The story of the dysfunctional Skywalker clan, their outer space cousins and best friends will finally conclude in December when the still as-yet-unsubtitled Star Wars: Episode IX hits theaters. But what about after that? Because Lucasfilm has not officially announced a Star Wars film in production for 2020, it seems very unlikely there will be one released that year. Which probably means that in the short term, the future of Star Wars is on TV.
Just like the Galactic Empire was bad at locking down those Death Star blueprints, Lucasfilm and its parent company, Disney, are bad at keeping secrets. On Tuesday, after Disney’s big earnings call, financial pundits across the web gleefully pointed out that Disney’s profits stumbled in late 2018, mostly because they didn’t release a Star Wars movie at Christmas time. In the short term, this isn’t a problem for Disney because freaking everybody will see Episode IX, but what about after that? If Disney had a Star Wars film ready to go for 2020, we’d all know about it. So, unless they’ve managed to keep an entire feature film a total secret, it seems likely the only new Star Wars we’ll have in 2020, and maybe 2021 is on TV. Which, presents a little bit of a challenge for Lucasfilm. How can you convince everyone to suddenly invest a lot of time and energy into not only The Mandalorian, but the Cassian Andor show, too? These things sound cool, but they’re not exactly enough to get most people as excited as they might be for an actual movie.
Let’s get real, up to this point Star Wars on TV doesn’t really register as being real Star Wars. And that’s because it’s mostly been a cartoon. Look, I loved The Clone Wars, and Rebels. But, the number of people who care about those things relative to the number of people who went to see The Last Jedi is different enough to be insignificant. For all the critical acclaim, the new animated show Star Wars: Resistance is like the Babylon 5 of the contemporary era. Casual sci-fi fans say “yeah, I heard that was good. I need to watch it.” But really, it’s just not that popular. In theory, all of this will change this year because for the first time, ever, a Star Wars TV show won’t be a cartoon.
The Mandalorian clearly presents a potential for Star Wars to enter into a market it’s never even tried to touch: prestige TV. The talent connected to The Mandalorian is out of control. In addition to Marvel guru Jon Favreau as showrunner, you’ve got Taika Waititi and Bryce Dallas Howard directing episodes. Meanwhile the cast is nuts too: Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano, Giancarlo Esposito, Carl Weathers, freaking Werner Herzog, and other heavy hitters, with more, surely to come. All of this means Disney is sinking a lot of money into this and that’s because when it comes to streaming TV, it has too. Both The Mandalorian and the Cassian Andor series will help to anchor Disney+, the new exclusive streaming service that Disney will launch later this year. This means that if you want to watch The Mandalorian, you’re going to have to pay for it. That’s right, kid, a hefty streaming subscription fee, all in advance!
If this sounds familiar, it should. Back in 2017, CBS pulled the same maneuver with a different beloved sci-fi franchise that has the word “star” in its title; Star Trek. When CBS launched Star Trek: Discovery on the streaming-only platform CBS All-Access, fan complained that paying for the show wasn’t’ fair, or too costly, or whatever. In terms of the vast majority of viewers, this controversy lasted for about five seconds. Star Trek: Discovery is doing fine, and CBS is doing a bunch more streaming-only Star Trek TV shows, including two spin-offs starring giant movie stars; the Captain Picard series with Patrick Stewart and the Section 31 spy series with Michelle Yeoh. Trek is also doing a couple of animated streaming shows, too.
Now, in terms of making shitloads of money, Star Wars beats Star Trek every day of the week. But, in terms of consistently putting out content over a long period of time, Trek is definitely the scrappier of two franchises. Right now, half of the rights to Star Trek are tied up in a weird legal split between Viacom/Paramount and CBS, which is why Discovery can’t make huge references to the very popular Trek films. Effectively, this means Trek has been fighting with one hand behind its back since its comeback in 2017, and from a growth perspective, doing fine.
Why mention all of this? Well, if Star Trek can succeed and grow in the prestige TV game with all of these impediments (perceived or otherwise) then that means Star Wars certainly can, too. Star Wars has no legal troubles where it can’t mention certain events in the TV shows that connect to the movies. Star Wars does not have a fanbase who will blink an eye at giving money to Disney+ so they can watch The Mandalorian or any other Star Wars show that comes out in the next five years or so. And, Star Wars, by virtue of what is is, is simply more mainstream than Trek, and appeals to nearly every single human being on the planet.
This means, that the only way for Star Wars not to succeed on television would be if The Mandalorian was somehow worse than the Star Wars holiday special in 1978. Even if The Mandalorian was like as bad as one of the Star Wars prequels, but as a TV series, it wouldn’t matter! It will still be successful. All it has to do is be kind of okay. This is where we’re at with Star Wars stuff. If it’s kind of okay, we’ll consume it.
There’s one caveat here, of course. The marketing. No matter how you look at it, the failure of Solo: A Star Wars Story was connected to the marketing. The movie was simply not sold well, and despite early positive reviews, didn’t get people excited. Disney can’t let this happen with The Mandalorian or its future TV projects. Which is going to be hard. Last month, Disney CEO Bog Iger said that the Star Wars TV shows will not be as big as the Star Wars movies. “Almost every movie the studio makes is a $100 million-plus movie, and we’re not looking to make movies at that level for the service,” he said. The thing is though, for Star Wars to work on TV, we have to be tricked into thinking that’s not the case.
In order for this to work, Disney and Lucasfilm have to convince everyone that these new Star Wars TV shows are not only as good as Star Wars movies, but also as good as Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things and everything else people love on TV. How will Lucasfilm and Disney pull that off? Well, as Han Solo once said, that’s the real trick, isn’t it?