This series explores the recent comments made by The Force Awakens editor’s, Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, speaking publicly against creative decisions made in The Last Jedi. In part I of this series, I established that The Force Awakens introduced us to a diverse cast of heroes set up to explore new grounds in storytelling. In part II, I demonstrated how and why The Last Jedi consciously regressed its starring female lead and black co-protagonist for the sake of woobifying the story’s only leading white male. Here, I’ll explore the cost and financial fallout of said decisions by reviewing the relative box office successes and failures of each Disney-era Star Wars feature film….
Thirty eight years in the making, the story of The Force Awakens reinvigorated the Star Wars franchise by bringing fans back into that galaxy far, far away after a 10 year hiatus at the box office (Revenge of the Sith, 2005). Despite criticism for playing it too close to home and Original Trilogy story beats, The Force Awakens is far and away the most popular and successful Star Wars story made in the Disney-era. Despite this initial success, Star Wars as a brand saw a dramatic decline of online interest in successive Star Wars Sequel Trilogy installments. For comparison, the graph below depicts the contemporaneous Avengers Series films doubling their general interest with each successive installment over the same time period relative to the steady decline for the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy.
Though hardcore and dedicated fans have some legitimate gripes with narrative decisions made for Endgame, the Avengers series largely and successfully continued to build upon the narrative threads established in each installment. The result was a mostly consistent plot line with a ton of narrative build up and pay off (Steve Rogers notwithstanding). The Sequel Trilogy on the other hand, appears to have suffered from the narrative reset Rian Johnson orchestrated in The Last Jedi: Snoke is unimportant to the story, Luke (not Ren) is responsible for the murder of Han Solo, Rey’s parents and family aren’t important and her unique adolescent perspective is no longer hers to lead, Finn’s story is no longer connected to the Force and his background as a child soldier forgotten etc etc etc. Following, The Rise of Skywalker had no real chance to win fans back or build upon the successes of its predecessors in a manner similar to that of the Avengers and its finale, Endgame.
Many will argue against this as merely a circumstantial take, but can we further quantify the negative effects (if any) of said narrative decisions in The Last Jedi?
For starters, the contrasting trends between Avengers and Star Wars are observed in global box office earnings, and of particular interest is the contrast between domestic and foreign success (financial figures provided below). You may be aware that The Force Awakens (2015) had more domestic success than the other Sequel Trilogy installments, but you may not be aware that it also had more domestic success than any of the Avengers films over the same time period, including Endgame (2019). This figure alone points to the power and popularity of the return of Star Wars to the box office. It also highlights the potential squandered by the sequel to The Force Awakens.
Further, The Force Awakens was the only Sequel Trilogy film to top $1 billion internationally, whereas The Last Jedi (2017) and The Rise of Skywalker (2019) failed to meet even the international success of Age of Ultron (2015). With The Last Jedi’s defocusing on leading diversity, and refocusing/woobifying of the white male parricide, it’s unsurprising that The Last Jedi’s destruction of narrative didn’t win over fans in the diverse global market.
But let’s continue to dig a bit deeper because gross earnings can be misleading regarding a film’s financial success or profits. For example, and considering only gross earnings, Solo: A Star Wars Story made close to $400 million at the box office the summer following The Last Jedi. However, it is well known that Disney/Lucasfilm lost around $77 million with Solo after everything was said and done. Many have cited a “The Last Jedi effect” as a reason Solo flopped at the box office, suggesting it’s off-putting story led to a rapid exodus of the Star Wars general audience initially captured by The Force Awakens. If this were true, then perhaps we’d expect The Last Jedi to represent a lull in general popularity and The Rise of Skywalker potentially see a return to form.
This is where net profit comes in – the total revenue for a film less its production costs. For more details and a simplified breakdown, check out Deadline’s report.
Considering Disney/Lucasfilm Star Wars films that did make a profit, Deadline recently published their summary with The Force Awakens leading the pack in net profit by a large margin ($780.11M), followed by The Last Jedi ($417.5M), Rogue One ($319.6M), and The Rise of Skywalker ($300M). However, Deadline reported an extremely low and generous net production cost for the making of The Last Jedi at $200M. According to Box Office Mojo, production costs for The Last Jedi reached $317M. And even when considering the production incentives of $54.7M as reported by FilmL.A. Research, The Last Jedi spent closer to $262M on production, much more consistent with the net production costs of The Force Awakens ($259M) and The Rise of Skywalker ($275M).
As a result, the net profit of The Last Jedi is more accurately near $355.2M ($62M below the net profits reported by Deadline). So, why is this important?
It’s important for the relative profitability of each film and for determining future investments by Disney/Lucasfilm. For instance, at a loss of $77M, it will be difficult at best convincing a board of shareholders to invest further in the story of Solo or its characters. The Force Awakens on the other hand, is far and away the most profitable investment of the Disney-era, sitting at a whopping ~50% profit from the total net revenue generated by the film. When considering Deadline’s reported net production for The Last Jedi, it would come in as the second most profitable film with ~42% profit. However, when using the more accurately reported production costs and incentives from Box Office Mojo and FilmL.A. Research, The Last Jedi (35.7%) was actually less profitable than Rogue One (35.9%). Once again, the film including a diverse cast of leading characters (Rogue One) out-paced the creative decisions made by The Last Jedi to woobify and center the story on the white male parricidal character at the expense of its female lead and black co-protagonist.
Also not included in the Deadline report are the relative percent revenues generated by opening weekend. In general, most people associate big opening weekends with big success at the box office. Not so fast. Yes, the first indication of financial success is total earnings – true. But when pairing the total earnings with the percent total revenue associated with the opening weekend, we can determine a film’s lasting power, or its sustained popularity with movie-goers.
For example, a film that nets $100M on opening weekend, but ends its profits at $110M would have ~91% contribution of its total earnings from opening weekend. In other words, almost no one went to see the movie after the initial weekend, perhaps because they didn’t read reviews or spoilers of the film and went ahead because of brand dedication or past successes of the intellectual property. In fact, this is quite common for most ticket buyers – in a small combined online/offline polling of 50 ticket buyers, only 6 said that they used a critic’s review to determine whether or not they purchased a ticket to see a Disney-era Star Wars film at the theater. This means a critic’s evaluation of a given Star Wars film holds very little weight with the general audience and only influences a small fraction of ticket buyers.
Thus, with total earnings and net profits being equal, the film with higher percent contributions from opening weekend can generally correlate with a lack of sustained popularity or lasting power at the box office. If the film is great on the other hand, total revenue contributions from opening weekend continue to decrease the longer and longer it stays at the box office. So if fans were duped into coming opening weekend due to any number of reasons (e.g., false advertising, paid for but disingenuous reviews, brand loyalty, IP past successes), but the story fell well short of expectations, the film won’t stay long at the box office and as a result, retains a high revenue contribution from opening weekend.
The Force Awakens not only had the highest total net profit ($780M), but it also had the lowest contribution from opening weekend (26.5%), meaning it was not only hugely successful (total profit), but also widely popular for the longest period of time (lowest opening weekend contribution). Note that this doesn’t mean The Force Awakens had a bad opening weekend; in fact, quite the opposite, where its domestic opening weekend alone (~$247M) nearly recouped its entire net production budget (~$259M).
The Last Jedi ($355M net profit) has the highest contribution from opening weekend among all Sequel Trilogy films at 35.5% (The Rise of Skywalker at 34.4%). This means that The Last Jedi’s success hinged more on its opening weekend than any other installment to the trilogy (low lasting power and generally unpopular).
From the plot above, Rogue One, The Rise of Skywalker, and The Last Jedi are nearly equal in financial success or net profit (y-axis), thus allowing us to assess relative popularity at the box office as measured by opening weekend contributions (x-axis). From this analysis, The Last Jedi is quantifiably the least popular Sequel Trilogy film based on its high percent contribution from opening weekend and lack of a sustained presence at the box office. Only Solo was both less popular and less successful than The Last Jedi. This analysis strongly suggests that The Last Jedi’s strong opening weekend was a direct result of the profitable and popular The Force Awakens and Rogue One (i.e., brand loyalty or previous IP success). After the initial wave of “day one” ticket buyers had passed on opening weekend, The Last Jedi’s lasting power as a standalone film quickly dwindled.
Further corroborating this analysis is the number of total weekends each film spent in the box office’s top 10 among other films released around the same time frame. The Force Awakens once again leads the pack at 10 total weekends within the top 10 at the box office, followed by The Rise of Skywalker (8), Rogue One (7), and with Solo and The Last Jedi tied for last place at only 6. Here, we do see a lull in success and popularity with both The Last Jedi and Solo, along with a return to sustained popularity with The Rise of Skywalker (though far from the initial success of The Force Awakens). As predicted above, such a result is expected if The Last Jedi’s failure to build upon the narrative success of The Force Awakens negatively impacted the success of Solo.
Note that The Last Jedi’s shortcomings occurred despite its favorable holiday release schedule: The Last Jedi had 4 extra days at the box office before year’s end including an extra holiday weekend (3 total holiday weekends) relative to The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker (2 total holiday weekends, each).
From this analysis, several things are clear: Star Wars as a brand steadily decreased in global popularity following the relative success of both The Force Awakens and Rogue One. It appears as though The Last Jedi not only undermined the narrative established in The Force Awakens, but also any sustaining success in the grand scheme of Disney’s newly acquired intellectual property. What success The Last Jedi had at the box office in total net profits was determined primarily by its opening weekend, which appears to be a hold-over and direct result of the widely popular The Force Awakens and Rogue One. The Last Jedi’s large contribution from opening weekend paired with the fact that it spent the shortest time among the top 10 of contemporaneous films indicates that it lacked sustained popularity at the box office. Results also strongly suggest that Solo was negatively impacted in the shadow of The Last Jedi.
This analysis offers additional perspective as to the comments made by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey regarding the negative aspects The Last Jedi brought to the Sequel Trilogy Story. Their comments are not only valid regarding the narrative undoings of The Last Jedi, but also the financial pitfalls Star Wars as a brand saw in response to said narrative decisions. This series also highlights that internal consistency and story continuity are most important to sustained success at the global box office and growth of general interest in an intellectual property. The Sequel Trilogy and Disney-era of Star Wars, in particular, appeared best served when offering a diverse cast of characters, and letting those characters shine in and lead the story (as was the case with The Force Awakens and Rogue One).
Again, a proper film critic might point out that it is rather meta for the thesis of The Last Jedi – the greatest teacher, failure is – to be the take home message for future investments in the brand. If Disney/Lucasfilm can learn from their failures of narratively assassinating the initial success they obtained with JJ Abrams’ Episode VII, paired with the renewed hope creators Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni are establishing with The Mandalorian and The Clone Wars, respectively, Star Wars may dominate over Marvel sooner than later. Until then….
Thank you for reading, and may the Force be with Favreau and Filoni for now….
In retrospect, The Last Jedi has just as many, if not more than, Original Trilogy parallels and thematic beats as The Force Awakens, but somehow escaped the same criticism from paid film critics. For instance, the throne room scene in The Last Jedi is nearly beat for beat with that of Return of the Jedi.