Disney Shouldn't Ostracize Star Wars Fans
The Rise of Skywalker, the capstone to the current Star Wars trilogy will be released later this week. The WSJ reports Disney is going to then pause to reassess its strategy, desiring to move the franchise toward “common moviegoers” and away from long-term fans. Before going that direction, they should consider that these fans constitute a potential asset; whether for Disney or its competitors.
I’ve examined box office, operational, demographic, and social media data as well as psychological and market research in the context of what has made Disney a successful company. They indicate dedicated fans aren’t the problem. Lucasfilm’s approach to Star Wars is. It sought to expand the franchise’s appeal beyond its core audience. It failed. It did, however, succeed in alienating, if not enraging, many core fans. Lucasfilm executives then compounded the problem by questioning the motives of those who didn't like the direction the franchise was taking.
There is good news here for Disney. Most of those fans aren’t gone; nor are they combative by nature. They’re just waiting for something they want to watch.
It Started out Well
On the eve of the 2017 release of The Last Jedi (Episode VIII), the third Lucasfilm release, following its acquisition by The Walt Disney Company in 2012, all looked well. The first two film releases were unqualified commercial successes. The Force Awakens (Episode VII) (2015) remains the top grossing film (US domestic) of all time and is currently fourth worldwide. Rogue One (2016), the first Star Wars standalone (i.e. not part of a trilogy) film, grossed over $1 billion worldwide.
On the surface, The Last Jedi also appeared to be a success, grossing $1.3 billion. But appearances, in this case, are deceiving. The film opened strongly, but faltered immediately afterwards. Worse still, the film sowed considerable discord between Lucasfilm and its fan base. Its fourth film, Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), grossed less than $400 million worldwide; the first Star Wars film ever to have lost money.
Solo’s performance was blamed on “Star Wars Fatigue,” but the data clearly indicate The Last Jedi was responsible for the film's poor showing.
The Last Jedi—The Most Destructive Film in History
The Last Jedi, is unquestionably, the most economically destructive film in cinematic history. Let’s start with the $1.3 billion total gross. To properly analyze this figure’s significance, one must break out The Last Jedi’s opening weekend from the rest of the money it took in. Opening weekends are primarily driven by size of a film’s potential audience, the studio/distributor’s marketing effort, and the reviews of critics who were granted advance access to the film. After that, ticket sales are mostly driven by word-of-mouth (spoken and online), which is based on how much audiences liked the film.
Driven by a huge potential audience and the cliffhanger ending of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi enjoyed the second biggest opening weekend in US history: $220 million--only $28 million less than The Force Awakens’ opening weekend, two years earlier. But, unlike The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi had no legs. It didn’t get to as wide an audience, and it didn’t entice fans to go see it again and again. Despite a similar US opening relative to The Force Awakens (-11%), The Last Jedi ultimately earned $315 million less (-34%).
This is depicted in the above chart. The two film’s opening weekends (blue bars) were similar, but The Last Jedi under-performed afterwards (orange bars). Revenues following its opening weekend were 42% lower than those of The Force Awakens.
Just how much should The Last Jedi have earned? After its strong opening, Box Office Mojo estimated its total US gross would be in the range of $750 - $830 million. Its actual gross was $620 million, under-performing those expectations by $130 - $210 million. The Wall Street Journal estimated its under-performance to be at the high end of that range: $200 million.
The film fared no better outside the United States. Of particular concern were results in China, where two of The Walt Disney Company’s six theme parks are located. The Last Jedi opened with just $28 million in China, far below Disney’s expectations; and then, receipts plummeted, falling 90% in its second weekend. Ultimately, the film grossed less than $43 million.
Above James Li, whose firm, Fanink, conducts exit research in China indicated The Last Jedi’s low audience ratings correlated with the film’s disappointing box office. That raises an important question. How do we know that The Last Jedi’s disappointing follow-up box office results in the US had to do with how well people liked the film? Well, simply because the audience’s ratings of Star Wars films do such a good job predicting box office receipts.
The film industry gauges the strength of a movie by dividing its total gross receipts by those of its opening day or opening weekend. This is called a movie’s multiplier. The higher the multiplier, the more money the film made following its opening.
The chart below plots the opening weekend multiplier against the audience score from the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) for each recently released Star Wars film. Toward the upper right is The Force Awakens with an audience score of 7.9 and a multiplier of 3.8. That’s a lot! People said great things about that movie, and they went again and again.
Moving down the trend line toward the left, we come across Rogue One, which had a lower audience score (7.8) and opening weekend multiplier (3.4). Then farther down the line we get to The Last Jedi with a significantly lower audience score (7.1) and a lower opening weekend multiplier (2.8). Solo had even lower numbers. The Last Jedi’s multiplier is right in line with its audience rating.
Separate analyses (not shown here) demonstrate that Disney animation and PIXAR films show similar patterns. This makes the relationship for Star Wars films less likely to be pure chance. The films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe also show similarities, but the analysis is noisier.
The above chart and The Wall Street Journal's $200 million under-performance estimate sync up in an interesting way. Had The Last Jedi been as well-received as The Force Awakens, its multiplier would have been 3.8, instead of 2.8. That would have meant ~$200 million in additional revenue, making up for the entire estimated shortfall. Essentially, all of The Last Jedi's revenue shortfall can be attributed to its relatively low audience rating.
Extending the analysis to worldwide receipts indicates The Last Jedi under-performed its opening weekend by between $275 and $440 million worldwide.
That’s a lot of money left on the table, but Lucasfilm acts as if it’s unaware of it or that it doesn’t matter. Within the past few weeks, during an interview with Rolling Stone Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy praised Rian Johnson, the director of The Last Jedi, for making an “absolutely wonderful movie” and for moving Star Wars forward and keeping it relevant.
We must be looking at different data. Wonderful movies don’t miss their worldwide box office estimates by $400 million. True, The Last Jedi scored well among critics, and that’s fine if you want to win some awards or look good among your peers, but that’s not the right benchmark for a consumer-oriented franchise like Star Wars.
And here we come to the analysis where we examine the true malicious impact of The Last Jedi. It wasn’t just a financial disappointment in itself. It’s much worse. It so alienated fans that it materially reduced the value of Star Wars itself.
Women Just aren’t that into Rey
Kathleen Kennedy, the President of Lucasfilm, made it the company’s ambition to make Star Wars more relevant to women and girls, and she believed the key was to reinforce the role played by strong female characters. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Star Wars’ fan base was predominantly male. Attracting more women could increase ticket sales and other revenue. The trick was to do so without losing a significant number of existing fans in the process.
As an example, within the first few minutes of being introduced to Rey, the female lead of the current trilogy, she has already told Finn, her erstwhile protector, she doesn’t need her hand held (twice, in case you missed it the first time). Rey is no damsel in distress. Despite such characterizations, the first two films, The Force Awakens and and Rogue One didn’t win over enough female fans.
Two weeks before the release of The Last Jedi (2017), Morning Consult wrote an article headlined, "Princess Leia is Everyone’s Favorite and Other Star Wars Statistics" in which they detailed top line statistics about how the US population felt about Star Wars movies and characters. Morning Consult is the polling partner of The New York Times, Bloomberg, POLITICO, and the Hollywood Reporter (THR) (note: Morning Consult’s relationship with the THR commenced ten months after these poll results were released), among others. In the article they included a link to the survey crosstabs, a very rich data set of the 2,200 survey respondents.
Morning Consult’s article stated that the principal characters from the original trilogy were much more popular with the public than the characters of the new trilogy. This finding is corroborated by every poll- or crowd-based survey I have been able to find. The highest any of them rate a new character is position #7, but in most cases the most popular new character is somewhere between #10 and #20. This is an interesting, but not shocking, finding. After all, we’re these comparing these new characters with some that have been in the popular consciousness for 40 years.
Morning Consult’s survey was covered lightly in Forbes, Cinema Blend, Mashable, and other outlets, but, as is typical in these busy times, no one went beneath the surface findings. Lurking within the 270+ pages of crosstabs were the sort of findings that Lucasfilm would have been wise to consider in constructing The Last Jedi. To be clear, this research was conducted long after the film was made. Lucasfilm would have had to do its own research prior.
Getting to the heart of the matter, the character, Rey, resonated strongly with individuals whose #1 political priority was women’s issues, but weakly with women in general. Overall, 23% of the 18+ population had a very favorable opinion of Rey. Her rating with those focused on women’s issues was significantly higher (41%). But this segment represents only 5% of the US population.
Based on the gender balance of recent college graduates of women’s studies programs, I estimated that 93% of those primarily concerned with women’s issues identify as women. From there, it’s a simple matter of math to demonstrate that only 13% of women with a different political priority had a very favorable opinion of Rey. That’s in contrast to 31% of men. You can see this presented graphically below.
Overall, 15% of women had a very favorable opinion of Rey—less than half the proportion of men who did. This represented a 16 point “favorability gap” between men and women. Digging further in to the crosstabs, that’s remarkably similar to the 15-point gap for Padme Amidala, the female lead character of the prequel trilogy, launched in 1999. And it’s twice that of the 8-point gap for Princess Leia of the original trilogy.
From the standpoint of giving women and girls someone they can appreciate, Rey constituted parity with the second trilogy and a significant step backwards from the first. A lot of this is driven by the fact, that nearly 70% of women had either never heard of the character or had no opinion of her two years following her debut. That is, in contrast with only 41% of men. As you can see, Star Wars' fan base was as male-centric as ever.
These patterns are precisely the same, just more extreme, for the character of Jyn Erso, the female lead character of Rogue One (2016), the first non-trilogy Star Wars film. 75% of women either had never heard of the character or didn’t have an opinion of her.
That’s the characters. What about the films themselves? To Lucasfilm’s credit, audiences liked the first film of the new trilogy much more than they did The Phantom Menace (Ep. I), the first film of what has come to be known as the “prequel trilogy,” released in 1999.
That said, if we revisit the segmentation we employed earlier, A New Hope (Ep. IV; 1977), the original Star Wars film, remains the favorite of all groups—even those primarily concerned with women’s issues.
Now, if those concerned with women’s issues enjoy the first Star Wars film more than they do Lucasfilm’s recent efforts, then it begs the question of the severity of the problem Lucasfilm was attempting to solve. To complete the thought, 49% of women primarily concerned with women’s issues had seen the original Star Wars movie while only 24% women with a different political priority had. My estimates, based on Morning Consult’s and The National Center for Education Statistics' data are that 10% of women are primarily focused on women’s issues. Lucasfilm’s biggest opportunity was, therefore, with women with different political priorities.
The above findings dovetail with another claim Lucasfilm is fond of implying, which is the recent films are more popular with minority groups because they are more representative. The data don’t support that claim. African Americans liked The Force Awakens considerably less than they did A New Hope (1977), the original Star Wars film. Hispanics and the catch-all “Other” group liked the new film about as much as they did A New Hope.
This suggests an audience’s affection for films doesn’t directly map to the ethnicities, genders, or behaviors of the actors or creators of the films they watch. This really is self-evident. After all, there are a lot of white people who enjoyed Black Panther. Yet, Lucasfilm’s entire argument rests on this premise. Representation is the order of the day, but it doesn’t automatically translate to affection.
To sum up, after its first two film releases Lucasfilm hadn't moved the needle with women and people of color (as far as audiences are concerned), but they behaved as if they had.
Lucasfilm Starts Burning Bridges
Burning bridges is a strategy to be employed in desperation. Lucasfilm was not desperate, but that didn’t seem to matter. After The Force Awakens brought in $2 billion worldwide, Lucasfilm was so confident in its strategy that it felt comfortable providing a gratuitous warning to Star Wars predominantly male customer base. There are numerous examples of this, but Kathleen Kennedy, Lucasfilm's President, perhaps, explained it most clearly in
It’s kind of cold. After all, it was the predominantly, but not exclusively, male fan base that had kept Star Wars alive for decades. But from a purely business standpoint, Ms. Kennedy was correct. Disney paid $4 billion for the franchise, and Lucasfilm’s obligation was to make that back and more as quickly as possible. This wasn’t the time to indulge one’s personal preferences of loyalty to any one sector of the fanbase.
Lucasfilm goes Political
Lucasfilm’s spirit carried through to its choice of director (Rian Johnson) for The Last Jedi. Among other things, Kennedy praised him for his ability to write “amazingly fierce and independent women.” It would have been more on-mission had the direction been to write characters that would appeal to women and girls. Regardless, the tone of the film was such that one could be forgiven for thinking it was designed to alienate a portion of the fan base.
Later I’ll discuss the unrelenting social media backlash The Last Jedi unleashed. In the meantime, I recognize these are sensitive times. I am quite conscious that a predominantly male group, waging a social media campaign against Star Wars’ feminist tone is likely to repel some readers. So, I’ll confine my examples of this topic to a commentary that appeared in Vanity Fair on the day of The Last Jedi’s release as well as a video essay delivered by a woman who formed part of the anti-The Last Jedi social media campaign.
The commentary was written by Joanna Robinson, who covers TV and movies for Vanity Fair. Here’s a link and title: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi Offers the Harsh Condemnation of Mansplaining We Need in 2017.
It’s an impressive piece. In just nine paragraphs, Ms. Robinson succinctly documents why The Last Jedi was the film that launched a 1,000+ YouTube videos. Below are some of her more salient points:
“This message—women being largely right, and men being mostly wrong—extends to most but not all aspects of The Last Jedi.”
“It’s only the first of many such lessons in a movie that takes time away from the light and dark battles of Rey and Kylo to deliver a stinging referendum on gendered office politics.”
“But by and large, The Last Jedi’s examination of gender politics does fit into this trilogy’s message that the true heirs to the power in this universe are not white men like Hux and Kylo but women and people of color.”
“Though The Last Jedi began filming in early 2016—in other words, long before a referendum on Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton informed every aspect of American storytelling—it’s impossible to ignore the parallels on screen here.”
Now, keep in mind, men and woman of every color were less engaged with the new characters than they were with the established ones. African Americans liked the new films less than the original trilogy, while other people of color liked them about as much, but not more.
. . . and here’s one more thing to keep in mind. The potential fan base was already beginning to notice the politicization of Star Wars. 28% of men and 20% of women with an opinion on the subject saw Star Wars films as political. That’s fine. They all are to a degree. But here’s the potentially concerning part, on the eve of the release of The Last Jedi, over 5% of all men and 3% of all women had stopped watching the films due to their political tone. Recall, that the group focused on women’s issues was only 5% of the US population, and you may see how the math doesn’t work out favorably for Lucasfilm.
Star Wars is an escapist movie. It and franchises like Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are popular partially because they help us not to have think about the election of 2016 for a while. That's the “escape” part. If, Ms. Robinson is correct, and the filmmakers are viewing the series as a means to re-fight the election of 2016, then they are working against the very essence of the franchise’s popularity.
Gut check; let’s say it’s your call. You have a film franchise that has historically appealed more to men than it has women. Two movies and two female leads later, nothing has changed. In fact, in some ways, women’s engagement with the franchise’s characters may have taken a step backward. Your long-term customers are on edge due to your own publicity efforts, and a small proportion of the population has already tuned you out due to your political tone. You’ve got investors to consider, tickets to sell, action figures and other merchandise to vend, and soon you will have parks to fill. Would you like Ms. Robinson’s take on the film to be its dominant theme?
The only way I can make any sense of this is to assume Lucasfilm’s intent was to flip the gender balance of the franchise’s fanbase. This isn’t a far-fetched theory. Within days of the release of The Last Jedi, Marketwatch featured a story titled,"Why the Last Jedi Proves the Future of Star Wars is Female." Recently, a Forbes columnist opined that “Women are Saving Star Wars.” You have to admit that it's hard to dismiss the concerns of legacy fans when this is how the mainstream press treats the subject.
Unfortunately, in my view, the political tone wasn’t the deepest wound to the fan base. It was Lucasfilm's’s treatment of Luke Skywalker. Before I make that case, I need to set the scene.
Star Wars is much more than a Movie
The original Star Wars film launched in 1977; three years after a scandal required President Nixon to resign; two years after the nation wept watching the desperate rooftop evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon, as the realization that we had lost 50,000 or our own in vain; and the year that saw the beginning of a second wave of inflation which had already wiped out a good portion of the nation’s savings.
The film was a phenomenon. Its original run lasted 18 months and brought in $307 million, over 140% more than the second-place movie released that year. In contrast, The Force Awakens led the #2 movie by 43% and The Last Jedi by 23%. The next installment, The Rise of Skywalker, released later this week, will not be the #1 movie of the year. The question is whether it will be #2 or #3.
The original Star Wars film didn’t get its audience by being “just a movie.” It got it by tapping into timeless themes of heroes’ journeys and mythology. This isn’t happenstance. George Lucas greatly admired Joseph Campbell who wrote the authoritative books on the importance of myths, but I like how Conrad Hyers put it.
Heady stuff. People look to literature and film for inspiration in how to conduct themselves in their own lives. For forty years Han, Leia, and Luke have served as role models for how to fight the good fight, how to recover from setbacks, and just generally how to be a better people.
Even if only a small number of people feel this way it can still make a big impact. Applying Pareto’s rule, 20% of Star Wars customers represent 80% of spending on tickets, merchandise, theme park expenditures, etc. After all, few people “must have” every Star Wars action figure or Lego set. They aren’t all going to read fan fiction, influence others to be as enthusiastic as they are, pay Disney theme park prices to be among the first to visit Galaxy’s Edge.
Please see the sidebar for a description of how important just 1% of a company’s customers can be. And, as I have said before, it was fans like these who kept the franchise alive for the periods between the three trilogies.
Such fans likely identified with at least one of the principal characters of the series. That is, they saw themselves in the character; whether as a reflection of who they were or an image of who they wished to be. They may understand the character better than a screenwriter does because the screenwriter’s time thinking about the character is relatively short.
Filmmakers put a great deal at risk when they change a character’s backstory or have them do or say things fans don’t think they would. Because if a fan truly identifies with a character, then the filmmaker is calling into question how that fan defines themselves. You can’t get much more personal than that, which is why how Luke Skywalker was written in The Last Jedi was so disastrous.
Luke’s Story Arc Devalued Star Wars
The Last Jedi took Luke Skywalker in an unexpected direction. So unexpected, in fact, that Mark Hamill, the actor who has played Luke and represented the character at conventions for over forty years didn’t recognize him.
On another occasion Hamill related, "I told Rian I fundamentally disagreed with virtually everything you decided about my character." Hamill clearly understood the meaning Luke had for many and the negative impact the portrayal would have on the fans. His despair at Rian Johnson’s “story is more important than the fans” approach is evident in the first minute of this video.
Fans have been called “Man-baby’s” for their complaints about the changes to Star Wars, including the treatment of Luke Skywalker. I can understand how many might consider their response immature, but in a more understanding light, their response is in keeping with basic human psychology.
In a 2010 TED talk Daniel Kahneman, A Nobel-prize winning psychologist and economist, recounted a time when a member of the audience of a prior talk spoke about a recorded symphony he had been listening to. After 20 minutes of blissful music, the record emitted a terrible sound, which the man said ruined his entire experience. Kahneman pointed out that didn’t change the first blissful 20 minutes, but the man insisted his enjoyment of the entire symphony was ruined.
Far from being an aberration, Kahneman’s research found the man’s reaction to be hard wired into the human psyche. The ending of an experience fundamentally alters how we remember the entire experience; and we spend a lot more time remembering something than we do experiencing it.
Even without the benefit of having heard Kahneman’s research, Lucasfilm should have been able to foresee the danger it was posing to the franchise. One of the timeless truths in the film industry is that movies with happy endings make more money.
Now consider that a film with a happy ending can be identical to one with a sad ending right up until the final few minutes, but those few minutes can be decisive when it comes to how well the film does at the box office. This industry truism is just another way to explain Kahneman’s research.
And, finally, the fans’ regard for Luke and Star Wars is very similar to how Carmenita Higginbotham, Professor of Art History at the University of Virginia, described the role Disneyland played in Walt Disney's later life in a recent PBS documentary on Walt Disney.
Disneyland was a touchstone how Walt Disney’s understanding of an ideal childhood. Star Wars and its characters serve as touchstones for millions of people in innumerable ways. These are the forces Lucasfilm ignored in how it treated one of the central characters of the saga.
Far from the fans being immature, Lucasfilm demonstrated that it lacked a basic understanding of the basis for the enduring value their product. For many, Luke’s ending ruins all that came before it. They will look upon Luke differently, forever, which, from a purely business standpoint, will reduce their future Star Wars engagement . . . and spending. This damage will be hard to undo and will, in some cases will impact attitudes for generations.
Kill the past; Kill the future
Many a fan complaint includes the lines “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” These lines, spoken by Kylo Ren, one of The Last Jedi’s bad guys, are thought by many to represent, consciously or unconsciously, Lucasfilm’s philosophy regarding Star Wars. This is fundamentally opposed to the wisdom of George Lucas and Walt Disney.
Here are Lucas’ words upon the sale of Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company.
Walt Disney’s sentiments on why he created Disneyland are equally germane.
Until Disneyland, amusement parks didn’t cater to adults as well as children. Parents would take them there, but kids would go on the rides and the adults would sit on a bench. Walt Disney looked at his park as a living movie that families could enjoy together.
In Disneyland, Millennial parents will wait an hour with their children to ride Peter Pan’s flight, which is one of the original rides from Disneyland’s opening over 60 years ago--20 years prior to the first Star Wars film. It’s a sixty-year-old ride whose story line and technology haven’t changed in all that time. It works partially because parents want to experience a ride they enjoyed as children with their own children.
Like the appreciation for Peter Pan’s flight, the appreciation for Star Wars is in many cases handed down from generation to generation. Disney’s Marketing Department understands this. In fact, they termed Star Wars “the movie equivalent of passing down family heirlooms” in a recent Instagram post. If only the filmmakers understood this.
And finally, we should question whether Luke Skywalker should be viewed as the past at all. Lucasfilm is calling The Rise of Skywalker the end of the Skywalker saga. Anyone new to Star Wars will naturally wish to see the beginning before the end. So, like everyone else, they will first be introduced to Han, Leia, and Luke.
We don’t know how the saga ends yet. Perhaps, Luke is rehabilitated. Perhaps new Star Wars fans won’t get so attached to him. Perhaps, they will experience the entire saga with the “maturity” Lucasfilm wished them to. That’s all possible, but the fact remains, Lucasfilm’s treatment of the characters and its interjection of contemporary politics had a substantial negative impact on the success of The Last Jedi and other Star Wars-related revenue streams.
How do we know? Well, because it provoked what is likely the largest and most sustained social media revolt ever levied against a consumer product.
The Social Media Revolt
You are likely to be unaware of a war being waged on YouTube against the current Star Wars trilogy as well as against Lucasfilm itself. The scope of it is really quite extraordinary. I count 48 user-generated (not official Star Wars) videos on The Last Jedi that have each garnered over a million views. Collectively, these videos have been viewed 105 million times. Over half (28) of the videos are negative takes on the film or Lucasfilm. These account for nearly 68 million of the 105 million views. Only 9 videos are supportive, garnering 14 million views. The rest of the videos were balanced reviews, comedy takeoffs, or discussed aspects of the film without assessing it.
The most popular of these is “Vito’s” Why Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a Complete Cinematic Failure". It has been viewed 8.1 million times and has generated over 60,000 comments. This is especially noteworthy because his subscriber base is just 171,000 accounts.
Most YouTube videos get millions of views through advertising. Vito didn’t get them that way. Rather he got them because there were a lot of people out there looking for just this sort of take on the film. I read a comment on one of the videos by a user only known as “Julian” that essentially said that watching these negative video essays had become the only pleasure he could derive from the series; such was his disappointment with the film and Lucasfilm’s reaction to the backlash.
Not all the reviews are negative. I Hate Everything’s (IHE) take on the film with over 2 million views and 36,000 comments is the most popular positive take on the film. IHE has 2 million subscribers, and in this case what he hated was the fact so many people didn’t like The Last Jedi. I find it interesting that in one of his comments on his own video, he says, “Hopefully you enjoy the vid, remember it's just a movie!” That it's "just a movie" to him, may help explain his positive take on it.
Most videos don’t get that kind of play, of course, but they constitute a tide all their own. In a recent two-week period, I counted 3.6 million views of videos relating to alleged leaks of the plot for the upcoming Rise of Skywalker release from no less than two dozen YouTube channels.
That demonstrates a lot of interest in the film, but the tone of these videos is overwhelmingly negative. In some cases, the details of the leaks are delivered with a sense of dread and regret. Mike Zeroh’s multiple daily updates generally fall into that category. In contrast, some of Jeremy’s (Geeks+Gamers) Rise of Skywalker leak commentary borders on schadenfreude. A different Jeremy at The Quartering with over 600k subscribers routinely gets 100k+ views on his Star Wars commentary; leaks or otherwise.
These are the same individuals who, in a parallel universe, had they seen a version of The Last Jedi they liked, would be anxiously speculating about the possibilities of the upcoming Rise of Skywalker release.
What Hath The Last Jedi wrought?
Over Memorial Day weekend 2018, five months after the release of The Last Jedi, Lucasfilm released Solo, A Star Wars Story over the Memorial Day weekend. Then the unthinkable happened. Despite projections in early May of a $170+ million opening weekend, it barely pulled in $100 million, including Memorial Day. It’s three-day (Friday – Sunday) take was only $84 million. It went on to gross only $214 million in the US; much less than half of what Rogue One brought in two years prior.
Much of the blame for the failure was chalked up to “Star Wars fatigue.” Too many Star Wars films in too short a time, but it’s much more likely The Last Jedi was the culprit. The social media drumbeat against The Last Jedi began almost immediately following its release. This was followed by JJ Abrams the director of the first and third film of the trilogy saying that those who didn’t like The Last Jedi were “threatened by women.”
Perhaps, Abrams and the rest of Lucasfilm hadn’t seen the research that indicated that men had much more favorable impressions of Rey and Jyn Erso than women did. The men Abrams was criticizing were the same people who had helped make The Force Awakens the top grossing film of all time and who contributed the majority of Rogue One’s $532 million US take.
Was it more likely these customers had suddenly changed their mind about these first two movies, or was it, perhaps, something about The Last Jedi itself? And separately, Abrams’ attempted defense didn’t address the criticisms of female YouTube personalities like Jessi Milestone, Anna (That Star Wars Girl), and MechaRandom42.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Last Jedi’s post-opening weekend box office was 42% below that of The Force Awakens. Interestingly, Solo’s three-day opening was 46% below that of Rogue One. Perhaps, the similarity of those numbers is just a coincidence, but I think it’s more likely that fan reactions to The Last Jedi compounded by Lucasfilm’s inability to even consider their concerns to be legitimate, kept the disaffected away.
After Solo's failure, Disney put all future Star Wars films, other than The Rise of Skywalker, on hold. The lost revenue due to The Last Jedi continues to mount.
Disney’s recent launch of The Mandalorian, a new Star Wars TV series should dispell any illusion Solos’ failure was due to “Star Wars fatigue”. By its second week, it had already become the nation’s most streamed TV show, ending Netflix’ Stranger Things’ 21-week run. The Mandalorian has remained on top since.
Interestingly, the same YouTube personalities that detest The Last Jedi love The Mandalorian. They haven’t completely lost interest in Star Wars. As I stated earlier, many have just been waiting for something they want to watch. Create the right content, and they will constitute a no-cost promotions engine.
Disney Ignores these Voices at its Peril
This year, the top four grossing films all came from Disney, as did 6 of the top 10. It’s going to have a great year regardless of the performance of The Rise of Skywalker. So, one could be excused for thinking that none of this really matters to a company with that kind of dominance.
I might think that myself--except for the fact that Disneyland was practically empty the month after Galaxy’s Edge opened. Galaxy’s Edge is a Star Wars-themed land that opened at Disneyland at the end of May and at the end of August in Walt Disney World. It reflects the new trilogy much more than it does the Star Wars of the franchise’s legacy fans. The thing is, the legacy fans are in the age groups that control 90% of the wealth of this country and who ultimately decide how their families spend their vacation time.
In anticipation of massive, excited crowds, Disney had raised prices and restricted the types of annual passes that could gain access to the park. This has been blamed for the low attendance, but Disneyland’s attendance picked up before the annual pass blackouts ceased. So, that explanation falls flat.
At both Disneyland and Walt Disney World wait times for Smuggler’s Run, the sole Galaxy’s Edge attraction at the time of its opening, are routinely less than they are for several other attractions. Rise of Resistance, an attraction launched just weeks ago in Walt Disney World did not dethrone Flight of Passage as having the longest wait times.
I believe Disneyland’s month-long low vacancy reflects the kindest warning shot consumers ever gifted to a corporation. With Disney, having ignored its 60+-year cross generational pact, which I explained above, parents felt free to return the snub; at least for a while.
Now, what if the concerns voiced by the Tube personalities serve as a bellwether for the general public? Consider the following. . .
Lucasfilm’s instincts about how to broaden the appeal of the franchise have so far, been wrong.
The YouTubers correctly predicted Solo would do poorly while other outlets were claiming it was going to be a smash hit.
Star Wars merchandise sales fell in 2018, the fiscal year in which The Last Jedi was launched. One would have expected sales to pick up had the film’s harsh critics been an isolated few.
The personalities were particularly critical of The Last Jedi characters Admiral Holdo and Rose Tico. Neither character had an action figure renewed this year, apparently reflecting their lack of popularity with general audiences.
YouTube personalities are very enthusiastic about The Mandalorian, which, as mentioned earlier, quickly became the nation’s most-streamed TV show.
As stated earlier, The Walt Disney Company wishes to make Star Wars “more accessible to common moviegoers unburdened by decades of Star Wars memories.“ I can understand this impulse as many of those “burdened” consumers have been the most vocal opponents to the franchise’s recent turn.
But Disney ignores these voices at their peril. (See the sidebar on the dangers of ignoring data) The videos and the user comments form a rich qualitative data source from which to base quantitative analysis. In order to get the right answer in market research, you have to ask the right questions, and, right or wrong, YouTube has demonstrated there is a way of thinking about the franchise that Lucasfilm hasn’t considered.
As Exhibit A, I offer Jessi Milestone’s critique of the feminist message of The Last Jedi. Her 8-minute rant viewed over 200,000 times on a subscriber base of less than 30,000 provides a counterpoint to Lucasfilm’s assumption of the kind of content that will draw women into theaters. Jessi considers herself to be a feminist, and she finds the message of the original trilogy to be far superior to the current one.
Like many of these personalities, Jessi isn’t reading from text. Her rant doesn’t follow a set structure, and she is quite free with expletives. This is the case with many, but not all, of the YouTube personalities. It may offend some, but, personally, I find the candor and spontaneity refreshing, and I believe they are market research gold. This is the kind of stuff you really want to get out of a focus group discussion, because the whole point of them is to expose points of view you may be missing to help you formulate questions for later research stages. Below are some of Jessi’s verbatim thoughts.
To say the least,Jessi didn’t see the movie the same way as did Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson. This begs the question of how Lucasfilm landed on the message it did as well as how well their message sold in contrast with others they may have chosen.
Where Disney Goes from Here
Lucasfilm and JJ Abrams may yet pull a rabbit out of a hat with The Rise of Skywalker, but I’m sufficiently confident that Star Wars’ box office receipts will continue their downward trajectory to publish this in advance of the film’s release or hearing what the critics have to say.
Estimates for Rise of Skywalker’s opening range from $175 - $210 million. I’m going out on a limb to say the film won’t break $200 million and may actually fall short of $175 million. In light of Disney’s 2019 dominance, outlets like Forbes are already downplaying the importance of the financial success of the film.
But here’s why it remains important. Disney may very well be correct that it can do without Star Wars legacy fans; just as the legacy fans can apparently do without Star Wars. By taking the franchise in a different direction altogether it may be able to create a crop of new fans more to their liking. This seems like an unnecessary risk, but I can see why they may value the creative freedom more than the near-term revenue.
Here’s the caution. Beyond the risk to Star Wars revenue streams, many of the same voices that appear to have been right about The Last Jedi and The Mandalorian also have very pointed opinions on Disney franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What if they are right there too? Even there, Disney may be able to afford to falter a bit, but taking losses lightly is not part of its corporate culture.
There's a lot here, but I'll try to summarize a potential call to action in a novel way. It may present a paradox to some Disney executives, but I would bet 10:1 that the YouTube personalities that have criticized Star Wars will talk up Warner Brothers’ Wonder Woman 1984 next year and will show up in force when it opens in theaters on June 5. It’s not a paradox, and Disney would do well to determine and internalize why that is.