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‘Rise of Skywalker’ Dominates Box Office, but Future of ‘Star Wars’ May Lie in Streaming

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” wrapped up a nine-film saga this weekend, concluding a venerable story of heroes and villains that relied on special effects wonders and big-screen wizardry to help it usher in a new era of moviemaking.

When “Star Wars: A New Hope” hit theaters in 1977, there had never been something quite like it before. It was a B-movie that benefited from A-list production values and storytelling prowess. It was also a commercial juggernaut with few equals, one with an easily digestible plot that allowed it to be embraced by global audiences.

In that pre-blockbuster age, the film also pointed to a new way of doing business. Its central characters — Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, Han Solo, C-3PO and R2-D2 — were ubiquitous, popping up on T-shirts, lunch boxes, bedding, and inspiring toy lines and later theme park rides. “Jaws,” “The Godfather” and “The Sound of Music,” all of which predate “Star Wars,” may have played like blockbusters, racking up record ticket sales, but “A New Hope” provided the template for blockbusters to come. Some of those previous mega-hits spawned sequels, but “Stars Wars” created something that was both more teen-friendly and more easily merchandise-able. It helped spawn a new IP age, charting a clear line between “Indiana Jones” and “Jurassic Park,” “Harry Potter” and “Fast and the Furious.”

But with “Rise of Skywalker’s” arrival, it’s impossible not to feel as if the film’s release is unfolding at another moment of transition for the movie business and for one of its most influential franchises. Its $176 million debut, though massive, ranks as the lowest opening of the most recent three films in the saga, falling far below 2015’s “The Force Awakens” ($248 million) and 2017’s “The Last Jedi” ($220 million). Enthusiasm for the series is beginning to flag (2018’s spinoff “Solo: A Star Wars Story” did the impossible, becoming the first “Star Wars” movie to lose money). Reviews were lackluster and it’s unclear what Star Wars’ future will be on the big screen. A planned trilogy from “The Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson is in a nebulous “development” stage and another series from “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss atomized when the pair left due to creative differences. J.J. Abrams, the director of “The Force Awakens” and “Rise of Skywalker,” won’t be available for future Star Wars movies, having moved on to a mega-deal with WarnerMedia. This is a series that lacks a unifying creative vision.

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Disney, the company that bought the rights to the space opera with its $4 billion purchase of Lucasfilm, once envisioned something different for “Star Wars.” It believed that the mythology of virtuous Jedi warriors and evil Sith lords was so rich it could spawn a movie a year, making it analogous to Marvel, another in-house purveyor of global blockbusters. Faced with diminishing box office returns, it has been forced to acknowledge that it may have done too much, too fast. Even its ambitious Disneyland theme park, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, has been a disappointment, with attendance far lower than expected.

The one, recent bright spot for Star Wars lovers has been “The Mandalorian,” a Disney Plus series that follows a planet-hopping bounty hunter and a co-star in Baby Yoda that boasts a face cute enough to launch a thousand memes. Buoyed by that success, Lucasfilm is moving along with other Disney Plus shows set in a galaxy far, far away, including one featuring Ewan McGregor reprising his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi. This flurry of activity indicates that Star Wars’ future may not lie in cinemas. It may be in streaming.

If that’s the case, “Star Wars” is pivoting along with the rest of the movie business. 2019 was notable as the year when media companies stopped dismissing Netflix as a plucky upstart and fully embraced its business model. Disney Plus launched in November, representing a huge gamble by Disney that it can elbow into the world of streaming without fatally disrupting its core theatrical and television businesses. WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal spent much of the last 12 months tinkering on their own Netflix-challengers, HBOMax and Peacock, which will debut in 2020, testing the public’s appetite for digital video providers. They will join a battle that already includes tech giants Amazon and Apple, both of which have unveiled streaming services of their own.

As these companies pin their hopes on converting moviegoers to streaming subscribers, they do so as the theatrical movie business is constricting. Domestic ticket sales are down 5% from 2018 and attendance has more or less flatlined over the past decade. At the same time, the number of streaming subscribers continues to grow, with the top subscription video services on-demand generating more than $19 billion in revenues in 2018, a more than $4 billion year-over-year increase.

While Disney had a monster year, racking up north of $10 billion at the global box office, it is unlikely to repeat those results in 2020. The studio is still unmatched when it comes to fielding big screen phenomenons, and with a series of brands that includes everything from “Avatar” to “Black Panther,” it casts a shadow over Hollywood. And yet there are challenges ahead. Its major franchises, “Star Wars” and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, must pivot to uncertain futures, after tying up the Skywalker saga and bidding farewell to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Likewise, the studio is running out of beloved animated properties to reboot as live action entertainments, having spun through “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” More and more of its efforts seem to have been focused on Disney Plus. Indeed, loading up 2019 with so many blockbusters was a strategic imperative, assuring that the streaming service would launch with an armada of hit movies.

On the red carpet at “Rise of Skywalker’s” premiere on Monday, Walt Disney Company chairman Bob Iger acknowledged that the film served as a coda of sorts, but he also expressed a belief that the world that George Lucas first unveiled 42 years ago would continue to spin forward.

“Closure has value and I think J.J. Abrams has delivered a film that has closure, that is very satisfying,” he said. “Emotional as well, but quite satisfying. And while this represents the end of, really, nine chapters, which is quite extraordinary, it’s not the end of ‘Star Wars’ stories. In many respects it’s the beginning of new ‘Star Wars’ stories.”

What Iger didn’t say, is that those stories may be streamed on tablets and phones instead of seen on the big screen.

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