It took Disney six years to make back the $4.05 billion it spent to acquire LucasFilm and then a mere two more years to nullify all of the progress it made toward reviving the Star Wars brand. Now, Bob Iger is left with marquee IP that is about as damaged as it was back when he first bought it from George Lucas. Disney is suddenly in the same exact position WB was in just three years ago when Batman v Superman and Justice League cratered their DCEU plans: what do you do when your movie makes a lot of money but poisons the well in the process?
At least that’s what Forbes’s Scott Mendelson argues in a recent Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker box office breakdown. Is he right?
First, let’s do the numbers:
If you haven’t been paying attention, last month the online fight over Rise of Skywalker’s merits as a movie quickly spilled over into box office talk. Fans of the film happily scoreboard watched, bragging about every little way Skywalker’s total ticket sales or day-to-day percentage drops favorably compared to Last Jedi. “Sure, Last Jedi had the bigger opening weekend, but Skywalker is holding its audience better across its first 7 days. That means people like it more, clearly,” or so the argument seemed to go.
That argument fell away once Skywalker reached its second weekend and dropped -59%. It’s been downhill ever since. Skywalker’s subsequent weekend drops rank among the biggest of all time for any $100 million-plus opener, with its -56% fourth-weekend drop ranking second to just the -61% plunge experienced by Batman v Superman in its fourth weekend four years ago. As Mendelson points out, it could have been a lot worse, “If Wonder Woman 1984 and No Time to Die had opened in November and/or had Cats and Spies in Disguise connected, well, this might be an even grimmer conversation.”
As a reminder, Hollywood largely ceded the end of the year to Frozen II and Rise of Skywalker. Once upon a time, surefire megahits WW84 and No Time to Die as well as marginal players like Death on the Nile and Sonic the Hedgehog were all scheduled to open in the November/December frame. Once they moved, Skywalker’s only real remaining direct competition was Jumanji: The Next Level – which has thus far legged it to $713m worldwide, a 25% decrease from Welcome to the Jungle – and holdover business for Frozen II, the tenth-biggest film of all time.
Other end-of-the-year releases like Spies in Disguise, the animated comedy Disney inherited from Fox, and Cats could have conceivably mounted a little competition as well. After all, you can point to Sing and Greatest Showman as two comps from 2017 which opened around the same time as Last Jedi. In that scenario, all three films prospered. Here, however, it was Star Wars or bust, with Cats leading to a $100 million loss for Universal and Spies in Disguise eking out a mere $136 million worldwide. You could argue Rise of Skywalker wiped them out. More likely, though, they wiped themselves out through poor word-of-mouth, particularly Cats, a film destined to bomb in any year regardless of the competition.
Therefore, Rise of Skywalker’s primary obstacle to box office glory was itself. With only a lesser-Jumanji sequel legitimately vying for the same slice of the all-ages market, the only thing that could crater Skywalker’s hot start would be if it just wasn’t very good. Yeah, about that: Skywalker is now the worst-reviewed Star Wars film ever, as measured by RottenTomatoes. Not great, obviously.
We’re still talking about a movie, Skywalker, that has grossed over a billion worldwide ($1.03b, to be exact) and will end up with somewhere in the low $500 million range on the domestic side of things. Yes, that’s 21% below Last Jedi and 50% behind Force Awakens, but a billion dollars is still a good chunk of change, even after you factor in budget and marketing costs.
But shouldn’t the “end of Skywalker saga” have done better than simply settling for diminishing returns? Say what you will about the prequels, but Revenge of the Sith – then assumed to be the last Star Wars movie ever – grossed 30% more than its predecessor, Attack of the Clones, at the worldwide box office. The final Harry Potter film was the highest-grossing in franchise history. Ditto for the third Lord of the Rings. Even the critically maligned Hobbit trilogy managed to at least hold its audience from the second film, Desolation of Smaug ($958m), to the third and final film, Battle of Five Armies ($956m worldwide).
Not all of those franchise cappers totally worked as films, but they still turned audiences out to see how it all ended. Of course, in those examples, you have two prequel trilogies (Star Wars, Hobbit) and a beloved book series, Harry Potter, that has since been followed by a quickly fading – say, this sounds familiar – prequel series (Fantastic Beasts…). Perhaps all of that has combined over the past two decades to educate audiences on the following: nothing ever ends. We all just assume Daisy Ridley is probably a couple of bad movies away from agreeing to come back for more Star Wars and fully expect Billy Dee Williams and Naomi Ackie to get a Rise of Skywalker follow-up series on Disney+.
The question, now, is whether Rise of Skywalker has set Disney back to square one. As Mendelson argued:
Yes, we’re talking about five Star Wars movies that have earned around $5.87 billion worldwide in just over four years on a combined budget of around $1.256 billion. But since Disney wishes to continue this franchise indefinitely, Dawn of Justice ($873 million from a $424 million global debut) really is an apt comparison. And like that Zack Snyder epic, the studio is left with a poorly-reviewed movie that made a ton of money but still left the brand/franchise in a ditch in terms of maintaining forward momentum. The mixed reception of Batman v Superman left Warner Bros. scrambling in terms of “fixing” its DC Films brand. Disney is now also at “square one” in terms of how to get audiences and fans excited about Star Wars movies again.
Medolson’s beat is to cover box office and film, and in that territory Star Wars definitely has the feel of a distressed asset. Factor in the steadily declining toy sales, as detailed here and here. Throw in your best “Kathleen Kennedy’s gotta go” argument. Reprint all those NYT quotes where Kennedy and Iger seemed at odds with one another over whether to abandon the trilogy format and switch to standalone stories. Point to Benioff/Weiss leaving and Rian Johnson sounding more and more like someone ready to move on. It all adds up to a box office entity with no forward momentum and no concrete plan.
But the video game sales are suddenly hot again thanks to Jedi: Fallen Order. Rise of the Resistance appears to be a game-changer at Disney World and the Galaxy’s Edge attraction, considered a disappointment at first, is finally turning the corner.
Moreover, it’s not entirely clear to me that Bob Iger cares all that much about movie ticket sales anymore. These days, he seems to have an almost singular focus on Disney+, where The Mandalorian was already a hit and will soon be followed by an Obi-Wan prequel series as well as several others still in development. Thanks in large part to Mandalorian, the streaming service has already broken through all of Disney’s initial projections for subscribers, although the exact amount who have already canceled their subscription post-Mandalorian remains unclear.
Plus, anecdotally, based on what I’ve seen from my nieces and nephew ever since Force Awakens came along, how they’ve all grown into Star Wars fandom entirely because of Rey, Kylo, and all of the new characters, I’d push back on the idea that the franchise is truly back to square one. Even if all of those characters are truly off the table for future movies, Disney ultimately did its job – it converted a new generation into Star Wars consumers-in-training and can now use that brand awareness to help funnel customers to theme parks, video games, and streaming content.
The true problem, then, is the gaping enthusiasm gap between Rise of Skywalker and The Mandalorian. Relative to comparative trilogy enders, Skywalker’s dwindling box office is uniquely disappointing, but at almost the exact same time, The Mandalorian turned Baby Yoda into the hottest thing on the internet and capably served as the House of Cards to Disney+’s Netflix. That’s where all of Star Wars’ momentum is right now. Warner Bros. would have killed for something like that after Batman v Superman.
Eventually, though, there will be another Star Wars movie, probably the one from Kevin Feige. We’ll likely have seen so many Disney+ Star Wars shows by then we might have already forgotten all about Rise of Skywalker. In fact, I’d guess Disney is counting on it. Your move, Mando.
Update: And now that Obi-Wan Kenobi Disney+ series is on hold, with its first two scripts thrown out completely and the overall episode order reduced from 6 to 4. Yikes. Get your house in order, Lucasfilm.