In Defense of Brandon & Markey Part III: The Greatest Teacher, Failure of The Last Jedi is

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.

Data extracted from Google Trends and includes “All Categories”

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.

Data from Box Office Mojo

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).

Summary

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).

How meta.

Again, a proper film critic might point out that it is rather meta for the thesis of The Last Jedithe 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….

Supplementary

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.

Further, Luke training Rey is lifted almost line for line from early drafts of the Empire Strikes Back.

8 comments

  1. “…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.”

    Funny. Most of the people who hate The Last Jedi accuse it of the exact opposite.

    Like

    • The Last Jedi is suffering from both a botched attempt at progressive messaging, *and* innocent but ignorant flaws in both Rian Johnson and LFL’s vision of the characters… to an extent where I’d have to say that I think there are just as many, if not MORE, critics of The Last Jedi who find it *regressive* instead of *progressive.*

      In general, a lot of the complaints against TLJ that claim it hates men and wants to shill for new characters come from the same camp that whined about TFA having a black stormtrooper for a male lead… y’know, the same group that whined while it ran away with the box office and while Boyega and Ridley received praise and plaudits for their acting and roles.

      On the other hand, demographic numbers from the ST’s opening nights in the States seem to clearly show a significant drop in African-American viewership after TLJ, and a MASSIVE drop in viewership among women, both of which are outsized on an already decreasing box office take from film to film.

      The complaints about Luke’s story in TLJ generally deal with two contrasting narratives: that his pretentious critic-bait story is tearing him down to raise Rey up… or that his pretentious critic-bait story is actually stealing the spotlight from her for the purposes of dwelling on his man-pain.

      And since TLJ is actually the film with the *least* screentime for Rey in the Sequel Trilogy, and not coincidentally features Luke vs Kylo as the final showdown instead of Rey, and since there’s not really any debate that the film definitely favors Luke over Finn, and narratively asserts Kylo over Finn as well, I’d say one of those critical narratives is true, and the other is just the TFA argument repackaged for a different film…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I take issue with the implication that your two identified complaints about Luke are the main concerns fans had.

        I do agree that it was a critic-bait story, but the core issue was that it took a huge leap with Luke’s character and failed to explain it adequately. Myself and many fans I’ve spoken to were dismayed that a character who embodied hope was misinterpreted so greatly. The lessons that he had learned first-hand about the Jedi Order and the living force were forgotten in service of a shallow-reading take on the PT story. Meanwhile his out-of-character cowardice was given an out-of-character cause as part of a deconstruction that is never properly healed.

        It’s nothing to do with screen time, or Rey – it’s entirely that an immensely popular character was misinterpreted so greatly, to the extent that the character’s actor had to maintain he was playing someone else.

        I agree with the general thrust of your comment, but needed to make that clarification.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I would say TLJ destroyed Luke with its ‘misinterpretation’ while simultaneously writing Rey out of the story. I maintain both outcomes were intentional. See my response to Godisawesome.

        Liked by 2 people

      • “The complaints about Luke’s story in TLJ generally deal with two contrasting narratives: that his pretentious critic-bait story is tearing him down to raise Rey up… or that his pretentious critic-bait story is actually stealing the spotlight from her for the purposes of dwelling on his man-pain.”

        Surprisingly, these two claims aren’t mutually exclusive. As you say, The Last Jedi put most of its focus on Luke and Kylo while leaving Rey as an observer in their stories. In reducing Rey to an observer, the movie strips her of any of her own motivations and characterization and she becomes a vehicle for the audience. This is where the movie, ironically, completely fails at subversion. In becoming a vehicle for the audience, her actions are no longer driven by the needs of the character, but by the needs of the movie and what the audience *expects* her to do as the protagonist in a Star Wars movie. Rey wants to become a Jedi because she’s the Jedi character. She leaves Luke to attempt to turn Kylo is exactly what we expect from her because that’s what Luke did in the Original Trilogy. Of course she turns down Kylo’s offer because she’s the light side hero.

        Yet it is precisely where it fails to subvert expectations that the film manages to simultaneously destroy Luke while turning Rey into an empty shell. When Rey confronts Luke after the hut scene, she’s angry on Kylo’s behalf because, well, actually we don’t really know why. So, we have a character with no identifiable motivation trying to shame Luke into coming with her to ‘save’ Kylo. Luke again refuses and Rey takes it upon herself to become the hero and save the galaxy. Note, this is the last time Rey and Luke interact in the movie. Luke begs her not to go and is actually correct that it won’t go the way she expects, but because Rey suffers no real consequences, we’re left with the impression Luke is wrong.

        Now, it is not Rey, but Yoda that gets Luke to realize his mistake (note Luke is treated not like a peer, but a student by Yoda). In fact, Yoda tells Luke they can’t lose Rey like he lost Ben, but Luke doesn’t do a thing to stop Rey from falling. Actually, the two never interact again in TLJ. We’re left with the central conflict of the movie – Rey and Luke – completely unresolved. Yet, the movie still makes a point of showing Luke giving Rey his blessing to be his successor thus transferring his mantle as the last Jedi to her. The movie then proceeds to kill Luke without him ever actually mentoring Rey or even addressing the fact she physically assaulted him and left on bad terms in their last meeting.

        The movie ends with Rey taking on the task Luke was given in RotJ of restoring the Jedi Order with Luke’s blessing. At the same time, we’re left without any identifiable reason Rey would become a Jedi or restore the Order and no idea why she’d succeed where Luke failed (or what Luke even did wrong). Rey didn’t learn anything from Luke and never seemed to directly affect him (it’s notable that every time Luke changed his mind, it was motivated by characters other than Rey).

        TLJ manages to destroy Luke’s character and give Rey everything he had, all while leaving her a passive observer in a story that isn’t her’s.

        For the record, I think both were entirely intentional and not innocent at all.

        Liked by 3 people

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