INTERNATIONAL – It’s hard to say this, as someone who grew up pretending to be Han Solo battling Darth Vader and his stormtroopers to rescue Princess Leia. But it must be said: Kids might not be into Star Wars anymore.
Walt Disney Co.’s underwhelming theme-park attendance last quarter was the latest sign that the intergalactic saga isn’t resonating for younger generations raised on Iron Man and Fortnite. Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger was so sure fans would be blasting through the door that he had instituted a reservation system for visitors to enter Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the new attraction at Disneyland. It turned out not to be necessary.
Star Wars toy sales popped with 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” the start of a trilogy that united Han, Luke and Leia with a new band of heroes, but have slumped since. “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” last year’s spinoff featuring the backstory of beloved characters, utterly bombed. “The Last Jedi,” the second in the new trilogy, was profitable but fell shy of its predecessor’s performance. The next installment, “The Rise of Skywalker,” will have the very future of the franchise riding on it when it debuts in December.
There wasn’t supposed to be such a disturbance in the Force. When Disney bought Lucasfilm Ltd. in 2012 for $4.05 billion, it already had a template for the intricate web of sequels and spinoffs it hoped to create around the Star Wars brand. Marvel Entertainment, acquired three years earlier, had rolled out a series of interrelated movies with characters who went on to join up in the blockbuster “Avengers” movie, then Disney’s most successful ever. The films are supposed to combine with TV projects and the theme parks to create a virtuous cycle, where fans get excited for each new iteration and can immerse themselves in the world of their heroes.
There was every reason to believe “Star Wars” would have a similar path, with its endearing droids, otherworldly life-forms and minor characters like Lando Calrissian and Boba Fett who inspired their own cult followings.
Instead, some of the franchise’s most dedicated fans have been sniping at the way Disney has handled their favorite characters from the old movies. And the new trilogy’s heroes, like Rey and Poe Dameron, just haven’t inspired the same fervor among young people, with toy sales falling flat around each new installment. The Disneyland attraction, along with a Star Wars land opening at Disney World in Florida this year, are designed as much for older dudes as they are for tykes, with a Millennium Falcon-themed ride and a cantina where you can debate whether Greedo shot first over vodka cocktails called Bloody Rancors.
Iger has attributed disappointing box-office figures to “Star Wars fatigue,” and he’s pledged to slow down the tempo of releases. But that doesn’t square with the success of Marvel, which reliably churns out a blockbuster every four to six months.
Some people delayed their visits to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge because they thought it’d be overwhelmed by tourists when it opened, Iger said Tuesday, channeling Yogi Berra. In other words: Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.
So where are they going instead? One clue could be the rising attendance over at Universal Studios Hollywood, where the Wizarding World of Harry Potter saw an increase in spring-break visitors last quarter, fueling sales of souvenirs and butterbeer.
Disney plans to parlay the robust Marvel properties into theme-park attractions of their own, but it isn’t giving up on Star Wars by any stretch. Along with “The Rise of Skywalker,” the company is debuting a live-action Star Wars TV series, “The Mandalorian,” later this year on its new streaming service. “Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson is developing a new trilogy, and the creators of “Game of Thrones” are working on a movie. This may be a hiatus, but Disney spent a lot of money on Lucasfilm and it’s going to keep investing to make it a success.
“We build these things for the long term,” Iger said of Galaxy’s Edge. Or as Yoda might say: Patience you must have.