Calling the new Disney era of Star Wars polarizing would be the understatement of the century. Ever since The Last Jedi (heck, ever since The Force Awakens — “it’s nothing but a remix of A New Hope“) fans have been divided. In one of his recent videos, titled Fans Vs Disney Star Wars: The Current State of Things, popular film critic, Jeremy Jahns discusses why fans (or a subsection at least) have been furious with the Disney Star Wars movies. I for one, completely disagree with a lot of his points and have written my own piece breaking down why I find the Disney era of Star Wars to be the best (yes, I actually find the Disney era better than even the original trilogy. Bite me). But those are my subjective opinions.
In this article, I’m going to look at Star Wars through the ages and break down the facts.
In that same video, Jahns brings up how Solo hitting theatres the same time as Avengers: Infinity War shouldn’t be an excuse for its abysmal box office numbers. That STAR WARS is supposed to make other properties shit bricks. That Star Wars shouldn’t worry about clashing release dates with other properties. Other properties should worry about colliding with Star Wars. In fact, a lot of Star Wars fans think along the same lines too. A lot of us seem to be under the impression that Star Wars was king of the world prior to Disney’s purchase and “bastardization” of the franchise.
But how true is that, really? Is that opinion of ours backed up by facts? Or is it just us fans romanticizing and deifying Star Wars? Because, if you strip away the myth and look at the numbers, the legacy of Star Wars is not as phenomenal as we may make it out to be. Still bloody great, don’t get me wrong. But perhaps not quite untouchable.
Star Wars hardly faced serious competition and when it did… it lost.
If you believe Solo should have been able to compete with Avengers: Infinity War simply because of the Star Wars branding, you’re out of your mind. Sure, all three movies in the original trilogy were the highest grossing movie worldwide in their respective years. Heck, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi didn’t just come out on top, they smoked everyone else and took giant dumps on their monkey asses. But would we be putting Usain Bolt on a pedestal if he won a wheelchair-bound cripple in a 100 metres sprint?
The original trilogy
It is widely accepted that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws birthed the modern usage of the term ‘blockbuster’ in 1975 — people would line up around the block to buy tickets, something unprecedented in movies prior to that. But two years later, George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope gave the term a whole new meaning. The film grossed a whopping $US 786.5 million at the global box office — that is a ridiculous US$ 3.4 billion adjusted to inflation. The film changed the landscape of ‘event films’ and ‘repeat viewings’.
But because it was the first of its kind — a trendsetter if you will — A New Hope didn’t have much competition back in 1977. I mean, how could there be competition when George Lucas basically created an entirely new ballgame? A New Hope hit the big screens on the 15th of May 1977 and ran and ran and kept on running. For 29 whole weeks in US cinemas. That’s more than seven months in theatres. The second highest grossing movie of that year was Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (US$ 340 million worldwide) which was released in November when A New Hope was nearing the end of its run.
Next up we have The Empire Strikes Back, the highest grossing movie of 1980. Once again, there weren’t that many teams playing the game yet. Major studios were still trying to comprehend the type of cultural phenomenon Star Wars had become. Richard Donner’s Superman came out a couple of years earlier and raked in US$ 300 million at the global box office. Indiana Jones hit the big screens a year later and made close to US$ 400 million worldwide. More and more of these BIG films were being made, but none of them came out within the same calendar year. The second highest grossing movie in 1980 was a Jane Fonda comedy titled 9 to 5 (US$ 103 million).
The same can also be said about Return of the Jedi which hit theatres in 1983. Once again, hardly any competition. Superman III hit the big screens that very same year, but unlike today, comic book movies weren’t taken as seriously back then (Superman 1978 and Batman 1989 were the exceptions to the rule). Superman III didn’t even get an International release and it ended up placing 13th at the global box office that year. The runner-up at the global box office was Flashdance, a huge critical dud directed by Adrian Lyne. While most studios were still figuring out how to tie their shoelaces, 20th Century Fox’s Star Wars was running their final lap… blindfolded… with one arm tied behind their back.
And when it completed its final lap, it hung its boots and bid adieu. Or so we initially thought.
The prequel era
Once again, The Phantom Menace crushed at the global box office in 1999, grossing over US$ 983 million, comfortably clinching the first place spot. The second highest grossing movie of that year was M. Night Shyamalan’s groundbreaking, mindfu*king horror-drama, The Sixth Sense (US$ 672.8 million). But of course, it was going to rock the box office. At that point, this was a franchise with 22 years of history, making its triumphant comeback after 16 long years.
People shun The Phantom Menace now, rightfully so. But back in 1999, this was the biggest event of the year. People went to see it in droves. Teenagers and young adults who had watched the original trilogy in cinemas were now parents and they brought their kids to watch it. I was only six years old when my dad took me to see it. Star Wars became more than an event. It became a celebration and a festival that crossed generations. Like the World Cup or Christmas.
But the real test would come three years later in 2002. By this point, the landscape of cinema was really starting to change. Star Wars may have invented the game, but a lot of teams were starting to play it. While the entire calendar year wasn’t saturated with ‘event films’ like it is today (we’ll get to that later), we were getting more and more big budgeted extravaganzas nonetheless.
In 2001, two movies hit the big screens — two movies that would later grow into MONSTER franchises! And while The Phantom Menace made a lot of fans frustrated in 1999, these 2001 films got people thrilled for the future. I am of course talking about The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The sequels to both these films were going up against Star Wars: Attack of the Clones in 2001 (though, not within a few weeks span like Solo did against Infinity War). Chamber of Secrets hit theatres in November. The Two Towers in December. While Attack of the Clones booked the coveted summer spot.
Well, guess what? Despite being released in the summer, Attack of the Clones did not make the most money that year, globally. That trophy goes to The Two Towers. It didn’t get second, either. That prize went to Chamber of Secrets. Surely, it would’ve placed third? Nope. In the early 2000s, helmers like Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi began to slowly change the landscape of comic book movies, moving away from the neon coloured cheesiness of Batman & Robin and towards more grounded, cooler renditions.
Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002, shocked the world! It ended up making more money than Attack of the Clones. That’s right, the first year Star Wars faced actual (but not direct) competition, it didn’t come out on top. Star Wars wasn’t the biggest franchise in 2005, either, losing once again to Harry Potter. Revenge of the Sith was the second biggest movie of the year, behind Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
And then Star Wars disappeared again…
The Disney era
A lot has changed in cinema since Revenge of the Sith came out in theatres in 2005. A lot more has changed since my dad’s generation watched Return of the Jedi in cinemas. Star Wars used to be THE BIGGEST thing in popular culture. It used to be the ONLY event film of its respective years. That was during the OG era. During the prequel era, there were two or three event films in the same year. Now, it’s different. Much different. We live in a time where there are literally 10-15 “highly anticipated” films every year.
Star Wars was always relevant in my life because of my dad. But check this out. In my group of 15 close friends from college (urban, English speaking mind you), only one had actually followed Star Wars religiously. The rest have never even watched a single Star Wars movie unless you count the occasional glimpses of it on TV. Comic book movies? Sure. But Star Wars? Nope.
Sounds crazy right? Believe me, I was mindblown too. But think about it. There is an entire generation of peeps who didn’t grow up with Star Wars because during their teenage years, Star Wars wasn’t playing on the big screen. I was 12 when the prequel trilogy concluded. And since then, comic book movies, particularly the Marvel Cinematic Universe began their hostile takeover of the pop cultural landscape.
Star Wars used to be THE BIGGEST thing in popular culture. Now, it’s one of the biggest.
But even so, The Force Awakens prevailed. It didn’t just prevail… It destroyed! Why? Because Star Wars was making its return after 10 long years. This was huge! Eagerness and anticipation filled the air. Star Wars fans were ecstatic. Non-Star Wars fans were curious. EVERYBODY went to the cinemas to watch it. The Force Awakens turned out to be the highest grossing film in 2015, making over US$ 2 billion, beating the likes of Jurassic World (US$ 1.6 billion), Furious 7 (US$ 1.5 billion) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (US$ 1.4 billion).
But as we’ve learned from the past, Star Wars making a “comeback” is always going to sell. Case in point: The Phantom Menace. Anything making a comeback will sell. Wrestlemania 28 (2012) is still the most successful pro-wrestling event of all time in terms of PPV buys simply because The Rock was going to be laying the smackdown inside the squared circle for the first time since 2004.
The real test for Star Wars would come a year later. Disney-Lucasfilm were releasing the first ever Star Wars anthology film. No Skywalker family drama, no lightsaber battles, all brand new characters (besides sporadic appearances from Darth Vader and Tarkin).
So how did it do?
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was the second highest grossing movie worldwide in 2016, raking in more than US$ 1 billion dollars. It only lost to Captain America: Civil War by US$ 100 million. Mind you Captain America: Civil War featured all the popular characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe — which at this point had become the absolute biggest thing in pop culture — and introduced new ones like Black Panther and motherf*king Spider-Man. Rogue One (a Star Wars movie with completely fresh characters, let me remind you) beat even Batman V Superman. A completely underrated achievement if you ask me.
Let’s talk about Solo before we move on to everybody’s favourite The Last Jedi. There’s no denying Solo’s abysmal box office numbers. Han Solo is one of the most popular Star Wars characters yet Solo: A Star Wars Story only grossed US$ 380 million at the global box office? That’s ridiculous. But that has nothing to do with the Star Wars brand being so-called tarnished. Nobody wanted to watch this movie in the first place, not even hardcore Star Wars fans (there are more interesting Star Wars stories to tell). Besides, what is Han Solo without Harrison Ford? But the biggest issue was its lack of marketing and also its farcical release date.
Above I highlighted how Star Wars has often struggled to be the box office king even if there are other big event films in the same year. And here we have Solo. Not Episode IX, mind you, but Solo. A Star Wars SPINOFF movie going up against the most highly anticipated films of the past two decades — Infinity War. No shit it was going to be eaten alive.
Finally, we have The Last Jedi, the movie that apparently ruined Star Wars forever. Well, guess what? For the second time in the Disney era, a Star Wars film turned out to be the highest grossing movie of its year. It beat Beauty and the Beast, The Fate of the Furious and even comic book movies such as Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.
If the aforementioned numbers has shown us one thing it is this: Star Wars hardly faced serious competition and when it did… it lost. Except for — dare I say — the Disney era films, in which both the main episodes have come out on top in their respective years despite the abundance of competition throughout the calendar year. The first spinoff film did spectacularly well too! Solo was the first time Star Wars faced DIRECT competition in its decades of history and it lost.
“But but but you asshole! The Last Jedi made so much less than The Force Awakens at the box office! That should tell you that people are starting to hate Star Wars!! Unlike back in the day!!!” – The ignoramuses
Star Wars always faced the issue of declining box office numbers.
Most people are under the impression that The Last Jedi making less money than The Force Awakens is something unprecedented. That it’s the “shittiness” of The Last Jedi that caused such a massive plummet. That such a financial “disaster” didn’t occur during the original trilogy. Well, that’s only because nobody really talked about these things too much back in the 80s. These days box office numbers have become bloodsport. Which is great. It’s a bloodsport that I so clearly love.
But to play the game, you need to know the facts. And the fact of the matter is, Star Wars has always suffered from declining box office numbers even during the original trilogy. See table below (click image to enlarge):
In the table above, I separated the main saga films from the spinoff films to make a more accurate comparison. The only time an episodic film has seen an increase from its predecessor (of its respective era) is with Revenge of the Sith. Other than that, Star Wars sequels have always been on a decline. In fact, the drop faced by The Last Jedi is almost similar to The Empire Strikes Back‘s drop which is around the 30%++ range. The question is will Episode IX see an increase much like Revenge of the Sith or will it follow the path of the original trilogy and continue to plummet? My gut says Episode IX will see an increase of 13%, grossing over/under US$ 1.5 billion.
But it’s not going to be easy. Not because Star Wars’ quality is dropping, but simply because:
China simply doesn’t give a shit about Star Wars.
Hollywood movies do not need International (as in outside of the US) markets to do well at the box office. But to shatter global box office records and crawl past the US$ 1.5 billion line or perhaps even join the prestigious US$ 2 billion club, a film either needs to perform unrealistically well in the US box office or do quixotically well overseas.
Movies that have grossed more than The Last Jedi at the global box office:
Here’s what we can gather from those numbers. Almost every single one of those movies has a noticeably bigger (more than 55%) appeal outside of the US than it does inside the US. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the likes of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 or Avengers: Infinity War didn’t do well in the US. It simply means that these films have such massive following globally that it’s only natural for the revenue of the film in every single country outside of the US combined would be more than that in the US, a single market.
However, one franchise does not seem to be part of that trend: Star Wars (and Black Panther, but that has got to do with racism in China — a story for another day). Both the Star Wars movies on that list performed almost equally as good in the US as they did outside of the US.
Let’s take a look at the highest grossing movies of all time at the International box office (Outside of the US).
The Force Awakens may be the king of kings at the US box office and it may be sitting comfortably at third place at the global box office, but without the US market, The Force Awakens is the 5th highest grossing movie of all time, losing even to Furious 7. Now, ‘5th highest grossing movie of all time’ may not sound too shabby, but we have to remember about the “comeback hype” we talked about all those paragraphs ago. The Last Jedi on the other hand, highlights exactly Star Wars’ international appeal… or lack thereof. The Last Jedi is the 8th biggest moneymaker at the US box office, 11th at the global box office, but when we look at the numbers solely outside of the US, it comes at a shocking number 28, losing to the likes of Despicable Me 3, Minions (urgh) and the entire The Hobbit series.
That has been the unfortunate story of Star Wars, throughout the ages.
Even if we exclude the Original Trilogy with the reasoning that movies weren’t as widely released overseas as they are today, we’re still looking at a relatively poor track record for Star Wars outside of the US. There is only one Star Wars movie ranked in the top 50 at the international box office, which is mind-boggling.
This is mostly due to the fact that China — the biggest movie market outside of the US — just doesn’t give two shits about Star Wars. Most, if not all the top grossing movies at the global box office made an insane amount of money in China. Furious 7 (US$ 390 mil), Jurassic World (US$ 228 million), Infinity War (US$ 359 million), Avatar (US$ 204 million).
But Star Wars, well Star Wars doesn’t even come close. Even with the ridiculous hype surrounding The Force Awakens, it only raked in US$ 124 million at the Chinese box office. Which is nothing to scoff at, but we’re talking about records that are above and beyond here. It seems like the Chinese gave Star Wars a shot with The Force Awakens and then shrugged their shoulders and went, “Ohh… So this is movie about Buddhism, monks and sword fighting? I can watch for free at my park every Sunday morning.”
Rogue One grossed over US$ 69 million in China. And The Last Jedi and Solo made even less, raking in US$ 42 million and US$ 16 million respectively. Even during the prequel era, Star Wars didn’t break the bank. The Phantom Menace grossed over US$ 4 million, Attack of the Clones (US$ 5.5 million) and Revenge of the Sith (US$ 9.1 million). The original trilogy, on the other hand, wasn’t even released in China back in the day, another reason why they don’t treat the franchise like a prized heirloom as most Americans do.
Look, the bottom line is Star Wars is still a strong brand. A popular property. It’s as strong as anyone could possibly hope given how saturated the calendar year is these days with event films. The fact that The Last Jedi and Rogue One grossed more than US$ 1 billion despite not being popular overseas as it is in the US should tell you everything you need to know. It seems like everyone has put the original trilogy on a pedestal and are constantly spitting on the Disney era, but that’s only because Star Wars has always looked better in our rearview mirror.
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