…into a full-blown article for them. I added a section as well on genre films to show how dominate action films have been. Check it out.
If I didn’t have a little Padawan join my family in November, one of my goals was to update my massive “How Much Money did Disney Make on the Lucasfilm Acquisition?” series. That delay actually helped because I wouldn’t have been able to get that article up before Rise of the Skywalker came out. Meaning I would have had to guess on a billion dollar variable!
And since I didn’t have to guess, we know that Rise of Skywalker joined the caravan of Disney billion dollar box office film in 2010s. Still following Lucasfilm/Star Wars in 2019 had a sense of dread. For every good news story there was a bad one. So how do we truly judge—from a business sense—how well Lucasfilm did in 2019?
We use numbers. Strategy is numbers, right?
Since Disney doesn’t release franchise financials—why would they?—I have my own estimates. I last updated these in the beginning of 2019 (with films updated in 2018) so I’ll do a big update to the model to learn what we can about how well Lucasfilm did in 2019. I’ll break it into two parts. Today’s article will cover movies; next week, I’ll review the rest of the business units, TV, licensing and theme parks. Previously, I only focused on the price Disney paid compared to their performance. Today and next week’s article will instead act as a report card on how 2019 impacted Lucasfilm and Disney’s business/future.
What this Analysis is NOT
There are so many cultural takes on Star Wars, especially since The Last Jedi, that I feel it’s important to clarify what I’m NOT doing here. (A UCLA forum I follow, for example, had a 60 page “debate” on the latest two films.)
To start, this isn’t my “fan” opinion on the franchise. My opinion is just one person’s opinion, so whether or not I “loved” the latest film, or the one before it or “the baby of the same species as Yoda” doesn’t matter. In the aggregate, Disney does and they track this via surveys and focus groups. But lone individuals online? Whether they love or hate recent moves? Not so much.
To follow that, this isn’t a “critical” perspective either. I haven’t been trained in the dark arts of cultural and film criticism, so my opinion again just doesn’t matter. (Does Disney care about the critics? Controversially, I’d argue not really.)
What this Analysis IS
Instead, I’ll focus on three areas per business unit for Star Wars (read Lucasfilm):
Profit from 2019 (most accurately, operating profit)
In my big series on the Lucasfilm acquisition, I was looking at a specific question about the value of Star Wars vis a vis the price Disney paid. But if you’re Disney, that deal is now a sunk cost. What matters for Disney strategists or brand managers is how much money the franchise is making now. That’s the focus.
Long term impacts on the financial model and the 2014 deal
Since I have a gigantic spreadsheet filled numbers that I can update putting this all in terms of the $4 billion (in 2014 dollars) context, I may as well update how the model has changed. Further, some decisions Disney makes now will directly impact how much potential profit they can keep making on Star Wars. So I’ll update that too.
This last part is the hardest part to quantify, but is crucial as well for putting the above two decisions into context. See, a brand manager doesn’t just care about making money this year, they care about making money next year and the year after and so on. And there are ways to make money in the short term that damage a brand in the long. Threading the needle of making money while building brand equity, not just drawing it down, is crucial for a brand manager.
This is admittedly a tough section to quantify, but it still feels particularly important. (Again, the goal is not to sneak in my opinion, but use data where possible to figure this out. Though narratives will likely figure in.)
With those caveats, let’s hop into the most important business unit, the straw that stirs the blue milk, films.
As of publishing, Rise of the Skywalker grossed $1.05 billion, with a 48% US/Canada to 52% international split. In my model—which I’ll repeat is a lifetime model, meaning all future revenue streams—I’d expect Rise of the Skywalker to net Lucasfilm $798 million, nearly identical to Rogue One. (As I clarified before, my model is a bit high compared to Deadlines’ model. There are a few reasons, but mainly I calculate lifetime value.) So that’s the first building block for how Star Wars did in 2019. In my framework of films, I’d have called this a “hit”. Here’s a table with Disney’s 5 Star Wars films in the 2010s:
But what does this mean?
Star Wars Feature Film Trend Lines
That’s where things get tricky. The key question for me is context. If we were using “value over replacement” theory, and you looked at the last Star Wars in “value over replacement film”, well it does terrific. Very few films get over a billion dollars at the box office!
However, I’d argue that’s the wrong context. This is a Star Wars film. So how did Episode IX do in “value over replacement Star Wars films” context? Not very good. To show this, I updated my giant “franchise” tracker through 2019.
Let’s start by just charting Star Wars film performance. First by category, separating “A Star Wars Story” into their own category. Second, by release order by decade.
The worrying issue for Star Wars brand strategists are the trend lines. This isn’t a series trending upwards or even maintaining consistent film launches. If Disney wanted to reassure themselves, they could say it isn’t their fault, lots of franchises lose their mojo over time, like Lord of The Rings, Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean. Here is the chart I made in 2018 for franchise performance, updated through 2019 launches. They show the US adjusted box office and how series have trended over time:
(For the last few weeks, I’ve been debuting a series of articles answering a question posed to me by The Ankler’s Richard Rushfield: Will The Irishman Make Any Money? It’s a great question because it gets as so many of the challenges of the business of streaming video. Read the rest here, here, here and here.)
Chatting with the esteemed Richard Rushfield a few months back—we share sensibilities on Hollywood and the (hashtag) streaming wars—he pitched me a straight forward question. Could we build a model that can answer this deceptively simple challenge:
Did The Irishman make money for Netflix?
It’s a good question because the buzz for The Irishman from critics has been so positive. From what I can tell—based on “film Twitter” reactions—this would be the greatest film ever made by man, except that with this masterpiece Martin Scorsese has elevated from mere mortal to filmmaking demigod.
It would be cool to know if Netflix made any money off it.
Which is pretty tough. I mean, we don’t even know the ratings for Netflix films…how can we determine if they are profitable? It will be hard, but to quote a famous president, we write these articles not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
So you know what? Richard and I are taking the law into our own hands. Yeah, we paint houses, with financial models and data hacks!
Later this week, in The Ankler newsletter—subscribe here for the must read newsletter—Richard will explain our purpose, reasoning and goals to start this project early. Today, I’m going start explaining how we’ll develop a “Feature Film Profitability Score”. In previous articles, I’ve pretty much built the models needed for this analysis. Now, I’m just combining them with a little special sauce.
Moreover, we’re doing all this ahead of time. We’re not judging The Irishman based on preconceived notions, but based on its actual performance. Moreover, once we build this capability, we can leverage it for future releases on many streaming platforms.
Here’s what today’s article will explain:
– The specific profitability score we’re creating.
– The four models of film release in the streaming era.
– A quick review of the traditional film model.
– Some notes on competing theatrical film models.
The “bottom line up front” is that combining my methods for valuing theatrically-released films and streaming video, we can make a model of success depending on either box office results or streaming popularity. While the last seems unknown, using some publicly available data—mainly Google Trends, potentially other third party survey data, or even Netflix datecdotes—we can make guesses on popularity.
The Goal: A “Feature Film Profitability Score”
At the end of the day, the goal is to keep this project simple. So Richard asked if I could boil this down to one (1!) number for every film—streaming or theatrical—that determines, “How profitable was this?”
Well, I failed, but I have this down to 2 numbers. Let me explain why. The obvious start is that a film can make a lot of money. This is good. Making nearly $2 billion dollars on Avengers: Endgame, Avatar, or Titanic matters. That’s a lot of money.
But you don’t just want raw totals. If it costs $1 billion to make $1.5 billion, that’s not as good of a value for investors as making a film for $200 million that makes $700 million. Same raw total, but one required less up front capital. This is a quick definition of ROI, by the way. The Joker is currently the ROI golden child of the trades. The all-time ROI club is films such as Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, or Saw that still fill the dreams of indie horror producers everywhere.
If you wanted a quad chart of success, you could see this:
Essentially, films in the upper right are living the dream. Films in the lower right made a lot of money, but not a great return on investment. Films in the upper left made some money (they aren’t all negative), but had great ROI, meaning they were likely cheap but just not as big as some other films. And don’t be in the lower left—though most films are—which means you aren’t making money period. The majority of films in the current climate end up there. Combining these two numbers—with other metrics I’ll explain—brings us to this scorecard we’ll give The Irishman:
Beside the two promised numbers, I have four “breakeven numbers” for streaming films in particular. That’s because “breakeven” is easy for feature films (make more money than you cost), but with streaming the challenge is “what is making money”. I’ll explain those in the last section, but before we get there, we have to explain why I needed to build a new model in the first place.
The Four Models of Film Distribution in the Streaming Era
It’s no surprise that film distribution is changing. And commonly, we say, “Hey Netflix is skipping theaters.” That’s decision number one: to go to theaters or not; Netflix opts not; Amazon (formerly) and traditional studios opt in. Financial modeling wise, that’s an easy decision to calculate.
The tougher part to keep track of—and it is neglected in the media coverage—is the second window and beyond distribution plan. (I’m calling everything from home entertainment to Pay Per View to TVOD/EST to linear licensing to streaming licensing “second windows” for simplicity.) See, a new streamer like Apple is going to put its movies in theaters, but then—from what I understand—release it to Apple TV+ directly, exclusively and forever. Amazon too from now on. In other words, all these windows get condensed into this one:
The cool thing is that all the companies I think of make these two choices, meaning we have only need four models for films:
(Two quad charts in one article? Probably my favorite article of the year. Well, after this one.)
The one variable is Apple TV+. I believe they are doing streaming only, but haven’t confirmed yet. With that understanding, let’s build our models. I’ll need a model for theatrical and streaming only to evaluate the Irishman.
My “Traditional” Theatrical Model