With the release of the latest Star Wars movie, "The Force Awakens," Disney is bringing the franchise into a new era as it hopes to infinitely profit from the cult brand. But can it keep moviegoers coming back for more?
When "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" opens in theaters this week, the movie will likely become the most successful release of 2015. Some experts predict that the movie could even become the first to break the $3-billion (2.72-billion-euro) barrier.
Four weeks before its debut, the Force Awakens had already raked in a whopping $50 million, breaking the record for most tickets sold in advance. By comparison, the previous record-holder, 2012's "The Dark Knight," generated just half that in pre-sales.
Beyond the sequel: a shared universe
The J.J. Abrams-directed movie will kick off a new batch of Star Wars films, which will have to prove their worth to the Walt Disney Company. The Mouse House bought the rights to the franchise for $4.1 billion in 2012 from legendary Star Wars creator George Lucas' Lucasfilm.
The success of these movies could further cement a belief that has dominated Hollywood for the past 20-odd years: The surest way to box office success is to produce a sequel, a prequel, or a film based on a bestselling book or comic.
But the success (or failure) of "The Force Awakens" and the new generation of Star Wars features could also help drive a new industry trend: franchises based in a shared universe. Borrowing heavily from comic books, this concept breaks with the linear conventions of other Hollywood series. While set in the same fictional universe, there is often little connection between the individual movies' plots and characters.
Beyond trilogies and sequels: Stand-alone features
It is this recipe Disney hopes will help propel the success of its intergalactic franchise. While it plans to release a new Star Wars film every year, the company is not simply producing another trilogy. It is also working on several stand-alone stories within the Star Wars universe.
As such, Disney is, in many ways, leading Hollywood into an era of quasi infinite franchise features. The company owns not only Lucasfilm, but also Marvel. With movies such as "Iron Man", "The Avengers" and "Guardians of the Galaxy," the iconic comic book publisher-turned-film studio has been massively successful in releasing superhero blockbusters set in one shared Marvel universe since the turn of the decade.#
Warner Brothers, which owns Marvel's archrival DC Comics, is now trying to catch up, with almost a dozen movies lined up over the next five years, including 2016's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." Not one to miss out on the action, Universal also recently announced an expansion of its massively successful Fast and Furious franchise into a shared universe, as did Paramount for its multi-billion-dollar Transformers franchise.
Same old, same old
Franchises have increasingly taken over the box office in the last few decades.
Of the ten most successful movies of 2015 so far, only one was based on an original idea: Pixar's "Inside Out". Seven were sequels, three based on bestselling books.
Of the top grossing movies worldwide for each of the past 15 years, only one, "Avatar," was not part of a preexisting property. 13 were sequels, while eight were based on bestselling books, on comic book bestsellers, or - in the case of Disney's "Frozen" - on a classic fairytale, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen."
While sequels and prequels are not necessarily a new phenomena, the prevalence of the franchise is, born in an era where movie theaters have more competition from television and the internet.
The franchises: a strategy to avoid risks
In order to attract audiences, studios are producing fewer movies with a higher budget. By investing hundreds of millions of dollars into creating a superhero or science fiction tentpole, they are hoping audiences will rush to see the spectacle in the theaters on opening week, which is when film studios receive the highest percentage of the ticket price - and, ideally, in 3D, which has a higher gross profit margin.
However, this strategy makes movie production riskier. The studio's assets are spread out over fewer and fewer properties. In order to reduce risks, studios have increasingly relied on sequels. Once they have figured out what audiences like, they feed them more of the same. As the "brand" gains in popularity, ticket sales usually increase with each new feature - that is, if they can avoid franchise fatigue.
Dodging risks and franchise fatigue
With "shared universe" franchises, Disney and its competitors are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They are trying to minimize their risks by investing in already successful properties, while maximizing the revenue from successful brands such as "Star Wars" through theoretically infinite new releases.
As Wired's Adam Rogers notes: "If everything works out for Disney, and if you are (like me) old enough to have been conscious for the first Star Wars film, you will probably not live to see the last one. It's the forever franchise."
At the same time, studios are trying to prevent franchise fatigue. Shared universes allow the studios to profit from well-known brands, but at the same time introduce plenty of new characters and even shift genres. While "The Force Awakens" promises to be another space epic, follow-up "Rogue One," due out in December 2016, has been announced as a heist movie only loosely tied to events in the original trilogy.
Box office revenue is not Disney's only motivation for wanting to avoid audience fatigue. Merchandise is and has always been an important component in the Star Wars business model. In the nearly four decades since the release of the first movie in 1977, Star Wars merchandise – from books and computer games to Lego sets, lightsabers and action figures - has grossed at least $20 billion. In comparison, all six movies combined have only grossed $4.5 billion at the box office.
When "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," the first movie in the second Star Wars trilogy, was released in 1999, sales of the franchise's licensed merchandise increased by 400 percent in the months following the release.
Adding new characters and stories to the Star Wars universe also means new merchandise opportunities that will attract fans both old and new - many of whom already own plenty of merchandise with "old" Star Wars characters.
An infinite feedback loop?
Analysts estimate Disney and official licensers, such as toymaker Hasbro and computer games studio EA, could make as much as $5 billion on Star Wars products within a year of the release of "The Force Awakens." In 2015 alone, Hasbro expects to earn more than $400 million on the movie.
For its part, Disney is aiming to set off an eternal feedback loop, with the buzz surrounding the release of the "Star Wars" films drawing people to buy more merchandise, which will in turn increase interest in the franchise.
The next few weeks will show whether "The Force Awakens" will really break records both at the box office and in the toy store. But it will take at least another year, until "Rogue One" hits theaters, to find out whether Disney's long-term plans for Star Wars will succeed - whether they can keep alive the force, or whether the audience will switch to the dark side, succumbing to franchise fatigue.