In a vacuum, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker looks like a massive hit: $175.5 million at the North American box office and $373.5 million worldwide, as reported in the Hollywood Reporter. The number-two movie this week, Jumanji: The Next Level, grossed $26.1 million.
But we don’t live in a vacuum, do we? TROS grossed less than the first two Disney Lucasfilm Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($248 million) and The Last Jedi ($220 million). Just this year, Disney wrapped up another epic saga with Avengers: Endgame, and it grossed a record $357.1 million in its first weekend on its way to becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time. You’re supposed to bring a saga to a crescendo.
Analysts are already spinning that the true test for TROS will be after Christmas, because this debut weekend fell so close to the holidays. But the fact is that Disney blew it in the run-up to releasing TROS in three significant ways (four if you count its fundamental error in not just getting J.J. Abrams to direct all three films, but let’s not go there). These mistakes all took place within the last three months, and they have hurt the debut of The Rise of Skywalker, though it’s certainly possible that the movie—and Disney’s marketing muscle—will transcend these problems and turn it into a megahit.
1. Bob Iger’s too revealing memoir, ‘The Ride of a Lifetime’
In late September, Iger released a book chronicling his career and stewardship of The Walt Disney Company. Most CEO books can be bland affairs, but Iger offered up many juicy anecdotes—including one he shouldn’t have about The Force Awakens. In the book, Iger overshares that they screened the first Disney Lucasfilm effort for George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars himself—and he came away disappointed. “‘There’s nothing new,’ he said. In each of the films in the original trilogy, it was important to him to present new worlds, new stories, new characters, and new technologies. In this one, he said, ‘There weren’t enough visual or technical leaps forward.'”
No one forced Iger to include this in his book. By doing so, he fed the opinions of critics of TFA, and it sowed doubt with fans of the first film in this trilogy. The creator of Star Wars makes a good point. The hardcore fans may not directly be the difference between box-office success and disappointment, but they’re responsible for proselytizing for the series, and if these influencers are not excited, or they’re focused on the past and not the new film, that’s bad.
2. The most buttoned-up PR company in the world lost control
Disney is a formidable hype machine. After all, it effectively created the drip-drip-drip of the teaser to the teaser trailer, Kumail Nanjiani sharing his ripped torso on Instagram almost a year before Marvel’s The Eternals is released, and so forth. So it’s nothing less than shocking that the company, whose marketing is nonpareil, would let there be any conversation about discord between the visions of Abrams and fellow director Rian Johnson, who helmed The Last Jedi. The actual comments by Abrams and the movies’ stars were rather tepid, but it was unnecessary, an unforced error by Disney’s usually on point PR. The Rise of Skywalker is about to hit theaters, and fans were fighting about the old movies and revisiting old arguments rather than channeling their energies toward excitement for seeing the last movie in the trilogy.
3. Baby Yoda killed Skywalker
Maybe those first two things would not have dampened attendance to see TROS at the movies, but it’s hard to believe that Disney launching Disney Plus on November 12 and the signature launch series of its new streaming service being a Star Wars spin-off called The Mandalorian has not had a deleterious effect on Skywalker. Fans have embraced The Mandalorian, and thanks to the appearance of Baby Yoda, the show’s breakout star, it’s arguably driven subscriptions to the new service.
This would all be very good news for Disney if not for the fact that at the same time it’s been launching this new series, it also had to get millions of people excited to go to the movies on the weekend before the holidays. Why not stay home and get a Star Wars fix with this new series, with the most exciting character to emerge from the Star Wars universe in decades? TROS doesn’t have Baby Yoda—and The Mandalorian does.
One can’t say whether it was hubris or merely a miscalculation by Disney that the masses wanted this much Star Wars in their life at the end of 2019, but here we are.