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Disney in Denial; Part 5; You’re Never too Successful to Afford Ignoring Your Customers

This is the fifth in a series of posts regarding missteps taken by The Walt Disney Company. You can navigate to Part 4 here.

It’s hard to argue with success they say, but that just means successful people and organizations have the power to insulate themselves from criticism. That’s a comfortable but dangerous position. A company that insulates itself from customer feedback makes it vulnerable to veering off the most profitable course.

The Last Jedi (TLJ), the second film in Disney’s Star Wars trilogy, was the highest grossing (US) film of 2017. Ironically, it’s that success which I believe enabled it to be the most economically destructive film of all time. Had it flopped Disney’s executives might have paid more attention to the red flags it raised.

  • Despite earning significantly higher ratings from women than it did from men, the film showed no signs of increasing the engagement of women and girls with the franchise.

  • It angered a significant portion of the customer base due to its treatment of Luke Skywalker, one of the main characters from the original trilogy.

  • It provoked calls for a boycott of "Solo,” a standalone Star Wars film released six months later, which very likely contributed to that film being the first Star Wars film to lose money.

  • It launched what is no doubt the largest and longest-running social media backlash ever mounted against a company.

I first wrote about all this in 2019. It was an unlikely year to raise a warning flag. Disney was riding high having produced the the top six grossing (US) films that year and seven of the top ten. And as I pointed out in the first post of this series, that year Disney was the fifth most respected company among US consumers.

I’ll take each of the above points in turn over the next few posts. But before I do, let’s first address why The Last Jedi wasn’t as financially successful as one might initially think. Yes, it was the top earning US film in 2017, but it made $732 million less than The Force Awakens, the prior film in Disney’s Star Wars trilogy.

And it underperformed in a very interesting way. Look at the chart above from comparing the cumulative US box office for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. With high expectations established by a cliffhanger ending from The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi opened strongly, earning just $28 million less than the Force Awakens during its first weekend.

But the similarity ended there. Bad word-of-mouth led The Last Jedi to significantly underperform after its opening weekend.

But that comparison alone doesn’t make the case. The second installment of the other two Star Wars trilogies also underperformed relative to the first. The key questions are:

  1. Why did The Last Jedi underperform?

  2. What did customers and Disney do as a result?

  3. Can this be traced to the current challenges Disney is facing?

Stay tuned.

The next post in the series is available here.


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