A not so long time ago in the galaxy that we live in, Disney made the drastic move of buying a multimedia franchise which had defined the childhoods of many. The franchise was doing well, but Disney knew bigger things were to come and, under its guidance, the property reached new heights. The first film Disney released of this franchise had the biggest opening weekend of all time and although the the direct sequel to that film ended up being far more divisive than expected, it still made enough money to reinforce Disney’s faith in the property. The name of that property?
The way Disney’s purchase of Marvel mirrors their purchase of Lucasfilm and – more to the point – Star Wars is uncanny. The first films released by Disney after purchase – The Avengers & The Force Awakens – had the largest opening weekends of the time. While not equivalent to the division The Last Jedi received, Avengers: Age of Ultron was similarly not as well received and shared many accusations that fans have applied to Episode VIII (namely the handling of female characters). But while one might think the comparisons stop there, they don’t. This was the first time Lucasfilm had a pool of available resources and creators outside of George Lucas and a financial stability few franchises know. So Lucasfilm took a step further in the Marvel mirroring and decided to release a Star Wars film every year.
This plan seemed to have some merit to it. The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi were all runaway successes for the studio while also being the highest grossing films in the Star Wars franchise. Then, earlier this year, Solo was released. While I might discuss the seeming lapse in logic of making a film so expensive that a $180 million gross in its first month of release is considered a disappointment (aka: did Solo need to cost as much as it did?), that is not for this article. The underwhelming box office performance of Solo illustrates the financial repercussions of Star Wars‘ imitation of Marvel without truly understanding what that means. Because Star Wars isn’t Marvel, which is neither a good nor bad thing. It’s just the truth.
What Marvel has which helps set it apart not only from Star Wars but a number of other popular franchises out there is variety. To refer to Marvel as a franchise is almost inaccurate, it is more of a brand consisting of multiple franchises. Although die hards who watch every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are rewarded for their devotion when each film comes by, you don’t have to enjoy everything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to enjoy some films. Don’t like the serious, political thriller elements of the Captain America sequels? Go watch the high fantasy escapades of Doctor Strange. Marvel is able to release multiple films each year because they are releasing DIFFERENT films each year. Let’s look at their last six films: a punk-rock space opera in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a John Hughes movie with superheroes in Spider-Man: Homecoming, a tribute to 80s films in Thor: Ragnarok, an afro-futurism film in Black Panther, whatever the heck Infinity War was, and the upcoming heist film Ant-Man and Wasp. Each Marvel film released falls into a subgenre of sorts, allowing for variety in viewing and a different rotation of viewers each time. And that’s exactly why Star Wars taking cue the Marvel method is a faulty strategy.
For better or worse, Star Wars is pretty much a genre in and of itself. Even when they try to play with elements of tone such as they did with Rogue One and Solo, it is still a Star Wars movie. And there is nothing wrong with that, there is nothing wrong with knowing and serving your audience/fanbase. BUT whereas Marvel has taken many franchise starters to form a massive cinematic universe, Lucasfilm is essentially working with one story set out in the first six films and trying to turn it into a cinematic universe. And it is not a mistake exclusive to Lucasfilm. Sony made a similar error by trying to turn The Amazing Spider-Man 2 into a launching point for a Spidey-verse, a decision which went so poorly it resulted in them rebooting the character AGAIN and basically going, “Hey Marvel? Can you do this for us?” Paramount was hoping to do the same thing with Transformers but after the abysmal disappointment which was The Last Knight, they are rethinking that strategy. Turning a single franchise/brand into a “one film a year” cinematic universe is crazy difficult, while doing it in a way which mirrors Marvel is near impossible.
But there is a franchise out there which Lucasfilm might have more success taking cues from, one of the most under sung cinematic universe gracing movie screens today. So under sung people often forget that it IS a cinematic universe.
Some of you are probably doing a double take at the suggestion that Star Wars be more like The Conjuring but hear me out. As I mentioned above, the biggest challenge Lucasfilm has in turning Star Wars into a cinematic universe is the lack of tonal variety (again, an observation not a criticism). Star Wars is a genre unto itself, but you know what? So is The Conjuring. Since the release of the original Conjuring in 2013, Warner Brothers and New Line have released: Annabelle (2014), The Conjuring 2 (2016), and Annabelle: Creation (2017). Meanwhile The Nun (2018), The Conjuring 3, Annabelle 3, and The Crooked Man (all without release dates) are slated to come out in the near future. All of these films have been financial successes for their studios and (with the exception of the first Annabelle) critical favorites. And no one goes to these films and expects them to be any different than a Conjuring film, much like no one goes to a Star Wars film and expects it to NOT be a Star Wars film. So what are some thing Star Wars can learn from The Conjuring?
Well for one thing, The Conjuring doesn’t try so hard to meet a “one film a year” plan. Sure they’ve MOSTLY done that (with the exception of 2015), but that is more just because of how things played out. They take their time to develop films as needed instead of rushing to meet a predestined release date.
Secondly, The Conjuring doesn’t try so hard to be a part of the wider story as much as focusing on side characters and giving them their own film. This is actually a tenant of the horror franchise that Star Wars has done with some success in both Rogue One and Solo. But HOW The Conjuring does that is important. There is always an audience who wants to see the films announced. A horror movie about Annabelle and The Nun, these are things that audiences are asking for. One of the biggest criticisms directed at Solo was that it was a movie that really had no demand. You don’t see The Conjuring giving us an origin story on how the main human protagonists met; the filmmakers are aware of what audiences are willing to see and what they are not interested in. For example: people have been asking for an Obi-Wan movie since Disney bought Lucasfilm. People have not been asking for an entire trilogy developed by Rian Johnson which is in a different galaxy and, “outside of the Skywalker story and outside of the recognizable iconography.”
But the third thing Star Wars can learn from The Conjuring is this: tighten your budget. So far the most expensive film in The Conjuring series has been $40 million dollars, literally 16% of Solo. Now the stories told in the Star Wars series do require a higher budget than mid-budgeted horror films, but $250 million!? Solo was never going to be as successful as the numbered Star Wars films and while a portion of that budget likely came from the highly publicized reshoots, if we’re going off of Marvel comparisons Episode VIII was Avengers and Solo was Ant-Man. We could have had a solid Han Solo movie made on $130 million and then Lucasfilm would be making money now. Not a TON of money (comparatively speaking) but still money.
So, the TL;DR version of that is don’t try so hard to release one film a year, focus on the spin-offs audiences want to see, and stop spending so much money.
Putting all of this aside, if Star Wars truly wants to succeed as a franchise moving forward it is going to have to take risks in the “cinematic universe” game. It is going to have to find ways to differentiate itself from Marvel and The Conjuring and every other franchise out there which hopes to start putting out one film a year. This is the holy grail of fandom and pop culture and it didn’t get there by imitating its contemporaries. It got there by reaching into a sense of nostalgia will still offering something new. So hopefully we’ll get something new from that galaxy far, far away.