Disney has planned out its mega-sequels until Pete Buttigieg is almost 50.
That was the lesson Tuesday, when, in case you missed it, the mega-studio announced a release calendar that runs all the way through 2027. (OK, Buttigieg will be about to turn 46. Still.)
Plenty of news arose from both what was on the list, including eight (!) Marvel movies between now and 2022 (Endgame is just the beginning) and not on the list (X-Men spinoff Gambit, eg).
But the big news came in the form of Avatar and Star Wars. Disney announced a plan that will see the two franchises alternate Christmas releases beginning in 2021 and continuing through 2027. Avatar will come in odd years and Star Wars in even ones. There’s also this Christmas, when Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will hit theaters.
At first glance this strategy seems unimpeachable. Star Wars and Avatar are the two biggest holiday releases of all time in the United States. (The Force Awakens collected its $937 million beginning at the 2015 holiday.) So it makes sense Disney would want them both in December. Those sequels should gobble up screens and market share for many yuletides to come.
Yet that dominance doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny. Each franchise presents challenges — very different in type but similar in scope.
Let’s start with Star Wars. The Force Awakens was an unmitigated smash, taking in more than $2 billion around the world and instantly validating Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm a few years earlier. But that has thus far proved to be a high point. Spinoff Rogue One got just above $1 billion globally; the next mainline Star Wars dropped from The Force Awakens‘ $2 billion down to $1.3 billion. And the most recent film, last May’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, was a flat-out disappointment, not even reaching $400 million worldwide
There are portents that Star Wars is, slowly but surely, running its course. This kind of downward trending is a sign we simply have too many of these films, that the novelty has worn off, that they’re starting to take on a certain sameness. Marvel has managed to keep the magic going on 22 movies and counting because producers have continually expanded characters and genres — Iron Man was very much not Black Panther, which was very much not Captain Marvel, which was very much not the Avengers movies. Lucasfilm has seemed unable or unwilling to push Star Wars in truly new directions, and certainly not the ones that are going to periodically renew it a la the MCU.
And that makes big holiday releases all the way through 2026 a suddenly dicey bet. There will of course always be plenty of Star Wars fans, and the franchise’s movies will inevitably lead a box office chart or three.
But absent some smart reinvention, and maybe even with it, the kind of automatic dominance that seemed likely when The Force Awakens came out — that Disney still seems to expect now — is very far from assured.
The opposite dynamic could play out with Avatar. Unfortunately for Disney, it’s a dynamic leading to the same uncertain place.
The James Cameron megahit (at Disney by way of Fox) is now nearly a decade old. Which means that by the time the next movie comes out it will be 12 years gone. (The first sequel was supposed to come out in 2014; it has been delayed many times since.)
More to the point, the original was a singular phenomenon, not least because it was an original — a big-budget movie that derived from no existing comic-book, brand name or prior movie. It also maximized 3D technology at a time when curiosity about it was at its peak. There was nothing like the original Avatar. It defied definition at the time. And it may well defy replication now.
Star Wars’ challenge is repetitiveness, throwing up too many angles on the same iconic heroes. Avatar offers the opposite problem: a one-off consigned to history. (Quick: What are the names of the movie’s three lead characters?) It tries to resurrect something that has been gone for so long that it seems so much a part of end-of-decade uniqueness. And that is not an easy resurrection.
Cameron’s track record is unparalleled, and he has defied naysayers many times before. But there’s not much reason to think Avatar itself could spawn success just by name-brand virtue; it would have to do this by becoming entirely something else. And even if it does, could that happen two years after that (Cameron’s already shot Avatar 3) and two years after that, and two years hence again?
Incidentally, if the first sequel doesn’t flourish, what does happen to Avatar 3? These were conceived as two parts of a whole. Can it be recut? Repositioned? Just be released and have Disney take its lumps?
It’s worth nothing this release calendar has little binding value. Its purpose is optical — to give Wall Street and fans something to salivate over and other studios something to worry about.
But there’s plenty of worry to go around. Avatar seems to have been gone a long time. And Star Wars seems, these days, to never go away. They’re two opposite situations. But for Disney they come with the same underlying problem: The studio has staked a lot of its box-office hopes on two franchises with question marks.