When Disney purchased Lucasfilm for four billion dollars in October 2012, it seemed like a slam-dunk acquisition. After all, just a few months earlier Disney had a massive hit with The Avengers. That first-of-its-kind superhero team-up movie broke all box office expectations with a final worldwide gross of over $1.5 billion, good enough to make it then the third most successful movie of all-time. More than just a hit though, The Avengers was a validation of Disney’s earlier purchase of Marvel and the popularity of the cinematic universe concept that the superhero powerhouse had championed.
The popular thinking went that if Disney could shepherd a bunch of formerly B-list comic characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor to box office greatness, there would be no issues at all for the company in reviving Star Wars. After all, Star Wars already had A-list popularity.
However, things haven’t worked out that way. Marvel continues firing on all cylinders with their cinematic universe, with 23 films made so far. That includes this year’s three hour-long Avengers: Endgame, which made nearly $2.8 billion at the box office, nearly double the gross of the first Avengers film from seven years ago, and took the crown for the highest-grossing movie ever. There are no signs of slowing down either, with seven more films scheduled for the next three years, and at least six more undated but in development.
Compare that to Star Wars. The Force Awakens and Rogue One were both big successes. The Last Jedi, whatever you think of the film itself, did solidly at the box office at well. Then came Solo. The Han Solo prequel film underperformed all expectations and became a box office bomb that lost Disney at least $50 million and potentially over $80 million. Solo‘s failure had ripple effects across the franchise, with all future spin-off films including a planned Boba Fett title put on hold. Currently there are no further Star Wars films scheduled at all, with the departure of writer-producers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss putting their planned trilogy on the rocks. There are vague plans for future films from Kevin Feige and Rian Johnson, but no details yet.
What happened? How come one IP is still firing on all cylinders, while the other is stuck? While many problems were at play in making Solo into a commercial disaster, including the quality of the film itself, behind-the-scenes issues with the director change, and a competitive release date, the biggest problem was that Disney has fundamentally misunderstood what Star Wars is so far and how to handle it.
The three types of intellectual property
To understand what went wrong with Solo, it helps to look at intellectual property as being divided into three different categories:
Strong brands stand for something in the minds of audiences, but they don’t involve any actual connections on a storytelling level. An example is Pixar. The animation studio has been making films for nearly 25 years now, and has made 21 movies so far. At this point, many consumers have opinions on what a “Pixar” film means – say, quality computer-generated animated films that often have a strong emotional core. Yet despite the fact that people can associate all Pixar movies as being part of their brand, outside of sequels and some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Easter eggs, one Pixar original film has no plot connection to any other one. You can watch all three of Coco, Up, and A Bug’s Life in any order you want or even skip one or two of them and it won’t hurt your enjoyment of any of those films.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the prime example of this, but this is when multiple films are connected to each other yet the films can be enjoyed individually. Each have their own subset of characters, plots, and situations that doesn’t necessarily all immediately or ever become part of the larger story.
Films with a plot that go in sequential order from one title to the next, say Zombieland and then Zombieland: Double Tap. You can’t really watch a latter part of a series without seeing the earlier parts if you want to really understand it.
Star Wars: universe or series?
Disney’s fundamental mistake after the purchase of Lucasfilm was that they treated Star Wars like a series instead of a universe. While it’s true that much of the canon of Star Wars revolves around the story of the Skywalker family, under Disney, Skywalker or Skywalker-adjacent stories have been the exclusive focus of each and every film. Rogue One? About sending a message to Princess Leia that would lead to the events of the original Skywalker trilogy. Solo? A prequel to the original Skywalker trilogy. The scrapped Boba Fett movie? A spin-off about a character from the original Skywalker trilogy.
An unwillingness to expand the story is bound to lead to fatigue among audiences. Imagine if after Marvel saw that the first Iron Man film was a hit, the next four films were Iron Man: Origins, Iron Man 2, Iron Man: Young Iron Man, Iron Man 3, and then Iron Man: War Machine. The Marvel Cinematic Universe would have been dead before it even truly started, but that’s essentially what Disney planned for Star Wars.
Also important is that always sticking so closely to the old stories puts Star Wars at a box office disadvantage in international markets where the nostalgia for the original trilogy isn’t there. Many overseas audiences were curious about Star Wars when The Force Awakens came around, but they felt out of the loop and their curiosity dried up by the time The Last Jedi came out. See how much sharper the percentage drop in box office grosses from Force Awakens to Last Jedi was in newer-to-Star Wars markets like China and South Korea (66% and 67% respectively), compared to markets where the franchise has been well known since 1977 like the UK (32%) and the US/Canada (34%):
This is all despite Disney’s best and sometimes rather silly efforts to drum up interest in Star Wars in these new markets. For example, the studio commissioned a K-Pop group to make a song about lightsabers:
Or when they posed 500 stromtroopers on the Great Wall of China for a photo op:
No amount of stunts though can fix fundamental issues with a franchise.
It’s risky to expand from a series perspective to a universe one, but of all the studios one would think Disney would understand best that if you keep making great movies that audiences connect to, it doesn’t matter if you wade into some more obscure characters. If Marvel Studios can make a film where two of the main characters are a tree and a talking raccoon be a hit, there’s no excuse for Star Wars to not venture a bit further from the Skywalkers.
Luckily it seems like Disney might be finally learning this lesson. It just took them four years and losing tens of millions of dollars to get it. The Mandalorian seems to be a good bit separated from the Skywalker side of the Star Wars universe at least from the information about the series that’s been released so far. The Benioff and Weiss trilogy, before they left the franchise, was rumored that it would explore the origins of the force. Johnson’s series was announced as taking place in an entirely separate part of the Star Wars universe as well.
Every Star Wars film famously starts with the same words – “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Under Disney, the variety of stories in that galaxy has been reduced in size to a speck. It’s time for the galaxy of Star Wars on the big screen to start truly feeling like the universe it is.