Hollywood and Highland is never an uneventful location. As a local, I can tell you that it’s pretty much a horrific crush of tourists and weird, desperate Angelenos preying on them by way of cosplay and street art. However, Monday night saw a new level of nerd, fanboy culture and rampant excitement as the world premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit Mann’s Chinese Theater.
Of course, for all the excitement and anticipation, the actual release of the film strikes me as entirely anticlimactic. Cinema culture, in this day and age, actually seems to have relatively little do with actual cinema.
For a lot of people, that’s clearly not an issue. And hey, if you really draw that much enjoyment from spending two hours making Facebook ($FB) posts about a 30-second teaser trailer, who am I to judge? But I do think that there’s an argument to be made for why it’s a process that essentially undermines the ultimate quality of studio films.
From a basic economic standpoint, the fanboy culture is creating an entirely inelastic demand, a batch of consumers who will continue to buy in regardless of the quality of supply. And I think that’s something we should probably reconsider.
Disney’s Empire has Already Won
Before you start grabbing the lightsabers and pitchforks, I’m not saying the new Star Wars film isn’t good. I haven’t seen it, and I’m of that weird generation that prefers to only form opinions about a film after I’ve seen it
What I’m really trying to say is that the unbridled enthusiasm people are showing for this film, sight unseen, is essentially sending the clear message to Disney ($DIS) that it doesn’t really matter all that much how good this movie is.
Bear with me here, but let’s just for a second assume that after seeing the film, general audiences reject it. It shouldn’t be that big a stretch, as that’s exactly what happened that last time the world was awaiting a new entry into the Star Wars franchise with baited breath. Maybe what everyone watched on Monday night was about five minutes of unrelated action sequences, just enough to cut together a trailer, followed by two hours of J.J. Abrams pointing into the camera and laughing.
What happens then? Disney loses out on tons of money, right? Word gets out, nobody sees the movie, they permanently disrupt their valuable new revenue stream. Well, maybe not so much.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that everyone was in such a hurry to see the movie that presale tickets alone account for $50 million, meaning it’s not hard to anticipate that no level of terrible reviews appears to be able to preventing an opening weekend that would clear $100 million.
However, as an article in Bloomberg on Tuesday details, the actual ticket sales are a pretty small slice of a very lucrative pie. In fact, more than half of the money getting made off of this movie is coming from action figures. So sure, a terrible film takes a big bite out of that anticipated $9.6 billion haul, but not so much that it’s likely to prevent Disney from at least making back the $4.06 billion it spent to buy Lucasfilm three years ago on the first film alone.
Are Fans Lining up for Another Serving of Bantha Poodoo?
Of course, you also have to consider the damage being done to that valuable brand by a bad product. If the movie is really awful, the fans will feel betrayed. Even if the first film still uses the momentum created by everyone’s unbridled enthusiasm to rake in cash, the second and third will take a huge hit. I mean, if you’re Starbucks ($SBUX), you’re unlikely to switch to Folgers ($SJM) crystals for your coffee as, even if you would save a bundle on supply costs short term, you would ultimately annihilate your brand’s association with quality and drive away your loyal customers.
Except that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Star Wars brand because, as noted above, the fans were already served a giant, steaming cup of terrible coffee last time around. the worst Jar Jar-infused coffee I can remember, in fact. And yet, here we are again, with everyone unable to withhold their unbridled enthusiasm to be getting served more coffee before they’ve even tasted it.
I can’t manage to understand how, after getting so badly burned the last time around, Star Wars fans can’t even be bothered to actually watch the flippin’ movie prior to declaring J.J. Abrams the second coming of Christ, but that’s neither here nor there.
What is worth considering is just how much damage Disney actually thinks they could possibly do to the franchise. Arguably, no matter how bad the movie hypothetically is, they’ll be able to keep going back to that well over and over again. If you look at the way studios cycle through franchises these days, a really terrible film doesn’t actually seem to hurt the value of a franchise at all.
At this point, rebooting a damaged franchise is pretty standard fare. Hire a new director, he or she makes an appearance at comic con and panders to the fans about how they’re going to “get back to the source material.” Fans debate ad nauseum about the “direction” the new creative voice is taking on social media, generating all sorts of free publicity. Everyone goes to see the movie opening weekend whether it’s any good or not. If it’s good? Great, make two or three more with that cast. If it’s terrible? Rinse and repeat. Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, even the Fantastic Four, they’ve all continued to book big profits even after serving up an inarguably inferior product to the public.
Really, the odds seem pretty good that we’re about to get a dozen or so new Star Wars movies over the next decade and a half, even if many of them are pretty bad. It’s a license to print money, either way. Even if Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow falls flat on his face, they’ll just go through the motions and get right back at it a year or two later.
Remember When Movies were about Movies?
On the whole, this is indicative of a shift in culture as much as anything. The fact is,movies aren’t really about movies anymore. The year-long build up, the online debates, the obsessing over the minutiae in each frame of a teaser, movies are just the central point of a multi-platform marketing campaign. Fans appear to have interest in participating at each level, rabidly tearing apart casting decisions or costume designs released months ahead of the actual film with a passion normally reserved for opinions about, you know, the movie.
On some level, I suppose that I’m just old fashioned in that way. I feel like forming opinions about movies before they’ve been released is a little ridiculous, even if it’s entirely within the zeitgeist.
However, I do think that all of this unbridled enthusiasm about the entire process is all part of a culture that’s eroding the strength of the actual films. The movie itself is just an elaborate centerpiece in a huge campaign to sell action figures and video games. It’s a process that’s been fostered by our fanboy culture.
At the end of the day, Star Wars fans have already sent one clear message to Disney about the Star Wars movies: demand is entirely inelastic. No matter what you do to them, they’ll be right back here waiting for you. Even if they decide they hate your movie months before seeing it, they will still trot right out on opening weekend and hand over their money. More importantly, they’ll still scour the internet for news on the reboot, spend months posting about them, and then go see the reboot even after they hated the last entry. The only concern Disney has from the supply side was fulfilled the moment they slapped down cash to buy the rights to the brand from George Lucas.
And from an economic standpoint, that’s bad. It sends a clear message to Disney that all they have to do is slap Star Wars in front of the title and they’re golden. All of the real work that might make the films worth watching is probably worth it, but carries a pretty limited ROI in the long run.
The Skepticism Awakens
At the end of the day, this is something that fans could reverse...should they actually care to. Imagine if, instead of flocking to theaters for midnight screenings, everyone stayed home, waiting for early reviews and feedback before deciding they were going to pay their money for a ticket. What if, when a 30-second trailer was released, instead of “OMG! NEW STAR WARS!” fans responded with “Hey, fool me once…” and insisted that they were going to wait to see the movie before they got excited.
Okay, not realistic, but that’s why I can’t get all that excited about this new Star Wars film. It’s just the first of many, and even if this one is great, my hopes for that level of quality persisting over time are pretty low given the way we as consumers keep sending the clear message that we’ll go gaga over just about anything. And hey, that’s mostly just my issue, as it seems like the real message here is that the going gaga is what it’s really all about these days and the movie is largely secondary to the months of breathless speculation and hype.
Either way, I’m planning to go see Sisters on Friday. I’m hoping it’s good, but I’m withholding judgement until I’ve actually seen it. Crazy to think…
DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of equities.com. Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to: http://www.equities.com/disclaimer