Can Baby Yoda and ‘The Mandalorian’ Save the ‘Star Wars’ Franchise?

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“The erosion of good will can happen to any franchise,” Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian says


From a certain point of view, the past few years in the galaxy of “Star Wars” franchisedom have been like maneuvering through an asteroid field. But that was before Disney+ launched “The Mandalorian,” and, perhaps more importantly, before the introduction of Baby Yoda. In 2019 BBY (Before Baby Yoda), “Star Wars” fans were still reeling from the disappointing release of “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” a host of behind-the-scenes drama and strategic setbacks, and the contentious release of “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Last Jedi.” The brand that George Lucas has built has struggled recently to engender goodwill and confidence in Disney’s and Lucasfilm’s stewardship of the beloved property. Disney, however, doubled down on its faith in Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy and has now delivered Baby Yoda and “The Mandalorian” to upset fans. “Star Wars” is inarguably one of Hollywood’s preeminent brands. The Lucas creation has grossed some $4.2 billion at the domestic box office — not including re-releases and special editions — since “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” first wowed audiences in 1977. And the brand is worth billions more in merchandise and ancillary revenue. The franchise has spawned numerous animated TV shows — and now a host of live-action series — comic books and literature, and even its own theme park at both Disneyland and Disney World. Yet after all that success, the tepid release of the most recent film in the franchise, “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” seemed to spell an end to “Star Wars” as the unencumbered money-printing wonder. By all accounts Disney had saturated its own space opera market, over stayed its welcome and, in the mind of some fans, fundamentally changed the nature of the franchise. “It’s difficult to say they haven’t lived up to financial expectations, but I think Disney probably over estimated the appetite for a ‘Star Wars’ movie every year,” said Brandon Rhea, vice president of TV, movies and Anime at Fandom, which operates the online “Star Wars” encyclopedia, Wookieepedia. Disney hasn’t provided any viewership data for its hit series, but “The Mandalorian” has earned great critical response, and its popularity has been realized in the diminutive 50-year-old star, Baby Yoda. “Star Wars” fans, the internet and it seems virtually anyone with eyes have fallen in love with character. Axios reported late last month that Baby Yoda has driven almost twice as many average social media interactions than any of the 2020 Democratic candidates. It’s important because Baby Yoda has reinvigorated a love for the wonder that the world of “Star Wars” has been able to create. The reception to “The Mandalorian” has likely helped right the ship ahead of next week’s release of “Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker.” All of the recent Disney-released “Star Wars” films have grossed more than $1 billion worldwide — with the exception of “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” “Solo” hit theaters less than six months after “Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi,” which some fans staunchly denounced, even calling for the film to be remade. “The erosion of good will can happen to any franchise,” Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian said. “Just look at what’s happened with ‘Terminator,’ which wasn’t able to bounce back… The legacy of any brand or franchise is only as strong as its last installment, and the last ‘Star Wars’ movie was ‘Solo.’” Even Lucas is on record as not being a fan of the creative direction of the sequel films. To Disney’s credit, however, the studio admitted it may have pumped out too much too quickly. “When we finish nine, it’s our feeling that it’ll be smart for us to take a bit of a hiatus while we figure out what’s next,” Iger said during the MoffettNathanson Media and Communications Summit in May. “The consensus was that three years was the proper amount of time to not only take a breath, but also gear up for the next films.” Disney did not respond to requests for comment for this story. While the studio takes time to recalibrate its film strategy, Disney has illustrated its plans to keep the brand going through its nascent streaming service Disney+. “There doesn’t seem to necessarily be franchise fatigue when it comes to ‘Star Wars,’” Dergarabedian said. “But you still need a reasonable amount of between films to give them space to breathe.” By last count, “The Rise of Skywalker” already is on track to pull in north of $175 million at the box office when it opens on December 20. By comparison “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” set a then-record with a $248 million opening and “The Last Jedi” opened to $220 million. “I do think ‘The Mandalorian’ will help the success of ‘The Rise of Skywalker,’” Rhea said. “This is a good first step. There’s not one magic bullet, but with ‘The Madalorian’ and the last season of the ‘The Clone Wars’ coming and then the Obi Won Kenobi show — all of those things, assuming that they’re good, will continue to build good will and that’ll go a long way.”