This is part III in a multi-part series estimating how much money Disney made off “Star Wars” in 2019. Go here for my larger series on Disney purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012.)
I started this series in January. Do you remember back then? Before the world turned upside down? Reflecting on how much money Star Wars made in 2019 feels almost like a waste of mental energy. Who cares how much Disney did or didn’t make in 2019 when the whole company may go bankrupt by the summer time?
Perhaps, if we understand the underlying drivers of Disney’s business model, we can better understand how quickly they may go bankrupt or return to normal. And what they can do in the meantime to prevent it. Previously, I’d estimated the performance of the feature film and television business units in dollar terms. Today we move onto “licensed merchandise”, which is my term for toys, apparel, games, and anything sold in stores.
I’ll discuss the narrative around licensed merchandise, review my top and bottom line estimates, and briefly touch on the impact of coronavirus on toy sales.
(Nomenclature: I’ll use consumer products, licensed merchandise and even “toys” interchangeably in today’s article. Yes, when I say toys I mean everything from shirts to furniture to video games to actual toys. Also, when I use “licensing” I don’t mean content licensing, but licensing for consumer products.)
Licensed Merchandise: The Missed Opportunity of 2019?
If Star Wars fans had a complaint in 2019, it’s that this little guy…
…wasn’t available to purchase. I saw quite a few tweets speculating that this spectacular failure was worth potentially BILLIONS to Disney. (Don’t worry, toys are on their way…so long as Covid-19 shutdowns don’t delay them.)
Well, it wasn’t. Which you’d have known if you read my first article on “licensed merchandise” for Star Wars back in 2018. Star Wars on the whole generates between $2-3 billion total retail sales for Disney every year. (With a one time boost in 2015 due to The Force Awakens.) It’s unlikely that one—admittedly excessively “toyetic”—character would have doubled that.
Even if he had done really well as a toy property, the whole “Baby Yoda” saga reveals some important learnings about toys in general and in the Star Wars universe specifically.
– First, toys in particular aren’t a quick game. It takes Disney (or any toy licensee) months to design, approve, and then manufacture toys. And then put them on a boat and sail them from China (mainly) to the United States. This is why even as Baby Yoda blew up, Disney couldn’t spin out new toys quickly.
– Second, toys (and lots of merchandise) aren’t as lucrative as the headlines usually suggest. Take those retail sales I just mentioned. Those become the “revenue” line for retailers. The toy companies only get the “wholesale” line, which is about half the retail take. Disney, on the other hand, only books 5-10% of the wholesale total. Which is still a lot! But an order of magnitude less than the total retail numbers suggest.
– Third, Star Wars merchandise had already burned retailers in the 2010s. Even if Disney had made Baby Yoda merchandise despite Jon Favreau’s desires, retailers would still have been skeptical. The huge boost in toy sales in 2015 when The Force Awakens came to theaters, burned retailers when Rogue One had anemic sales. I heard from quite a few retailers they were stuck with excess merchandise after Rogue One—when the $5 billion in sales didn’t repeat—so a lot of merchandise sat on store shelves. As a result, retailers dialed back orders for Solo and The Last Jedi.
– Fourth, is Star Wars merchandise for kids or adults? On one hand, kids. Obviously. Look at all the toys and young children wearing Star Wars shirts. On the other hand, look at all the adults wearing the shirts too. Adults are tricky for licensees, as I’ve mentioned before, because they aren’t as lucrative as children. And more finnicky/less reliable. Lots of folks speculated that the reason The Force Awakens generated such a one time boost in merchandise sales was because a lot of adults snapped up merchandise, but didn’t continue into Rogue One.
All of which leads into another “best of times; worst of times” summary of licensed merchandise. Star Wars is huge in the consumer product game, but it’s uneven and possibly trending downward.
Licensed Merchandise – My Estimates on The Top and Bottom Lines
Merchandise sales tend to be one of the harder business lines to estimate for a specific franchise or property. Studios don’t usually release the specific numbers, but the industry trade License Global does release an annual ranking of top content licensees, with some data for companies. Sometimes, specific franchises are called out. This historically happens in May, but last year was delayed until August. (It looks to be delayed again.) In the interim, I’m usually left to guess based on historical data.
The good news is that for toys and merchandise, they don’t have quite the lumpiness that you see in films for evergreen franchises like Star Wars. Other film-driven franchises like say Minions or Trolls see peaks and valleys for when new films come out or don’t. Non-film driven toy properties have similar steady state or peaks and valleys depending on whether they are evergreen or not. However, Star Wars has had a few decades of steady, multi-billion dollar retail sales. Its a safe assumption to assume that continues.
Thus, my toy model is fairly simple. Not a lot of bells and whistles and mostly extrapolating the trend line based on whatever has been publicly reported and then assuming it holds steady. There is still some uncertainty even in the publicly reported numbers because the inter webs have quite a few toy numbers for Star Wars, many of which are contradictory. (Wikipedia for example is wildly inaccurate.)
Let’s start at the top line, total retail revenue:
First, there were quite a few estimates, as I just mentioned, that The Force Awakens saw a boom in retail sales to $5 billion. However, I lowered that number dramatically after reports that retailers were burned by Rogue One over-ordering. Indeed, even in Disney’s annual reports in 2017 and 2018 they blamed lower sales of consumer products partially on Star Wars.
The question is whether or not I think 2019, with The Last Jedi and The Mandalorian, saw a huge boost in sales. Based on the handwringing about Star Wars not resonating with kids, and the fact that another Disney property got most of the attention by stores (Frozen II) I think it did, but nowhere near the 2015 level. And yes, Disney said in their last earnings call that Star Wars and Frozen helped contribute to a big Q4. Hasbro—whose fortunes partially rise and fall on Disney’s fate—said the same thing. So we can’t untangle Frozen from Star Wars, but likely both were up fairly well.
Add it up and here’s my take.
The total revenue for retailers was likely around $3 billion dollars. I could see it swinging 20% either way. Of that, Disney likely took home $150-300 million. My estimate is towards the lower end—5% of retail sales—but some folks have said that Disney with its dominant position can demand better royalty rates on wholesale goods. More like around 10% of retail sales. So that’s why the range exists. The good news for Disney is that $300 million is basically a successful blockbuster domestic box office. That’s a great revenue stream to have! (And consumer products have pretty healthy margins as well. The costs are mainly for making the films and TV series in the first place.)
The worry, for Star Wars watchers, is how this fares going forward without another movie until at least 2022 (if not longer with the Covid-19 impact on production).
The Impact of Coronavirus on Licensed Merchandise
I should do a deeper dive like my other two looks at Coronavirus, but I’ll say quickly that I see two hold ups. First, if factories are shut down in China or elsewhere, that will delay toy production accordingly. Many toys have pretty long lead times, especially when bought in bulk, so I could see some delays impacting this process. This is even more true for plush or stuffed animals, that have stringent safety measures. Apparel can churn faster since laser printing has decreased run times considerably, and even on-shored a lot of US production.
Second, if films are delayed, their tied in toy sales need to be delayed too. This makes all the tricky scheduling complications even more difficult.
The question is whether the coronavirus impacts toy sales more broadly, and that I have no clue. I could see arguments on both sides:
More toy sales. With kids stuck at home, parents buy them toys as a distraction element. And they’re still consuming content like they were before, just not feature film content.
Less toy sales. Well, the lack of birthday parties could be killing the toy industry. That’s where lots of toys are purchased. Plus, despite Amazon/Walmart’s dominance, the closure of retail sales isn’t completely offset by digital shopping. Add to that a potential global depression, and toy sales could easily be a victim. (Just losing 5% of sales is enough to really hurt the industry.)
Add them up and I’d be more worried about toy sales than optimistic. But like all my Covid-19 thinking, I am incredibly uncertain.
Consumer Products Impact on Brand Value
As a reminder, as well as calculating the money made in 2019, I’m putting it into context of the Lucasfilm deal from 2012, and the future brand value of Star Wars.
Money from 2019 (most accurately, operating profit)
Well, I just covered that. Another $225-300 or so million added to the ledger for toys, apparel, video games, and such.
Long term impacts on the financial model and the 2012 deal
I will point out my “discounted time value” though, because it’s the part people forget the most often when saying, “Man, what a great deal for Disney.” It was, but not just because the box office was high. What I’ll point out is that, in terms 2012 dollars, making $225 million in bottom line revenue “only” translates to $142 million in 2012 dollars. In other words, about 3.5% of the total price of the deal ($4.05 billion) was earned back in toys just this year.
Moving forward, the fact that Star Wars won’t have another film until 2022 (at the earliest), could cause an even steeper drop off in licensing revenue going forward.
The last question is whether the merchandise business as a whole built brand equity or detracted from it. This is almost all value judgement, and I have to say I don’t think the brand was hurt by not having Baby Yoda merchandise. Did Disney miss an opportunity to build some brand equity? Yes, but that’s not the same as hurting the brand equity.
A Final Caveat
When I put these numbers out there, I should put a caveat on how to use these numbers. These aren’t actual sales or profit and loss statements from Disney. If I had those, I’d say so. (And if you have them, please share!)
Instead, these are my estimates. Which some can and have dismissed as “just my estimates”. I can also imagine the strategy teams inside Disney saying, “Oh man, he’s so off on this or that number in the analysis.” Sure! Of course I am. Any estimates are more wrong than they are right.
My defense is that this is my strategic estimate. When I was doing military intelligence, it’s not like Al Qaeda in Iraq or Jaysh Al-Mahdi or the Taliban gave us their number of fighters and locations. Right? That’s for them to know and us to estimate, and plan accordingly.
This estimate is the type of estimate I’d hope—but doubt they are—big studios like Universal or Warner Bros are making about their competitor Disney. In the battle of franchises, it’s worth knowing who’s doing well and who isn’t. That’s the type of analysis I’m trying to put out here.
Final point: I also provide my estimates in real numbers, unlike some other prominent strategy voices. You win and lose on the bottom line, and that’s the estimates I’ll give you. Strategy is numbers after all.