Walt Disney Studios is quick to admit it doesn’t have an awareness problem with “Star Wars” when it starts releasing new movies, beginning with next year’s “Episode VII.” But it also knows the future of the franchise at the Mouse House, however, relies on getting the film right for fans and newcomers.
“This title is very well known out there,” and “the single most important thing is to make sure that this movie is great,” said Walt Disney Studios president Alan Bergman, on Wednesday, at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2014 Media, Communications & Entertainment conference.
Disney hasn’t been shy in discussing the impact “Star Wars” will have on the company’s bottomline since buying George Lucas’ Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012.
But with a new animated series, “Star Wars Rebels” debuting on Disney XD, an expanded merchandise program, and the first live action film to debut in theaters in 10 years next year, the franchise’s presence at Disney is starting to be felt.
Yet a lot is riding on the success of “Episode VII,” out in theaters Dec. 18, 2015, since the J.J. Abrams-directed film will drive much of the interest in “Star Wars” across the rest of Disney’s divisions. In addition for new films, there are plans for more TV shows, licensing deals and theme park attractions.
“If we can get this right, it’s a huge opportunity for the entire company,” said Bergman, who wore Stormtrooper tennis shoes while discussing the studio’s upcoming film slate — a standalone film, to be directed by “Godzilla’s” Gareth Edwards, is already scheduled for Dec. 16, 2016.
“‘Star Wars’ has been a unique property, more than any other property,” Bergman said.
But “Star Wars” isn’t the only major tentpole Disney has coming up.
Next year is expected to become a banner year for the studio, with two new toons from Pixar, and Marvel releasing two films, a sequel to “The Avengers” and potential franchise starter with “Ant-Man” as standouts.
It scored this year with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which has become the summer and year’s top-grossing film in the U.S. with nearly $307 million.
“It’s spectacular to have the biggest movie of the year be (based on) unknown characters is fantastic,” Bergman said. “It shows the power of the characters and the creative team (at Marvel). There will be a lot of life in the franchise,” with Disney already having greenlit a sequel for July 2017.
Marvel’s “Captain America” sequel follows in second place, with “Maleficent” coming in at No. 5. That’s after “Frozen” became the top-grossing animated film ever last year, which continues to mint money from home entertainment and merchandise sales for Disney.
“You can see when we get it right what it means to the company and how it sets our studio apart,” Bergman said. “Our branded tentpole strategy is working pretty well,” and with movies like “The Avengers,” they can lift merchandise sales and interest for each individual property and characters featured in the film.
Despite a strong slate for 2015 and 2016, Bergman admitted that Disney “isn’t immune to flops,” noting “The Lone Ranger” and “John Carter.”
“It’s hard to make a movie,” he said, and on paper, “The Lone Ranger” had “a big star, big director and big producer. Sometimes it doesn’t come together. Fortunately, we haven’t had many of them.”
The studio expects to remain focused on its branded tentpole strategy in order to reduce the risk of any future losses.
“We can reduce the risk to a certain degree” that way, Bergman said. When greenlighting movies, the studio “looks at the longterm nature of these franchises and the value we’re creating not only at the studio but the company. We feel very good about the slate that we have.”