Star Wars Films Are Expensive
Blockbuster filmmaking nowadays is a costly investment. It used to be a sign of disaster when a film’s budget ballooned past $100m. Now, that number is considered surprisingly low for a major franchise release. 9-figure budgets are the norm and studios expect costs upwards of $150m on average. Films like Star Wars and the MCU are investments for Disney: They create solid foundations for expansion in other areas, be it merchandising, television, gaming, theme parks or advertising.
The obvious downside is that now films have to work even harder to break even on basic costs. Rumors swirled that the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean film had a budget that soared past $320m (official reports have it at $230m, which is still major money). Justice League’s most conservative budget estimates place it at $300m, while Solo cost $250m or so. It’s not impossible to make a profit – The Last Jedi managed it with ease and without having to use the Chinese box office as a crutch – but with margins getting slimmer, the era of Too Big to Fail blockbuster cinema makes it harder for studios to experiment or take genuine risks. Disney has the big bucks to pull something like this off, but it can’t be a repeating mistake.
Episode 9 is coming soon, as is a new trilogy from Rian Johnson that’s separate from the main series. Benioff and Weiss of Game of Thrones fame will have their addition to the franchise, and on top of the Fett and Obi-Wan prequels, there will be a TV series exclusive to Disney’s upcoming streaming service. Their plans are to build upon the Skywalker Saga but allow room for expansion beyond those established characters. This is a smart move but it's also really the only one they have to go with, especially now that the core three of the original trilogy has been whittled down to zero, with Chewie and the droids being the only remaining cast. Having a strict and detailed plan in place is good business for a company and franchise this big, but it allows little room for error or change if things don't go as planned. So, when you end up removing directors late in the game and have to spend tens of millions of dollars to stick to the plan, it becomes a less sturdy investment as a whole. Change is necessary for Star Wars to thrive, as is its expansion beyond its core cast. But that plan is not watertight, and even Star Wars could be fallible, or, at least as fallible as a multi-billion dollar franchise of endless influence can be.
Whatever mistakes have been made, they’re not about to let the franchise rot, and their safety net of endless cash flow allows for the occasional error on a major scale. Disney may be the only studio on the planet who can afford a $250m oopsie, but it's not something they want to get in the habit of repeating. The true problem lies in how they have taken one of the most iconic cinematic franchises and made it just another series of films. It's not just that Star Wars is no longer special: It's not the only game in town offering what it does to audiences. For the franchise to have long-term staying power in an increasingly crowded blockbuster field, Disney and Lucasfilm need to make it special again, and they need an understanding of not just what audiences want but what they themselves wish to get from this franchise.