The Dark Side of Disney's Star Wars Bet

Date : 12/06/2019 @ 8:55PM
Source : Dow Jones News
Stock : Walt Disney Co (DIS)
Quote : 143.5  -0.83 (-0.58%) @ 8:17PM

The Dark Side of Disney's Star Wars Bet

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By Erich Schwartzel and R.T. Watson 

Los Angeles

Luke Skywalker was coming back to the big screen, and executives at Walt Disney Co. gathered to hear how. It was 2013, and Disney had months earlier paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm Ltd., the production company behind the space opera of Princess Leia, Darth Vader and the power of the Force.

From offices in Burbank, Calif., filmmakers began pitching Disney studio chief Alan Horn on the plot of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," scheduled to hit theaters two years later. They introduced Mr. Horn to a character that would become a fan favorite -- a creamsicle-colored droid called BB-8. He loved it, according to a person in the meeting, and loved the merchandise sales this soccer-ball-size creation could generate.

But Mr. Horn had a note for the filmmakers. While Disney wanted to sell millions of toys, fans could never sense that any character or plot point was conceived as a business decision, he said. Star Wars was different than any set of characters and story lines Disney had absorbed up until that point. Any whiff of marketing imperatives driving the creative decisions on the Star Wars franchise would immediately, in the eyes of devoted fans, cast Disney as the evil empire that had gobbled up their beloved modern-day myth.

Navigating that danger zone has proved to be the most difficult part of absorbing the blockbuster series: How to bring aboard a new generation of moviegoers while avoiding turning off the die-hard fans that have an outsize voice in the success or failure of the films.

Disney bought a world created by the visionary George Lucas and plugged it into its franchise-making machine, hoping to turn the investment into an interconnected product chain of merchandise, theme-park attractions and films that promise years of future revenue.

The Star Wars business so far has been good for Disney. "The Force Awakens," the first of a new trilogy, grossed $937 million domestically, still the most of any movie in box-office history.

Disney's new streaming service launched in November with the Star Wars spinoff "The Mandalorian" as a centerpiece offering that fans have embraced, turning the character fans call Baby Yoda into a celebrity. Disney reported it had 10 million users signed up a day after the service launched. Disney is counting on original shows like "Mandalorian" to draw users, as well as its archive of classic titles. Rather than release "Mandalorian" episodes all at once, Disney has premiered one a week, a strategy that has allowed it to reignite buzz about the series with each new installment.

An immersive Star Wars-themed attraction called Galaxy's Edge opened this year at two theme parks in Anaheim, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., and fans' enthusiasm for custom-made lightsabers and Jedi Mind Trick cocktails has boosted revenue in Disney's theme-park division.

Still, worrying fissures have formed. The second episode of the new trilogy, the 2017 release "The Last Jedi," collected 33% less at the domestic box office than "Force Awakens." Spinoff film "Solo," about the younger days of hero Han Solo, was poorly scheduled and underwhelmed audiences. Fans held off visiting the new theme park attraction while a promised second ride was behind schedule. (It opened in Florida this week and is expected to open in California in January.) A string of high-profile directors has been fired or left projects unexpectedly, and the creative plan for the films after the next release is unclear.

The final film of the current trilogy, "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, " opens on Dec. 19. Disney has indicated it needs to take a moment after that to reassess its strategy. "We're gonna hit pause," Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger said on a conference call with Wall Street analysts last month.

With the 2012 Lucasfilm acquisition, Disney purchased an established cinematic world that came with disciples of the original movies, who attend conferences dressed in painstakingly accurate regalia and endlessly debate the minutiae of the mystically binding energy known as the Force and other lore. Only after the purchase did Disney begin to fathom how avid a fan base it had on its hands, according to a consultant Disney hired.

Early buzz among die-hard fans can set the tone for a movie's overall reception and dent or boost opening-weekend grosses. Studio executives across Hollywood scour early reactions on social media to trailers and promotions, assessing whether the responses mean changes should be made.

The slightest tweak to Star Wars mythology can set fans off. "People go crazy, even on small things," said Mr. Iger at an interview conducted at the opening of Galaxy's Edge in May.

Star Wars fans will happily shell out not only for movie tickets, but also for $20 Blu-rays, $84 Darth Vader gold rings, $32 Chewbacca kitchen aprons and $199 lightsabers at Galaxy's Edge, among thousands of other items.

So far, Disney has had mixed success appeasing these fans while pulling in younger moviegoers with different expectations of what a fable of good versus evil looks like in 2019.

"The Last Jedi" suffered a backlash after it seemed to contradict key elements of previous films, upsetting a legion of older fans who objected to what they felt were silly subplots and story decisions that dismissed or perverted a mythology they grew up with. Separately, some objected to the new generation of young characters, and Hollywood's most family-friendly brand had to reckon with racist and misogynistic attacks from a subset of fans who said the films were bowing to political correctness by featuring women and minorities in lead roles.

Lucasfilm had been working to develop intensely loyal fans since its earliest days. In 1976, a year before the original Star Wars premiered, Lucasfilm sent representatives to science-fiction fan conventions with photos from the forthcoming film, and long lines gathered outside theaters as it became a phenomenon in the summer of 1977.

After buying Lucasfilm 35 years later, Disney was eager to tap into the strong appetite for new movies -- and prove the worth of the $4 billion purchase to Wall Street. While fans once had to wait years for a new Star Wars, Disney has fast-tracked production by releasing a new film every year.

Disney used the strategy with Pixar Animation, which it bought in 2006, and Marvel Studios, which it bought in 2009. Pixar had released six movies in the nine years before the acquisition. Once in Disney's stable, it has churned out one movie every year except one -- and released two features some years. At Marvel, producers have made two movies most years since the Disney acquisition, accelerating the pace to three a year more recently.

Pixar alternates sequels with original films spanning several franchises, and Marvel has a large corps of characters to pull from decades of comics. For Star Wars, with a much smaller set of developed characters tied to a single cinematic story line, Disney released "The Force Awakens" in 2015 and then made four movies in the four years after that -- with only five months separating "The Last Jedi" in December 2017 from "Solo" in May 2018. Some vocal, longtime fans slammed what they called a rushed production schedule and narrative whiplash.

Lucasfilm executives, including president Kathleen Kennedy, lobbied Disney brass to postpone "Solo" until the 2018 Christmas season, worried it was oversaturating the market, current and former colleagues say. But Disney executives overruled the arguments.

"Solo" premiered as scheduled and mostly fizzled with fans. It collected $213 million domestically, the least of any Star Wars film. Consumers have bought fewer toys with every release, and attendance at the Star Wars theme-park attraction has fallen short of expectations set by analysts, who projected record-setting crowds.

The rush has impaired the long-term planning for where the Skywalker saga and other Star Wars stories go from here. Rather than take the Marvel approach and begin filming the first movie with the end of the series in mind, Lucasfilm has largely determined the overarching plot from movie to movie, former employees say. That creates a clash since the multiple moving parts of the Disney franchise machine depend on schedules, forward planning and shared information.

When a videogame division at Disney approached the Lucasfilm story group about a game that would take place in the time between "The Force Awakens" and "The Last Jedi," videogame developers were told the story group had no idea what was going to happen in "Last Jedi," even though "Force Awakens" was close to wrapping production, according to one of the former employees.

Since different directors were handling different films, "Last Jedi" director Rian Johnson was forced to wait to see how "Force Awakens" director J.J. Abrams would finish his movie before he could finalize his own script. While Mr. Johnson was shooting "Last Jedi," an installment that took the series in unexpected directions, Lucasfilm executives had little idea how they would wrap up the trilogy in the film that followed, the one premiering this month, according to an executive who worked there at the time.

Disney's film plans for the franchise appear up in the air except for the announcement of three movies -- without details on story lines or characters -- due out in 2022, 2024 and 2026. Each title is slated for a release around Christmas.

Instead, fan focus has turned to "The Mandalorian," which has been a crucial driver of subscribers to Disney's new streaming service. So far, fans have largely embraced the spinoff's Western tone and story line, which follows a faceless bounty hunter on distant planets in the Skywalker universe. With "Mandalorian," Disney has found success straddling the old and the new by taking a character inspired by the original trilogy and fleshing out his story line with new genre and plot.

"Mandalorian" director Jon Favreau has said Disney opted not to prepare Baby Yoda toys in time for the Christmas shopping season, worried the products would spoil the character's reveal in the closing minutes of the show's premiere in November. The decision to delay a consumer-products push has led to a secondhand market of Baby Yoda merchandise and pressured Disney to get toys to shelves as soon as possible.

Disney has announced plans for two additional spinoff series for its Disney+ streaming service, including one starring actor Ewan McGregor reprising his role as Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. This week, Disney announced a Star Wars-themed game show for the streaming service, hosted by Ahmed Best, the actor best known for playing Jar Jar Binks in the prequel trilogy.

Ms. Kennedy, the Lucasfilm president who was handpicked by Mr. Lucas to take over months before he sold to Disney, has struggled to bridge the pre- and post-Disney cultures at Lucasfilm, associates and former colleagues say.

Ms. Kennedy declined to comment.

Ms. Kennedy is among the most successful producers in Hollywood history, with credits that include "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and "Jurassic Park." She started working with Steven Spielberg when he was directing "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and at Lucasfilm she has recruited young, up-and-coming directors who she thinks can update the franchise for present-day audiences. Lucasfilm couldn't attract bold, visionary directors if it expected to keep them on a short leash, according to one "Last Jedi" producer.

That creative freedom has repeatedly clashed with Disney's need to make a movie that simultaneously moves the story forward while catering to some fans' nostalgic impulses, according to people who have worked with the company on the new films. "The Force Awakens" was criticized for hewing too closely to the 1977 classic, and "The Last Jedi" criticized for taking the narrative in erratic directions.

The result has been a revolving door of directors hired to great public fanfare and fired when their narrative ambition edged too far outside guidelines, or it became clear they weren't experienced enough to handle $200 million megaproductions.

In just five years, half a dozen directors have been fired or left projects midfilming or ahead of future installments, and in the past several months Lucasfilm story architects who conceived of recent films have left. The producers of the new Star Wars trilogy scheduled to start in 2022, "Game of Thrones" television show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, abandoned the project in October. The two also have a producing deal with Netflix Inc., which has become a top rival to Disney since it launched Disney+.

The original director of this month's "Rise of Skywalker," Colin Trevorrow, got the job on the strength of his 2015 blockbuster "Jurassic World," but several scripts he submitted to Ms. Kennedy were rejected as the two disagreed about where to take the Skywalker saga in its final film. Ms. Kennedy fired him in September 2017.

She replaced him with Mr. Abrams, who had originally only planned on directing "The Force Awakens." Bringing him back to conclude the trilogy is seen by many in Hollywood as the safest choice for appeasing die-hard fans, since Mr. Abrams is best known for nostalgia-laden updates to franchises including "Star Trek" and "Mission: Impossible."

Disney has shown a willingness to push Star Wars in new directions in other venues. Mr. Iger ordered the Galaxy's Edge theme park attraction to be based on Batuu, a planet new to the series, rather than on Tatooine, the home of Luke Skywalker, which would have been catnip for die-hard fans. On Batuu, Disney can park the Millennium Falcon, flown in Mr. Lucas's original film, next to the ship piloted by Kylo Ren in the current trilogy.

"I don't want to be stuck in the past," Mr. Iger said, as he attended the opening at Disneyland earlier this year.

Forging into new territory backfired among some fans with "The Last Jedi, " who said Mr. Johnson, the director, seemed to make a movie that had little relation to Mr. Abrams's "The Force Awakens" from just two years earlier.

"The Last Jedi" implied Rey, the central protagonist of the new movies, is not a descendant of a powerful Jedi or other storied lineage, as previous Star Wars heroes have been. It defied traditional Star Wars physics by turning hyperspace travel into a kamikaze trick capable of destroying an enemy's fleet. Worst of all, in the eyes of some fans, it killed off their hero, Luke Skywalker.

Jay Wilson, a 45-year-old fan from Ault, Colo., had trouble sleeping the night he saw it. He went back to the theater three more times. "I couldn't let it go," he said. "I had to find something in this movie that was my Star Wars." He still bought a Blu-ray of the film when it was released and plans to see "The Rise of Skywalker" on opening night.

Star Wars is "political in a sense that it has a foundation in historical politics -- the rise of dictatorships, the death of democracy -- but it has never tried to take a stand on present-day issues," said Howard Roffman, a former executive in charge of franchise management at Lucasfilm who joined the company in 1980 and left about two years ago. Now, though, some viewers "attribute contemporary motives to the content" of the new films, he said.

Mr. Horn, the Disney studio chief, and Lucasfilm executives have sought to diversify the casts to meet contemporary audiences' expectations and also in a nod to the reality of a global marketplace where a majority of box-office grosses come from overseas.

The bitter political fights dividing the U.S. have spilled over to the reactions to the movies, especially when it comes to some of the new movies' female characters. Kelly Marie Tran, a daughter of Vietnam refugees who joined the franchise with "The Last Jedi," said she left social media six months after the movie's release due to unrelenting racist and sexist harassment from Star Wars fans who didn't think she belonged in the films.

The story lines of both the current trilogy and the spinoff "Rogue One," released in 2016, revolve around a heroine and have multiple, central female characters, a big shift from the original movies, in which Princess Leia was the only noteworthy female character.

"I'm all for equality," said Anthony Ergo, a 42-year-old fan from Liverpool, England. "But it felt like it was the promotion of female characters, but at the expense of male characters."

Lifelong Star Wars fan Breana Ceballos is happy with the direction Disney has taken with the franchise she grew to love as a child, watching the original movies with her father. "I feel like as long as the message is good and it's relevant to the world today, it's probably a good thing to have," said Ms. Ceballos, a 33 year-old resident of Irvine, Calif.

"Rey is going her own way and finding her own path. I want my daughter to feel like she can do anything," she said.

Not all of the criticism took a political bent. Some fans took issue with the "Last Jedi" plot, which introduced new tertiary characters and, according to critics, dedicated too much time to subplots involving a side trip to a casino and lengthy interludes following a solitary Luke Skywalker living in exile alongside nun-like alien creatures.

Social media has amplified the fights. Vito Gesualdi, a Los Angeles-based graphic designer, produced a YouTube video titled "Why Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a Complete Cinematic Failure," which dissects what he sees as narrative missteps in the film. It has nearly eight million views, and Mr. Gesualdi said the ad revenue from his 20-minute diatribe (the movie "takes one of the most beloved franchises of all time, throws it into the trunk of a car and then backs it into a river") earned him enough to pay more than a year's rent.

Disagreements about the politics of "Last Jedi" have grown so ugly that Russian trolls have identified Star Wars debates on social media as places to sow discord, akin to online discussions about Hillary Clinton or Black Lives Matter, according to a report published by Morten Bay, a research fellow at the University of Southern California.

He cited instances in which Russian troll farms planted incendiary comments about Star Wars into online forums, simply to rile people up. It "helps spread the perception that America is divided and in chaos," he wrote.

The disinformation campaign has made it hard for Lucasfilm executives and members of a story group charged with plotting the franchise's trajectory to understand fans' true concerns, one former story-group member said. Did racism spurred by online trolls drive their rejection of Ms. Tran's character, or was it a broader issue of how her character's arc was developed in the film? "What's the note behind the note?" the person said. Often, the person added, fan responses boil down to "Don't change a thing I love."

Others say the Star Wars films haven't been updated enough. The novel introducing the "Last Jedi" character Vice Admiral Holdo, later played by Laura Dern in the film, suggested she was pansexual and interested in mates beyond "humanoid males." But the movie made no reference to the orientation, and some fans saw it as a missed opportunity to present a broader range of sexual orientation on screen.

"It doesn't have to be the main character. Just somebody in the story," said Jeff Lassiter, a Chicagoan who attended Star Wars Celebration, an annual gathering of enthusiastic fans held in Chicago this year, in a Darth Vader helmet painted Pepto-Bismol pink.

"People say, 'It's not my Star Wars,' " he said describing some fans' complaints about the kinds of changes he is seeking. But he asked: Why is it "your" Star Wars and not mine?

When Mr. Iger showed "The Force Awakens" to Mr. Lucas ahead of its release, the Star Wars creator couldn't believe how much the new movie seemed to resemble the old, Mr. Iger recalled. Just as in the original film, this one was about two men and a woman who join a rebellion to destroy a megaweapon, and even also starred Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and C-3PO.

"We are walking a very fine line," Mr. Iger said he told him. "If we don't satisfy the most ardent fan, we'd be killed."

The new "Rise of Skywalker" is still expected to be a blockbuster, and those alienated by "The Last Jedi" have turned to Mr. Abrams with hope. One executive who has worked with Mr. Abrams said the director is keeping longtime fans in mind, saying it is like an invisible fan is whispering in his ear during story meetings.

Following the conclusion of the Skywalker trilogy this month, Mr. Iger said he wants the next set of movies to be more accessible to common moviegoers unburdened by decades of Star Wars memories. But he knows that will likely alienate some fans. "You can't make everyone happy," he said.

If you're not going to update a property, he said, "you might as well stick it in a museum and watch it get old."

Write to Erich Schwartzel at erich.schwartzel@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 06, 2019 15:40 ET (20:40 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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