For millions of impatient fans around the world, the December 2015 release date for the first film in a new “Star Wars” trilogy is a distant date in a galaxy far, far away.
But while there is a more than a year to go before the return of one of the most iconic franchises in movie history, Disney is already reaping rewards from its acquisition of George Lucas’s beloved science-fiction saga.
Disney shelled out $4 billion to buy Lucas’s Lucasfilm in October 2012, and with it the rights to add the likes of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Darth Vader to the company’s cast of iconic characters.
While the headline-grabbing centerpiece of the deal was a commitment to make a new trilogy of “Star Wars” blockbusters, Disney is already generating returns from an avalanche of associated products ranging from spin-off television shows to toy light sabers.
The animated series “Star Wars Rebels” premiered on Disney television on Friday while a videogame for smartphones and tablets “Star Wars Commander” was rolled out in August.
Disney has also announced plans for a “far greater ‘Star Wars’ presence” in its global chain of theme parks.
Disney’s willingness to exploit its properties for maximum financial gain is hardly a new strategy. Yet it has been perfected under the stewardship of company chief Robert Iger, in charge of Disney since 2005.
Disney earned $9 billion in net profits in the nine months leading to late June, returns which helped earn Iger a lucrative contract extension announced last week which runs until mid-2018.
– Keeping brands alive –
“It’s definitely one of his legacies to the company,” said Neil Macker, a media analyst with the Morningstar (NasdaqGS: MORN – news) investment research group.
“Keeping brands alive within the Disney universe, parks and resorts, merchandizing, the stores, everything like that — that’s something he and his team have done, basically,” Macker told AFP.
“I think now they have got the process down on how they can monetize these properties, as a process, relatively well.
“You’ve seen the benefits in what they’ve done with Marvel and Pixar,” Macker added, referring to the Iger-led acquisitions which added money-spinning properties such as Iron Man, Captain America and “Toy Story” to the Disney stable.
With “Star Wars,”, just as it has done with Marvel’s superheroes, Disney is able to appeal to a broader, older audience as well as children, expanding beyond the realm of Mickey Mouse and fairytales.
At the same time, Disney remains adept at catering to its traditional audience — last year’s Oscar-winning movie “Frozen” has become the highest-earning animated film in history, with more than $1 billion at the box office.
“One of the thing that Bob Iger’s done is moving (Disney) from being dependent to all of these older characters, that had a very deep history with them, for new characters, new content, and use all of them to create more and more content, that can be turned into rights, or merchandizing, or probably musicals,” Macker added.
By designing and distributing its own products, Disney avoids having to pay a portion of its profits to intermediaries.
– ‘Not immune to flops’ –
But not everything in the Disney garden is rosy, according to some.
While its share price has soared to record highs, trebling its market capitalization worth since 2005, a few analysts believe Disney is over-valued.
“Disney is near the top of a cycle,” Indigo Equity Research stated in September.
Disneyland Paris remains mired in financial difficulties, with losses of 64.4 million euros last year and a huge drop in visitors.
On television, Disney’s ABC (HKSE: 1288-OL.HK – news) network needs new flagship series to rebound while sports channel ESPN faces increasingly tough competition to secure broadcasting rights to top events.
Even (Taiwan OTC: 6436.TWO – news) in the movie business, Disney is, in the words of studio chief Alan Bergman, “not immune to flops”, citing the recent box-office duds “John Carter” and “The Lone Ranger.”
With “Star Wars”, which has attracted generations of loyal fans ever since the first film arrived in 1977, Disney is keenly aware of who its audience is, according to Macker.
“They’ve carefully selected the people that are going to do this,” Macker said. “I think they’ve done a good job in understanding who the stewards of that brand could be, in terms of directors, producers.”
The new “Star Wars” film due next year will be directed by J.J. Abrams, one of Hollywood’s A-list directors who recently oversaw the successful rebooting of the “Star Trek” franchise.
Yet as with any reboot, there are risks. Macker noted that many die-hards remain unimpressed by Lucas’s second trilogy of “Star Wars” films released between 1999 and 2005.
“A lot of fans are still mad at Lucas for what he did in the prequels, so it’s not something that can be run perfectly — but they’re doing as good a job as they can.”