op-ed

Here Are The Three Ways Disney Can Fix Star Wars

Star Wars collage: YouTube screenshot/URAlwaysOwned, Getty Images/Glynis Barber

Jeffrey S. Podoshen Professor of business and propaganda expert
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Disney’s “The Last Jedi” opened with tremendous anticipation and a whopping 94 percent positive pre-release score on Rotten Tomatoes. Unfortunately, at the middle of the film’s opening weekend, the audience score hovered around 57 percent (eventually hitting its current nadir of 49 percent) and message boards and social media apps were abuzz with disappointment from many long time Star Wars fans. And while the box office numbers overall look quite good, the film had little to no competition in the theaters and once competition did arrive in its third week of release the “The Last Jedi” slipped out of first in the revenue rankings. With Disney already in the precarious situation of having to find profitable solutions for disastrous brands like ESPN, their Star Wars property is key to the firm’s long-term viability, especially as The Mouse has made massive investments in future films and the $1 billion+ Star Wars attractions in the theme parks.

Here are three ways Disney can help shore up the Star Wars franchise going forward:

1. Never underestimate the power of… nostalgia

Many longtime Star Wars fans are members of Generation X. Unlike many millennials and those in Generation Z, Gen X consumers still remember playing with tangible toys and collecting physical objects. There is a still thriving collectors market that is largely comprised of people in the 30’s and 40’s. While there are many licensed products on the market for “The Last Jedi,” collectors have complained of poor distribution of Hasbro’s signature 3.75 inch action figure line and lack of new collector quality product. Lucasfilm famously disrupted the entire toy market with their Kenner licensed toy line in the late 1970s and toymakers have been relying heavily on licensing ever since. As more viewers turn to streaming services for repeated viewings of films, motion picture companies will need to find ways to keep revenue flowing outside of the box office and collectible toys needs to be a significant part of this.

2. Understand that fans make personal investments in film franchises

Whether it be Harry Potter, Star Trek or Star Wars, many devoted fans will often choose to view these films in the theatre over and over again, spending upwards of $19 per showing. Additionally, fans will create and view theory videos about key characters in terms of their speculative origins and futures. For example, the Youtube Channel “Star Wars Theory” features 812,000 subscribers with many videos reaching over one million views. One of the major complaints of “The Last Jedi” amongst fans is that cliffhangers in “The Force Awakens,” which so many speculated about for the past two years, were dealt with nonchalantly – and some were downright silly. Nonetheless those individuals who spent hundreds of dollars and hours on the preceding film shouldn’t be so let down when those edge of the seat moments are dealt with frivolously in the sequel. Don’t assume that audience members will go see the sequel multiple times if they don’t believe there’s any payoff to making such an investment.

3. Beloved characters are beloved for a reason. Don’t mess with them

In a nation going through tumultuous, divisive times, many will look towards the familiar for comfort. So many Americans grew up with boldness of Luke, the confidence of Leia and the wisdom of Yoda. Star Wars fandom has survived for decades and the genre nearly invented cosplay in North America. Some even claim to be members of the Jedi “religion.” With such a passionate attachment to the Star Wars realm, as tempting as it may be for directors to shock audiences with twists and turns through the course of a film, it is imperative that they don’t fiddle with the key endearing aspects of characters fans emulate and develop close attachments with.

Disney understands this attachment at the their theme parks where the costumed characters never stray from their prescribed roles and a Disneyland cast member wouldn’t even be caught on Jakku without their head on. Cast members aren’t even allowed to say that they are “in costume,” in their employment, rather they are instructed to use phrases like, “I’m really good friends with Pluto.”

So if you’re going to kill a beloved character in a film series who’s been popular for decades, the death has to matter significantly to the story line and not seem like an afterthought or trite mechanism to gain buzz. If you’re going to make a gritty, evil character suddenly appear weak without warning, there has to be some key plot point and… if you’re going to mess with Yoda… just don’t.

While on the surface many will look at the box office numbers and see that “The Last Jedi” will bring in hundreds of millions worldwide, Disney needs to ensure that it doesn’t overlook the continued equity of the Star Wars brand and its staying power in the marketplace. Diversification, once a strength of Disney, is now its potential downfall as some of its brands lose their luster and this means BB-8, Rey and Finn have an awful heavy weight on their shoulders.

Jeffrey S. Podoshen is associate professor of business, organizations and society at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His recent work on film theory appears in Quarterly Review of Film and Video.


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