Even if you already disagree with the fundamental argument of my whole piece, I’d encourage you to read it a bit. I’ve tried my best to explain where the box office results of TLJ disappointed using data analysis first-and-foremost. Even if you know your opinion will always be the opposite of mine, I think you’ll find some of the stats I analyze here worth a look.
Another day, another (false) rumor
Recently, once again a rumor appeared that TLJ director Rian Johnson had been fired from his position helming new Star Wars trilogy. While the rumor was quickly debunked by Johnson himself on Twitter, as a thought experiment I started considering whether or not getting rid of Johnson’s trilogy would be a good idea for the franchise. Taking a deeper look at the box office performance of TLJ, I found its clear that Johnson isn’t the best choice for the future of Star Wars.
While we don’t know yet exactly what Johnson’s new trilogy will be about – just that its taking place in a different time and place than the Skywalker saga we’ve been familiar with – choosing a director whose previous Star Wars title underperformed in the long-term seems like the definition of starting on the wrong foot.
So, how are we determining it underperformed?
When people argue that TLJ did well at the box office, you normally see the same figures trotted out. The movie was the highest-grossing title of 2018, yes. It was calculated by Deadline to be the most profitable movie of 2018, yep that’s true too. I’m not going to dispute the fact that by any reasonable measure, TLJ made a profit and did relatively well.
Yet doesn’t just doing “relatively well” seems like a pretty low standard for a movie with the kind of pedigree TLJ had? It was the direct sequel to TFA, the most successful movie of all-time in North America. TFA made over $2B dollars globally, even more than Infinity War did last year. If TLJ was so well-liked, how come it dropped over a third from such a successful film like TFA? That doesn’t seem like the sign of a well-liked film.
Calculating box office “legs”
To figure out why TLJ dropped so much from TFA, we need to look at what is known in box office terminology as “legs”. Legs are a measurement of how well a movie continues to perform at the box office after its opening weekend. They’re calculated as follows:
domestic legs = total domestic gross ÷ domestic opening weekend
Now, let’s look at all the legs of the top 25 December releases domestically, sorted from the highest legs (stayed on at the box office the longest) to the lowest (held on at the box office the worst):
So you’ll see that of all the top 25 December movies in North America ever, The Last Jedi has the single worst legs of them all. The difference is even more striking when you put the grosses of TFA and TLJ side-by-side on a chart:
TFA and TLJ: both strong openings, then very different results
The most interesting thing looking at the chart above is how close TFA and TLJ were when they began their box office runs. TFA had an opening weekend of $248M, TLJ had a start of $220M. That’s only a $28M drop between the two movies there – which I think can be easily explained by the fact that TFA was the first major Star Wars movie in a decade.
When it comes to the total gross though, TFA ended up with $936M domestically and over $2B worldwide. TLJ made only $620M domestic and $1.3B worldwide. So how does what started out being such a small gap at the first weekend end up being such a massive one? It all comes down to the different sets of audiences between opening weekend and the later weeks.
The opening weekend audience
When you go see a movie on its opening day, what do you know about how good it will be? Well, not much really. Most of your friends have probably not seen it yet – after all, the film has just come out. The only things you really have to base your decision on whether to see it on are four factors. In all of these factors, both TFA and TLJ looked quite appealing:
- The brand behind the movie: Star Wars is one of the most recognizable franchises in the world, no problem there.
- The previous work of the director and cast: JJ Abrams had already made a number of successful films and TV shows, Rian Johnson had directed some of Breaking Bad’s most famous episodes and had made a number of acclaimed movies.
- The trailers: I think most people can agree both TFA and TLJ trailers were solid, and teased lots of interesting developments for the characters (even if those teases didn’t necessarily fully pan out during the actual film).
- The reception from critics: TFA has a 93% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and TLJ a 91%. Both movies were well-liked by professional reviewers overall.
With all of these “pre-release” factors looking good for both Star Wars films, both movies had starts very close to each other, $248M for TFA versus $220M for TLJ, only an 11% drop.
The audience for later weekends
The people watching movies after the first weekend do take into account the factors I mentioned before for opening audiences. However, there’s also another very important element to whether or not will someone will show up to watch a movie in its later weeks – what other people in the general audience who have seen the movie think. Before watching something, how many times have you asked around first to see if it was worthwhile – maybe visiting your favorite website to see what users there thought of the film, or just asking your friend who saw it earlier what they thought? I’m sure plenty of times.
Another major factor in how well a movie holds up as its run continues is repeat viewings. If a film really clicks with viewers, they’ll be willing to see it twice, three times, or even more. The strength of repeat viewership was one of the reasons TFA did so well, as even Disney themselves said:
The speed with which records are falling is a testament to the audience broadening out. And you can’t do these kind of numbers without extraordinary repeat business. We know anecdotally people are seeing it three and four times. Everyone wants to be part of something that has become a cultural phenomenon.Dave Hollis, Disney’s President of Worldwide Theatrical Distribution at the time (via The Hollywood Reporter)
Where TLJ underperformed at the box office
With audiences not connecting to TLJ as much as TFA, it makes sense that TLJ would underperform significantly in its later weeks, when the general audience reception and repeat viewership really matter. In the opening weekend, TLJ was shielded from underperforming because of the strength of the brand, the critical reviews, and the prerelease marketing. As soon as people actually started talking to each other about what they had seen in TLJ however, the numbers began to drop much harder than expected.
Debunking some common myths about TLJ’s performance
Since discussing the strengths and weaknesses of this movie have been a major part of the online film conversation for over a year now, I wanted to expand a bit further and provide some counterpoints to common claims I hear about why Rian Johnson, despite the underperformance of TLJ, should keep his spot making a brand-new Star Wars trilogy.
Myth #1: It’s okay that TLJ didn’t perform exactly as expected, because we can trust Lucasfilm to do things better next time
Listen, I’m not one of those people who is going to say that Kathleen Kennedy is the devil incarnate. I’m sure she’s a pleasant person, and a skilled producer for other movies. Her skills just don’t seem to mesh well with the Star Wars franchise though. Let’s look at the movies she has managed at Lucasfilm:
- The Force Awakens: The original Academy Award-winning writer for the film, Michael Arndt, was dropped at the last minute and J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had to rewrite the entire film while they were shooting it.
- Rogue One: Had massive reshoots, and the third act was completely redesigned. Writer Tony Gilroy said that before he was brought in to doctor the script, they were in “so much terrible, terrible trouble that all you could do was improve their position.” Star Ben Mendelsohn said there were “enormous differences” between the versions of the movie.
- Last Jedi: Already discussed the problems with this one at length in this article.
- Solo: A flop that lost Disney money, and had the directors being straight-up replaced in the middle of filming.
- Episode IX: Had its originally planned director, Colin Trevorrow, fired and replaced with J.J. Abrams.
So out of the five movies the current leadership at Lucasfilm has worked on, four of them had major production problems and the only one that didn’t…was TLJ. That’s a pretty terrible track record.
Compare that to the relatively smooth track record of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is up to twenty-plus movies now and has only had a major behind-the-scenes misfire on one of them, Ant-Man, with the loss of the original director Edgar Wright.
The only franchise to go through the same amount of drama and mishaps as Star Wars has lately is the DC Cinematic Universe. When that brand started going south, WB was smart enough to switch up executives. Under their new lead, Walter Hamada, DC has now been doing great, with the brand getting a massive hit from Aquaman and a number of promising upcoming movies.
Lucasfilm’s questionable ability to make movies means that even if Rian Johnson’s planned trilogy has good concepts behind it, I can’t believe that the studio would be able to effectively handle any issues that might come up.
Myth #2: TLJ only underperformed because of the competition
A common argument I hear is that TLJ only underperformed because it had a lot more competition for audience attention from other films than previous Star Wars films did. In particular, people point how the Jumanji sequel did exceptionally well, and how The Greatest Showman showed surprising box office staying power.
However, it is less likely that these films hurt TLJ’s legs, as much as the natural weakness in audience appreciation for TLJ meant moviegoers were more likely to seek out other films. If you asked most people what they would want to watch more – the latest film that continues the Star Wars Skywalker saga, one of the best-known stories of all time – or a reboot of Jumanji of all things – they would probably choose Star Wars. People only chose the latter because the mixed audience reception from TLJ scared them away from the film.
Myth #3: Who cares, TLJ still made a billion dollars and was 2017’s most profitable movie
Yes, TLJ was very profitable according to Deadline. I’m not disputing that – it’s hard to see how a movie that was reported to cost in the $200-300Ms and ends up with $1.3B wouldn’t be profitable. However, just being profitable is quite a low bar to pass for the best-known franchise in history. When you’re working on the next entry of a story this iconic where the previous entry was relatively well-liked already, it’s nearly impossible to lose money. Look at how, for example, Batman v. Superman – another movie with poor legs and questionable audience reception like TLJ – still ended up profitable. Audiences might get fooled by the brand once, but then they’ll learn to avoid the franchise. That’s what happened with Justice League after Batman v. Superman, and what will happen to Rian Johnson’s trilogy after TLJ. (Never mind the whole Solo debacle as well…)
Myth #4: All second entry Star Wars movies drop this sharply
You’ll hear some people defending TLJ’s performance by saying that all of the second entries in Star Wars trilogies drop. They’re right that they drop a little bit, but the drop for TLJ was notably bad. A common mistake people make is they include all of the many rereleases that Star Wars movies used to have in their accounts. That’s just not reasonable – it makes sense to compare TLJ only with the initial theatrical runs of other Star Wars films, since TLJ hasn’t been rereleased half a dozen times like the Original Trilogy has.
By charting it out, you can see that TLJ dropped harder from TFA than any direct sequel to a Star Wars movie has ever done before. The only film that’s even close to the same drop is Attack of the Clones from The Phantom Menace, and TPM wasn’t well-received when it came out either.