Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Star Wars franchise is on shaky ground. The Mandalorian is a clear hit and a marquee title on Disney+, and anticipation for the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series on the streaming service suggests there's still plenty of life in the property. But notable and frequent failures for the franchise have been piling up, and the pull of the galaxy far, far away appears much weaker than it did just a few years ago.
The company's theme park push for Star Wars has been a disappointment so far, and the franchise's next steps on the big screen are unclear amid signs of waning interest and a surprising string of project cancellations. Outside of adding a big asset to Disney's streaming platform, it's fair to say that the franchise has been underperforming as of late.
The Fall of the House of Skywalker
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is set to hit theaters on Dec. 20, but hype for the concluding chapter of the sequel trilogy seems surprisingly scarce. "Hype" may not always be easy to quantify, but marketing presence for the film has been shockingly light, and online engagement for the franchise appears to be slipping by some metrics. Google Trends analysis shows that overall search interest in Star Wars has trended downward since the release of The Force Awakens, and search-topic interest in The Rise of Skywalker looks to be substantially lower than either of the previous entries in the sequel trilogy.
While news stories once circulated about Rise of Skywalker potentially outpacing pre-sale tickets for Avengers: Endgame (a movie that grossed $2.8 billion globally), subsequent tracking suggests that Skywalker may have the lowest opening weekend of the new mainline sequel trilogy. Tracking released at the end of November suggested the film will open between $175 million and $200 million, and a report published at Deadline described the ticket pre-sales for the film as "strong, but not overly robust." For comparison, The Force Awakens delivered a $248 million opening weekend in 2015, and The Last Jedi recorded a $220 million opening in 2017.
Episode IX will very likely pass the billion-dollar mark at the box office, but reception for recent entries in the series and signs of weaker demand for the next theatrical release suggest that some of the franchise's potential has been squandered. When Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, it wasn't just buying a famed production studio and the hugely successful Star Wars property. It was buying access to the largest, most devoted, and most engaged fan base in movie history.
The franchise's prequel trilogy attracted no shortage of criticism, but recent entries in the franchise appear to have alienated many hardcore fans with their treatment of classic characters. The Last Jedi has an audience approval score of just 43% on review-aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, and criticism of the film from series leads including Mark Hamill and John Boyega suggests the picture was controversial even in the internal world of Lucasfilm productions.
It's worth keeping in mind that user scores are subject to manipulation from both impassioned detractors and supporters. However, it also seems clear that Episode VIII was a divisive series installment that caused disappointment with its portrayal of Luke Skywalker and other legacy characters, a reappraisal of the setup presented in The Force Awakens, and reduced affection for the franchise's new batch of heroes.
The Star Wars movie universe needed a road map
News hit at the end of October that a planned Star Wars trilogy from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss would no longer move forward -- and that the two writers would instead be working on projects at Netflix. The cancellation of the Benioff and Weiss trilogy added to the franchise's well-chronicled production difficulties under Disney, and it left zero officially-announced Star Wars movies on Disney's production slate.
A once-planned trilogy from Episode VIII director Rian Johnson doesn't look to be going forward, which isn't surprising given that The Last Jedi proved to be a very divisive film. Disney CEO Bob Iger has said that the Star Wars movie universe is going on hiatus following Rise of Skywalker. And while Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige is reportedly coming in to develop a new entry in the series, it seems clear that the House of Mouse is taking a more cautious approach to the property on the big screen.
"Star Wars fatigue" has sometimes been put forward as the reason the franchise has lost steam, but the cause of the fatigue is often left unaddressed -- and this imprecise, three-word explanation doesn't necessarily make a whole lot of sense in the current film industry climate.
Disney's release schedule for Marvel films has been incredibly aggressive, and those properties still reliably put up great results. What seems more likely, based on the Star Wars franchise's high incidence of production difficulties and mounting number of canceled projects, is that performance suffered because there was never a well-defined vision for where the franchise was supposed to go.
Having a clearly-defined road map helped the Marvel Cinematic Universe become an entertainment juggernaut that has been impervious to audience fatigue for over a decade. Evidence suggests that a similar kind of plan was never put in place for Star Wars, and individual projects suffered as a result. These missteps, combined with Disney employees' often baffling decisions to battle dissatisfied fans in media channels, led to weakened box office pull that likely spilled over to merchandise and theme park performance.
Merchandise sales have softened and Galaxy's Edge is underperforming
When Disney has given color on merchandise sales in recent years, the Star Wars story has been discouraging. Sales and profits for the company's consumer products segment fell in both 2017 and 2018, and declines for Star Wars merchandise were a key factor in the slide in both years. (The company stopped reporting consumer products and licensing as a separate segment in the 2019 fiscal year and now factors these revenue streams into its parks, experiences, and products and direct-to-consumer & international segments.)
Star Wars' big theme park push has been disappointing as well. Despite the introduction of the Galaxy's Edge section, Disney actually saw ticket sales at its parks and resorts segment fall in its third quarter. Visibility on parks traffic was less cut-and-dried in the fourth quarter, but management's comments suggest that attendance was roughly flat year over year.
A range of factors may have contributed to the post-debut decline in parks traffic -- including a price hike, unfavorable weather conditions, and the delayed opening of Galaxy's Edge's second ride: Rise of the Resistance. But conventional wisdom held that the opening of Galaxy's Edge at Disney World and Disneyland would spur a significant increase in visitor traffic. Seeing overall traffic decline at Disney's domestic parks was still a shocking development, and parks executive Catherine Powell stepped down on the heels of the weaker-than-expected launch for Galaxy's Edge.
Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge can still be turned into a success story, but much like the film franchise, there are reasons to be disappointed with the execution. The Galaxy's Edge experience primarily centers around characters and locations from the new sequel trilogy -- a move that hindsight may cast as a mistake. It makes sense that Disney would want to create synergies with its newer movies, but the company had a wealth of beloved characters and locales from earlier films to draw on. Its chosen approach looks more suspect in light of signs that interest in the sequel trilogy's world and characters has diminished.
A smart acquisition, but execution has been lackluster
Describing Disney's Star Wars acquisition as a "failure" would probably be putting it in terms that are too stark. But execution on the franchise in the days following the successes of The Force Awakens and Rogue One has left a lot to be desired. If it weren't for The Mandalorian's very strong reception and the value that the broader property has added to the streaming service; missteps with the film series, declining merchandise sales, and weak performance for Galaxy's Edge would be a lot more concerning.
Disney's big Star Wars buy will likely still prove to be a smart move in the long run. However, there are clear instances where the company has come up short with the property and missed what seemed like relatively sure bets, and that list has grown at a concerning rate.