Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) is getting busy with squeezing value out of the $4 billion Lucasfilm buyout.
In a post on the official Star Wars production site, Disney just announced another spinoff movie set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away -- complete with a rising-star director with a taste for action movies.
Josh Trank will helm the second Lucasfilm spinoff, following the recent unveiling of Gareth Edwards' 2016 installment. These are intended as stand-alone films to be released alongside the latest Star Wars trilogy.
"He is such an incredible talent and has a great imagination and sense of innovation," said Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy in press materials. "That makes him perfectly suited to Star Wars, and for this new slate of movies that reach beyond the core characters and story lines of Episodes I through IX."
Disney is clearly cranking up the adrenaline dose in these noncore Star Wars films. Edwards is best known for directing the recent Godzilla reboot, and has worked on pulse-racing properties like The Walking Dead and action-heavy documentaries Hiroshima and Perfect Disasters.
Importantly, he knows how to turn big profits on a shoestring budget. Edwards wrote, directed, and basically willed the alien invasion movie Monsters into existence. That movie collected $4.2 million in global box office sales, from a meager $500,000 production budget.
Trank is no different. He's working on a reimagined take on The Fantastic Four right now, but made a name for himself by writing and directing a dark superpowers story titled Chronicle.
Chronicle recouped its entire budget on its opening weekend, and went on to score $127 million in global ticket sales on a (larger but still fairly modest) $12 million budget.
There's a pattern here. Disney is looking for some excitement in these Star Wars spinoffs. Not the easy way, which involves signing million-dollar contracts with household-name superstars. The entertainment giant is trying the riskier but ultimately more interesting path, starting with potential stars and hoping for a big return on small investments.
I don't expect huge production budgets for any of these spinoff Star Wars universe films, but I do expect high production values and more explosions than laughs. Recall that the original Star Wars was made for $11 million. The same year, Close Encounters of the Third Kind commanded a $20 million budget and A Bridge Too Far cost $27 million.
Nothing wrong with those classics and their rich budgets for the time. Close Encounters pulled in 15 times its budget internationally, after all.
But they can't hold a candle to the original Star Wars. George Lucas had to reinvent the art of special effects for that movie, giving birth to his Industrial Light & Magic effects company. And that measly budget led Lucas to a $775 million box office bonanza, for a 7,000% return on the investment.
Oh, and $775 million in 1977 works out to $3 billion in 2014 dollars. Eat your hearts out, Titanic and Avatar.
So these director picks fit squarely into the grand old Star Wars tradition. Now let's see if Edwards and Trank can deliver on their low-budget, thrill-a-minute promise. Disney is not taking big risks here, but the Lucasfilm universe might expand in exciting new directions and the payoff could be huge.