with Episode VIII. Competition also tends to be less intense during December, as far as tentpoles go; and now that Episode VIII is scheduled to launch on the same day in December as its biggest competitor (in terms of films with official release dates), Ready Player One, the latter is likely to move elsewhere, all the same. It is true that 20th Century Fox and filmmaker James Cameron previously announced plans to release Avatar 2 in theaters by December 2017, but it's difficult to imagine them sticking to that plan now that Disney's planted a flag in the sand that month for Episode VIII.
Disney also has Marvel Studios' own popular space movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, scheduled to hit theaters in early May 2017, but will round out the month with one of its own in-studio productions, with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales on Episode VIII's former date. The fifth Pirates of the Caribbean installment, once again headlined by Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow and directed this time around by Espen Sandberg and Joachim Rønning (Kon-Tiki), finished production back in 2015, so this release date shift shouldn't have any drastic effect on its post-production. May also proved to be a lucrative time frame for the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean film, On Stranger Tides, back in May of 2011, so Disney is clearly banking on lightning striking once again in this case.
Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, and will be followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode 8 on December 15th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode 9 is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales opens in U.S. theaters on May 26th, 2017.
Source: Walt Disney Pictures/Lucasfilm