Sunday, July 8, 2018

Biased Opinion - The Wailing Ignorance of the Star Wars Fanboys

So, there's a Website named "Remake the Last Jedi" that has a Twitter account by the same name that launched a campaign to, well, remake The Last Jedi and "save" the Star Wars franchise. Here is their call to action:
Our team of producers is offering to cover the budget for a remake of The Last Jedi in order to save Star Wars. Share this and spread the word to let @RobertIger & @Disney know you want this! This isn't a joke, we're ready to have the convo now! #RemakeTheLastJedi #StarWars
I'm going to leave aside the fact that pretty much everything they claim about themselves is almost certainly false. They clearly aren't a team of movie producers. They don't actually have the money to "cover the budget" for a remake. Star Wars isn't in need of saving. And so on. I'll even stipulate for the purpose of argument that The Last Jedi was a bad movie (it wasn't, but we're stipulating for the purpose of this discussion that it is). Let's just move past all of those issues.

The idea that Disney would ever agree to remake The Last Jedi is so delusional that only someone completely out of touch with reality could come up with it. The movie made $1.3 billion at the box office. From a financial perspective, it was wildly successful. In inflation adjusted dollars, it made more money than Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, and Rogue One, and was in the same ballpark as The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Phantom Menace. In fact, the only two movies in the Star Wars franchise to perform substantially better than The Last Jedi were the original Star Wars and The Force Awakens.

It seems that even the "Remake the Last Jedi" guys realize that The Last Jedi was a huge financial success for Disney, so they have constructed a bizarre narrative to explain how it is actually a "failure" that involves home video sales and the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story. It is a chain of thought that is pure nonsense, and I'll let them explain it (the following was originally spread out over three tweets):
The biggest issue TLJ created for @Disney is apathy, as proved by the lack of repeat viewings of TLJ in theaters (losing them roughly $700MM) the abysmal Home Video numbers for TLJ & the Solo disaster. Say what you will about #BoycottSolo, but the fans didn’t boycott because of a movement created online to prove a point, they boycotted because they are no longer interested in the story @Disney is telling w/Star Wars.
There are three claims here: 1. The Last Jedi was bad and as a result lost a lot of "repeat viewers" which is why it made $700 million less than The Force Awakens, 2. The Last Jedi was bad so it had poor home video sales, and 3. fans stayed away from Solo because they were disappointed in The Last Jedi. All three of these statements display a fundamental lack of understanding of movie history (which is one of the reasons that it is obvious that they aren't a "team of producers").

The first point focuses on the fact that The Force Awakens did just over $2 billion worldwide box office business, while The Last Jedi "only" made $1.3 billion. The claim is that Disney therefore "lost" about $700 million due to disappointed fans not lining up to see the movie multiple times. The problem with this train of "logic" is that it ignores the history of the Star Wars franchise. Here is a chart of the box office performance of every Star Wars movie up through The Last Jedi. The middle column is the worldwide box office take for the movie (expressed in millions of dollars), while the third column is the movie's worldwide box office take adjusted to March 2018 dollars to account for inflation (once again expressed in millions of dollars):

Inflation Adjusted
MovieBox Office
Box Office
Star Wars
The Empire Strikes Back
Return of the Jedi
The Phantom Menace
Attack of the Clones
Revenge of the Sith
The Force Awakens
Rogue One
The Last Jedi

Look at the history of the franchise, specifically look at The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones. In inflation adjusted dollars, the Empire Strikes Back "only" made $1.6 billion, a staggering $1.6 billion drop off from Star Wars. Similarly, Attack of the Clones made $600 million less than The Phantom Menace. If either movie had been released in the age of Twitter, guys like "Remake the Last Jedi" would have been screaming that this marked the death knell of the Star Wars franchise as fans stayed away from films many found disappointing. And make no mistake about it, when one goes back and looks at the reactions to these movies, many contemporaneous observers found both of them to be disappointing.

Of course, we know that in fact neither movie had such impact, and in fact, The Empire Strikes Back is now regarded as one of the best movies in the franchise. The drop off in the box office didn't serve as any kind of indication of how fans felt about the franchise over the long term. The numbers seem to indicate that the middle movie in a trilogy can expect to make less money than either of the bookends, and can probably expect to garner a negative reaction until the lens of time focuses and the movie is placed in its proper perspective. In short, claiming that the box office results for The Last Jedi are an indication that the franchise is in trouble is an incredibly dubious proposition.

The second claim is that The Last Jedi had low home video sales because people didn't like the movie. The first problem with this is that making any kind of claim concerning relative levels of home video sales is really difficult at best due to the shifting nature of the market. Finding reliable information concerning the volume of sales from movies made even just a handful of years ago is difficult, and even if one could get such data, it probably wouldn't be useful as a means of comparison given how much the market changes from year to year. This means, for example, that finding reliable home video sales data for movies such as The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith is simply not possible, and as a result, there is no real way to make a comparison with the sales data for the more recent Star Wars movies and what is "normal" to expect.

The bare facts are this: The Force Awakens has made roughly $189 million in combined DVD and Blue Ray sales, while The Last Jedi has "only" made about $72 million. This is taken as evidence that the bulk of fans hated The Last Jedi and decided not to buy the DVDs and Blue Rays as a result. The first major problem with this analysis is that it is comparing apples to oranges.

The comparison being made is inapt because the home video sales figures given for The Force Awakens are taken from a period extending for more than a year and a half, while the home video sales figures given for The Last Jedi are taken from a period of less than a month. If one compares the first month figures for both movies, the difference is far less dramatic: The Force Awakens made about $127 million in its first month. That is still more than The Last Jedi has made, but when one considers that The Force Awakens was an anomaly with a box office take that was notable for being historically high, it isn't that surprising. In addition, The Last Jedi has not benefited from the Christmas sales season, which in 2016 alone accounted for about $10 million of The Force Awakens' home video sales. The Last Jedi will probably never catch The Force Awakens in home video sales, but the gap is certainly going to close. Further, as far as the data available shows, The Empire Strikes Back has always lagged behind Star Wars in home video sales as well.

The second problem with this analysis is that The Force Awakens is probably not an appropriate baseline for comparison with The Last Jedi. The Force Awakens is the second highest grossing movie in the history of the franchise, only outpaced by the original Star Wars. In inflation-adjusted dollars, The Force Awakens made almost $550 million more at the box office than The Empire Strikes Back, the third movie in the rankings. The distance in box office receipts between The Force Awakens and The Empire Strikes Back is almost twice as great as the distance between The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi, which is the sixth movie on the list. This is more or less a long-winded way of saying that The Force Awakens is something of an outlier in terms of box office performance for Star Wars movies.

There is really no way to determine what the "normal" level of home video sales for a Star Wars movie should be. There is little data available for older movies - for example, The Phantom Menace is listed as having about $265,000 in home video sales, but that is based on a single week's worth of sales in 2015. Similarly, the original Star Wars is listed with about $30 million in home video sales, but that is based on two weeks worth of DVD sales in 2006 and a month of Blue Ray sales in 2015. Obviously, none of these figures are reliable. Even if they were, the market for home video sales has changed so much in the last couple of decades that comparing sales for movies from 1999 or 1977 to movies released in more recent years is a fool's game. Even comparing the home video sales of the most recent set of movies to those of 2005's Revenge of the Sith would be a waste of time.

The only movies that are viable comparisons in terms of home video sales to The Last Jedi are the most recent movies. As noted earlier however, The Force Awakens is not a good comparison for any movies in the franchise for any purpose, due to its status as one of the extreme outliers in the franchise. This leaves only 2016's Rogue One, the Star Wars movie closest temporally to The Last Jedi as a comparative. Rogue One had a total box office of $1,050 million ($1,094 million in inflation adjusted dollars). Over the course of eight months of reported home video sales, Rogue One garnered about $83 million. In its first month on the market Rogue One sold about $62 million worth of DVDs and Blue Rays. In comparison with Rogue One, The Last Jedi's home video sales look much better. This isn't a perfect comparison, but it does give a much better indication of what might be "normal" to expect for home video sales. None of these comparisons are conclusive, but what they do highlight is reading a massive fan backlash against The Last Jedi into the home video sales performance is simply not supportable with the available data.

The third claim is that the poor performance of Solo: A Star Wars Story at the box office is evidence that disgruntled movie goers are staying away from Star Wars movies because they are upset by The Last Jedi. Once again, this claim requires a lot of assumptions that seem dubious at best. What is true is that Solo has only made $370 million at the box office thus far (although given that it is still in theaters at the time of this writing, that figure is likely to rise a bit more), which is considered somewhat disappointing, in large part because the production costs were reportedly quite high as a result of the fact that virtually the entire movie was reshot following the replacement of directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller with Ron Howard in June of 2017.

The first problem with the claim that the poor performance of Solo is due to the supposed distaste movie-goers had for The Last Jedi is that there is really nothing to support this notion. There is no indication that Disney will look at the two movies' comparative box office performance in this way, and to be blunt, no reason to expect that they would. From Disney's perspective, the failure of Solo is an indictment of Solo, not of The Last Jedi. Disney knows that The Last Jedi made $1.3 billion and Solo only made $370 million. What that tells Disney is that they need to make more (from their perspective, preferably all) movies like The Last Jedi and fewer (from their perspective, preferably zero) movies like Solo. What Disney really does not care about are angry fans writing denunciations of The Last Jedi on social media sites decrying how "awful" they thought the movie was. So long as the movie did well at the box office, they don't care how angry anyone is about it.

Additionally, one has to question whether one could have expected Solo to perform much better than it has. The entire concept of the "side story" movies is an experimental idea to begin with, and Solo is also the first Star Wars movie to focus on the backstory of an individual character. The nearest comparisons one can make are the movies from Disney's other successful movie franchise: The Marvel Cinematic Universe. The 2012 Avengers movie made about $1,519 million at the box office, which puts it right in the same ballpark as most of the Star Wars movies in that regard, but the various movies introducing the individual characters have generally made much less. Iron Man, for example, grossed a total of $585 million. Thor pulled in $449 million, and Captain America: The First Avenger only made about $370 million at the box office. The Incredible Hulk made $265 million, and Ant-Man made $519 million. What all of these movies have in common with Solo is that they are movies about individual characters featuring stories that are only loosely connected to the larger franchise plot arc. Placing these movies in chronological order and adjusting their box office performance for inflation yields the following (once again the last column shows each movie's box office take expressed in millions of March 2018 dollars):

Inflation Adjusted
MovieBox Office
Box Office
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Captain America: The First Avenger
The Avengers

Despite the fact that Solo is on the low end of this chart, it is not out of place at all. The movie outperformed The Incredible Hulk and is very close to Captain America in total receipts. Even the highest grossing of these first generation single character movies didn't manage to make twice what Solo has made thus far. If Disney expected Solo to perform substantially better than it has, then they were probably fooling themselves. A box office take of somewhere between $500 million and $700 million would have probably been a reasonable expectation, but anything more than that would have been demanding too much from the film. The truth is, Disney probably knew this. Any movie that had the kind of on-set drama that Solo had is almost certain to result in a weaker movie than it could have been, which is reflected in the box office receipts thus far. However, even if Solo had performed at the top of the range that it would be reasonable to expect - say in the $700 million range - that would still have been seen as a failure by the "Remake the Last Jedi" crowd. They would be saying that since it didn't make a billion dollars Disney was "losing" money it could have made due to fans staying away because they hated The Last Jedi. And if Solo had made a billion dollars, they would have said that was evidence of failure because it had not made two billion dollars. And so on. The claim that fans hated The Last Jedi and consequently stayed away from Solo is not based on any real evidence, so there is no reason to believe that any volume of box office receipts short of outperforming The Force Awakens would affect this claim in any way.

Finally, although it probably had very little impact on the box office performance of the movie, the reality is that the "hardcore fans" who organized the "Boycott Solo" protest in an attempt to get people to stay away from Solo, to the extent that they had any effect at all, almost certainly did themselves a massive disservice. Solo is, for want of a better word, a massive dose of fanwank. The movie is squarely aimed at devoted fans of the Star Wars franchise, answering questions that, to be blunt, almost no one outside of that small group really care about. Hard as it may be for some Star Wars fans to believe, most people who go to see a Star Wars movie see Han Solo as a character who is mostly cool because Harrison Ford played him. For the bulk of movie goers, questions like "How did Han Solo meet Chewbacca", "How did Han Solo win the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian", and "How did Han Solo make the Kessel Run in only 12 parsecs" are trivialities that are of almost no consequence. The only people who are concerned with these sorts of issues are the most obsessive fans of the franchise. Solo was Disney's attempt to cater to the "core" Star Wars fan base, and the failure of the movie tells Disney not to bother to try to do that any more. To the extent that the "Boycott Solo" movement had any impact, its net result was to make it clear to Disney that the hardcore Star Wars fan base is either too small or too fickle to worry about.

What this all adds up to is simply this:  The Star Wars franchise is not in trouble and doesn't need saving. Disney is going to make more movies like The Last Jedi. Disney won't make more movies attempting to cater to nostalgic grognards like Solo. Disney is likely to call upon Rian Johnson to make more Star Wars movies. People like the "Remake the Last Jedi" guys will impotently rant about these decisions while Disney ignores them.

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