I Know How to Save Star Wars (and Marvel, Too)

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The value of the original Star Wars trilogy is, in today’s dollars, $7 billion in box office ticket sales. Add in ancillary sales of popcorn, licensed merchandise, and home video, and pretty soon you’re talking real money. Today, the value of the entire Star Wars franchise — in Disney’s hands since the company’s 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm — might be less than zero.

I’m not referring to the franchise’s ever-decreasing value to our American culture, sullied as Disney Star Wars is by bloated budgets, thin scripts, and lifeless characters. I’m talking about the bottom line here. If Disney has realized an actual profit on its $4.05 billion Lucasfilm investment, I’d be shocked.

Let’s take a quick look at the numbers that I put together from public sources like Deadline.

Disney has produced five Star Wars feature films with a combined budget (production plus marketing) of approximately $2.3 billion. Together, they’ve generated $5.7 billion in ticket sales, of which Disney received something like $2.56 billion. 

The industry average for a studio’s share of the box office is 40-45% of ticket sales. I figure a marquee name like Star Wars lets Disney command the 45% high-end. At least for now.

One source claims Disney has sold about $9 billion worth of Star Wars DVDs and Blu-Rays — or about 360 million discs. The company probably earns about $3 in licensing fees per sale, or a little over a billion dollars. But physical home video is a shrinking market — DVD/BD sales are down almost 90% from their peak — as studios move viewers to their streaming services with monthly fees.

Well.

Disney has produced five live-action streaming shows with combined budgets of around $905 million. Since Disney+ launched in 2019, the service has lost $11 billion. Whatever revenue shows like “The Mandalorian” (two out of three seasons were quite good) and “Obi-Wan” (crap from start to finish) have brought in, it hasn’t been nearly enough to even begin stanching the flood of red ink at Disney+.

One bright spot is probably the Star Wars animated series. They’re comparatively low-budget but also don’t generate the same kind of revenue live-action shows do. I’m going to be super-duper generous and guesstimate that animated fare like “The Clone Wars” has made Disney [dr_evil_voice] ONE BILLION DOLLARS [/dr_evil_voice] in profits.

Disney doesn’t reveal licensing revenue, but Star Wars toy sales have reportedly cratered. Say what you will about how George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels focused too much on political talk about the taxation of trade and not enough on fricken laser beams — but he still gave us Mace MF Windu and a strong desire to buy his action figures.

Nobody wants the Bossy Purple-Haired Woke Admiral Chick Who Almost Gets Everybody Killed action figure.

Nevertheless, licensing had been a big earner for Disney, with an estimated $2-$3 billion a year in sales in good years…

…of which Disney gets maybe 10%. Maybe only 5%.

But let’s go with the high end — again because the Star Wars name commands a premium, at least for now — and say that Disney gets around $300 million annually in licensing in years with a tentpole movie release, and probably less in off years. One analyst’s middle case for licensing revenue comes out to about $1.35 billion. But that data is a couple of years old. I’ll be generous and round it up to $1.8 billion, even without any big movie releases to drive toy sales. We’ll always have Baby Yoda, after all.

Disney spent another billion building the Galactic Starcruiser luxury Star Wars resort at Disney World — and closed it after one year as an embarrassing failure.

So my back-of-the-envelope math indicates that Disney has spent $7.35 billion acquiring and producing Star Wars entertainment and generated $6.41 billion in revenues we can see. 

They’re losing money on Star Wars. That, to borrow Bill Clinton’s inelegant-but-ever-so-apt description of his wife’s presidential campaign, is like failing to sell p**** on a troop train.

If — if — the Star Wars TV shows brought in a billion dollars worth of revenue to Disney+ (which still lost $11 billion, regardless), then Disney might have made a little bit of money on Star Wars.

But only a little bit.

I’d also add that there are reports that Disney has been lowballing the actual costs of its productions and that the budgets I’ve repeated here today were drawn up by Ms. Rosy Scenario. 

Look, this isn’t rocket surgery, brain science, or even Bistromath. This is very simple stuff, easily summed up in seven short words.

When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

Whatever your theory is about why Disney failed to make as much with five movies as Lucas did with the original trilogy (adjusted for inflation), the inescapable conclusion is that the Mouse House has been a value-destroying steward of one of the most recognized and beloved intellectual properties in the world. 

So the way to save Star Wars is to stop making them. Stop while the property still holds value. Stop until Disney has people in charge who understand and respect what Star Wars is and who its audience is. You could apply the exact same franchise-saving formula to Disney’s increasingly decrepit Marvel franchise. 

nstead, as my colleague Lincoln Brown reported this week, the next tentpole Star Wars feature will be another Mary Sue Saves the Universe story told by a man-hating Pakistani feminist who has apparently never even heard of Princess Leia Organa.

So I know how to save Star Wars, and I bet you do, too — but Disney hasn’t got a clue in this galaxy or any other.

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