“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which premieres this weekend, is the third Lucasfilm title to hit theaters in the span of two years. It emerges as an important test of whether the studio’s aggressive release schedule will diminish the specialness for which the storied franchise has long been known.
Until 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” “Star Wars” movies arrived infrequently and were treated as major cultural events. Kids skipped school and braved long lines to fill multiplexes. The films were spaced three years apart, building anticipation in between pictures. Even the poorly reviewed prequel trilogy, starting with “The Phantom Menace” in 1999, had three-year gaps; “Phantom Menace” came 16 years after 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” “The Force Awakens” bowed 10 years after “Revenge of the Sith,” the last of the prequels.
Now, Disney plans to release a new “Star Wars” film every year through at least 2019. “The Last Jedi” will be followed next May by “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” the second recent non-trilogy anthology film (after “Rogue One”). Then comes Episode IX, directed by J.J. Abrams, slated for release in December 2019. That same year Disney plans to launch its branded streaming service, for which Lucasfilm is developing an original TV series.
There’s more: Last month, Disney announced that “The Last Jedi” director-writer Rian Johnson has been tapped to create a new “Star Wars” trilogy once the current one concludes. No release dates have been announced.
But questions of sheer tonnage arise: How vast can this universe become, and will the steady stream of films erode interest in the franchise over time, particularly in the era of Netflix binge-watching and peak TV?
“There’s always a possibility of franchise fatigue,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. But he also noted that Lucasfilm’s ambitious release schedule might be Disney’s way of adapting to consumers’ changing viewing habits. “In the day and age of streaming, you really get 15 seconds of fame as a franchise, or as a sequel,” he added. “You really have to milk it for all it’s worth while it’s going on.” Bock said a major asset was the studio’s clear idea of where the narrative is headed. “What Disney has going for it … is the fact that they respect the story. They have a think tank that works on all their properties and makes sure they get it right.”
Yet there are signs of creative strain at the studio. In June, Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy fired Phil Lord and Chris Miller over creative differences as the pair tried to inject their filmmaking style into “Solo.” Ron Howard was asked to step in to finish the film. Just over two months later, Kennedy fired Colin Trevorrow for the same stated reasons in the making of Episode IX, which Abrams will return to direct.
The firings illustrate that executing an ambitious film slate is more challenging than one might think. While Lucasfilm is adopting Marvel’s aggressive playbook, the decisions to part ways with directors show that not all pieces of IP are the same.
So far, no one suggests that any serious “Star Wars” fatigue has set in. Early projections show “The Last Jedi” will make $425 million worldwide during its initial weekend, which would make it the fifth-largest opening of all time. But that’s still substantially less than the nearly $529 million worldwide bow for “The Force Awakens,” which benefited from pent-up demand and the more than 30-year reunion of the original cast. The brand has also shown to be resilient, as evidenced by enduring demand despite the much-derided prequels.
It’s hard to overestimate the effect of the “Star Wars” franchise on The Walt Disney Co., which depends on the property’s popularity to power other divisions of the company. Disney is spending at least $1 billion each on “Star Wars”-themed sections of both Disneyland and Disney World. “Star Wars” licensing and merchandise contribute millions to the company’s overall $1.2 billion consumer products and interactive media division.
“Very simply, Lucasfilm and the ‘Star Wars’ franchise is very important to the Disney brand and investor perception of the Disney brand,” said Michael Morris, a Disney analyst for Guggenheim Partners. “Not only are the films a key driver for the studio segment, which itself is the engine for the company, but it’s also the foundation for some major capital investments for the company.
“When you’re building out physical parks and resorts assets,” he added, “you need the popularity to drive the return on that investment.”