American actors Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford on the set of “Star Wars: A New Hope,” written, directed and produced by Georges Lucas.
Sunset Boulevard | Corbis Historical | Getty Images
The Force remains strong with the Star Wars franchise.
Despite not releasing a theatrical film since 2019, Star Wars has been named the top film franchise of 2023 by Fandom, the world’s largest platform for entertainment fans.
The top title for Star Wars comes as Disney has been strategically rebuilding the franchise, stalling its cinema presence in favor of long-form television content on its streaming platform Disney+ as well as alternative storytelling through video games, comic books, novels, virtual reality and even a short-lived hotel experience in Florida.
“The Star Wars brand has no peer when it comes to the unprecedented goodwill, cultural ubiquity, character mythology and sheer revenue-generating power achieved across most every vertical in the entertainment ecosystem,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.
Fandom’s top 10 film franchises of 2023
- Star Wars
- Harry Potter
- The Marvel Cinematic Universe
- The DC Extended Universe
- The Hunger Games
- Jurassic Park
- James Bond
Fandom’s scoring is based on five metrics: how many content pages the franchise has on Fandom’s site; ratings from critics and fans; how often the franchise is represented in the real world through conventions and fan events; cultural relevance to those who are not core to the fan base; and the amount of new content from the franchise to sustain interest.
Star Wars’ No.1 ranking suggests that Disney’s revitalization of the brand, which took a hit in the wake of a sequel trilogy for the films, is working. Disney appears at No. 2 on the list, representing its animated films, and its Marvel and Avatar franchises also make the cut.
Disney’s success with Star Wars can also offer a blueprint to other film franchises that are in the process or restarting or evolving — namely Marvel and Warner Bros. Discovery’s Harry Potter and DC Studios.
A short time ago, in your local movie theater
After buying Lucasfilm in 2012, Disney went straight to work, cooking up new theatrical content from the Star Wars brand. “The Force Awakens” arrived in theaters in 2015 and instantly recaptured fan interest worldwide. The film snapped up more than $2 billion globally and became the basis for billion-dollar theme park expansions at both Disneyland and Disney World.
However, it quickly became clear that Disney didn’t have a singular plan when it set out to make its new trilogy of Star Wars films. The narrative thread that was supposed to link the trilogy together was improvised and resulted in three films that aren’t cohesive and riddled with plot holes.
Rey and Kylo Ren face off in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
Each movie seems to be a total departure from the previous one. If 2015’s “The Force Awakens” was criticized for being too much of a mirror of the original trilogy, 2017’s “The Last Jedi” was criticized for doing the exact opposite. “The Rise of Skywalker” in 2019 undid major story lines from its predecessor and sidelined major characters. Emperor Palpatine, who was killed by Darth Vader in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi,” returned — somehow.
In between each film in the sequel trilogy, Disney released a film that harkened back to an important plot point from past Star Wars films. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” which followed the rebels who stole the Death Star plans given to Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars,” was generally well-received across the board when it hit theaters in 2018, but two years later, “Solo,” which centered on Han Solo’s origin, fell flat with critics and many in the fan community.
“At the time, Disney’s strategy was to essentially release one new Star Wars film theatrically each year,” said Peter Csathy, founder and chair of advisory firm Creative Media. “But each year brought diminishing box office returns.”
A new generation of Star Wars films at the global box office
- “The Force Awakens” (2015) — $2.07 billion
- “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016) — $1.05 billion
- “The Last Jedi” (2017) — $1.33 billion
- “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018) — $393.1 million
- “The Rise of Skywalker” (2019) — $1.077 billion
While “Solo” was the only true box office flop, Disney decided to suspend its theatrical Star Wars releases and regroup. It was already seeing success from the first season of TV spinoff “The Mandalorian,” which launched in late 2019. The series was proof that Star Wars can strike a balance between nostalgia and innovation — and that the franchise didn’t need to be in theaters to thrive.
“The Mouse House pivoted to a strategy of scarcity for the big screen, while fleshing out the characters and storylines on TV and introducing them — and the entire Star Wars universe — to new generations with new viewing habits, essentially going where the audience was going,” Csathy said. “This, in turn, builds anticipation and buzz for future main marquee events at a theater near you.”
Rebuilding an empire
Disney isn’t set to release another Star Wars film in cinemas until 2026. But, in crafting its televised Star Wars content, it is rebuilding goodwill within its established community and drawing in new fans.
Overall, the live-action Star Wars series — “The Mandalorian,” “The Book of Boba Fett,” “Andor,” “Kenobi” and “Ahsoka” — have been well-received by critics and fans alike.
While these stories explore past Star Wars tales, either harkening back to characters seen in past installments or exploring a piece of the Star Wars timeline, and are unlikely to connect to future theatrical entrants, they provide moviegoers with a sense of cohesion and quality.
Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano in “The Mandalorian” on Disney+.
In animation, Disney released a final season in the “Clone Wars” saga, where fan-favorite Ahsoka Tano debuted, and continued following a number of clone troopers from this era in “The Bad Batch.” Additionally, through streaming, Disney has given audiences several different ways to watch Star Wars stories.
There’s “Tales of the Jedi,” which explored the backstories of Ahsoka and Count Dooku; “Young Jedi Adventures,” which caters to a preschool demographic; and “Visions,” a collection of animated shorts from different genres and featuring different levels of maturity.
In establishing such variety, Disney is entertaining its existing fanbase and offering olive branches to newcomers of all ages.
“I think that creators in these worlds have to find ways to build them and expand the audiences while making sure that it doesn’t skew too much from what the core fans love about it,” said Stephanie Fried, chief marketing officer at Fandom.
Another key for Disney has been parsing these series out slowly over the course of several years.
“A critical takeaway is that franchise theatrical releases need room to breathe,” said Csathy. “We are seeing diminishing returns by the rapid release schedule of the past several years, and now there is a broad realization that anticipation needs to build for box office dynamite to ignite.” That, and the fact that none of these shows are required viewing for future Star Wars projects.
Diego Luna as Cassian Andor and Alan Tudyk as K-2SO in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
Disney | Lucasfilm
Disney found itself in a tough spot with its Marvel Cinematic Universe because it began introducing key characters in its Marvel streaming shows before they appeared in theatrical projects. This required fans to catch up on hours of television content to understand what was happening on the big screen.
While some viewers might want to catch up on episodes of “Clone Wars” before diving into “Ahsoka,” for example, audiences could in many cases tune into these shows without having to do any homework.
The learning curve
The lessons Disney has learned in revitalizing Star Wars are some that it could apply to another struggling franchise, Marvel, and that Warner Bros. Discovery’s DC and Harry Potter universes may take to heart as they embark on their own refreshes.
At Marvel, life after “Avengers: Endgame” has been riddled with inconsistency and uncertainty. That has taken a toll on box office returns. “The Marvels” posted the worst opening of a MCU film ever in November, leaving the industry and audiences questioning how Disney can save its own superheroes.
Even Disney CEO Bob Iger has been publicly critical of the studio, saying on several occasions that Disney needs to be more selective about which Marvel superheroes get sequel films and when to bring in fresh stories, especially after Disney packed its streaming service with nearly a dozen new shows in just three years.
Add to that the recent firing of Jonathan Majors, who was supposed to be the franchise’s next big villain Kang, after he was convicted of misdemeanor assault and harassment in mid-December. Disney now has to make a choice: Recast the role of Kang or completely alter its plans for the MCU.
Rival DC Studios, with a similarly fervent fan base and similar challenges, appears to be headed in the right direction, tapping James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Suicide Squad”) and long-time DC film producer Peter Safran as co-heads of the studio in late 2022.
The pair has since developed a 10-year plan to reinvigorate its franchises across TV and film, including fresh spins on Superman and Batman.
The story is much the same at Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter franchise. After the wild success of the eight Harry Potter films, Warner Bros. tapped author J.K. Rowling to develop a five-film series based on “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a supplementary informational book about the different creatures in the Harry Potter universe.
While the first film performed well at the box office, generating more than $800 million globally, the rest of the franchise saw diminishing returns and critical reception faltered.
Warner Bros. is due to release fourth and fifth installments of the series, though it has provided few specifics. It also intends to remake the original Harry Potter novels into a 10-season television series for the company’s streaming platform Max, expected in 2025 or 2026.
Star Wars, meanwhile, is set to release two films in 2026 — one in May and one in December — seven years after the last Star Wars film arrived in cinemas.
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal is the distributor of the Jurassic World films.
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