Rise of Skywalker heartens Star Wars faithful

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on April 18, 2019.

Helmets on display at the Star Wars Celebration event in Chicago last Friday. Photos by Bloomberg

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Star Wars fans finally have something to be excited about.

After a challenging year — marked by a box-office flop, declining merchandise sales, and infighting among Star Wars faithful — Walt Disney Co restored some enthusiasm with a teaser trailer and a mysterious new title for the series’ latest movie.

At a fan fest in Chicago, Disney gave cheering crowds the first glimpse of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the JJ Abrams-directed film that will complete the nine-picture Skywalker saga.

It had all the trappings: a quirky new robot, lightsabre heroics, and sweeping desert scenes. Billy Dee Williams, now 82, reprises his role as Lando Calrissian. And the trailer hints that an old villain — Darth Sidious aka Emperor Palpatine — may return.

This is a critical year for Disney’s Star Wars business, and not just at the box office. The company is introducing two new Star Wars-themed lands at its parks in California and Florida in coming months. Huge crowds are expected regardless of how Rise of Skywalker is received, but the company is under more pressure to show the franchise is still vibrant.

The new film, slated for release on Dec 20, is the third instalment of a trilogy that Disney began with Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015. It is the company’s fifth overall since acquiring Lucasfilm Ltd for US$4 billion in 2012.

Disney has been knocked for milking the Star Wars brand too aggressively and releasing so many movies that it overwhelms fans. Chief executive officer Bob Iger acknowledged as much last week, saying the studio would take a break after Rise of Skywalker comes out.

“We will take a pause, some time, and reset,” he told Emily Chang on Bloomberg Television. “The Skywalker saga comes to an end with this ninth movie. There will be other Star Wars movies, but there will be a bit of a hiatus.”

Last year’s Solo: A Star Wars Story — a standalone feature that was not part of the saga — was the lowest-grossing film in the four-decade history of the franchise. And Star Wars toy sales fell in 2018 for the second year in a row, according to NPD.


Alternating directors

But there are reasons to think Rise of Skywalker may help rekindle interest. It is being overseen by Abrams, who directed and co-wrote the well-received Force Awakens. That movie was followed by 2017’s The Last Jedi, which was not as big a hit.

Rian Johnson — less experienced with blockbuster movies — directed Last Jedi and made some creative choices that irked fans. A revelation about the parentage of Rey, the central character, was disappointing to many. (Some have speculated that the new Rise of Skywalker title may mean Rey is actually from that family.)

Disney also has given the movie a bit more breathing room. When Solo: A Star Wars Story bombed last year, it followed the previous Star Wars instalment by just a few months. This time around, fans will have to wait more than one-and-a-half years when Rise of Skywalker opens.

The Star Wars Celebration in Chicago, a biennial summit, already sold out its weekend tickets at US$75 (RM310.50) a day. Several hundred Jedi Master VIP passes were gone within minutes, at US$850 a pop.

The question now is whether that excitement will spread to regular filmgoers when Rise of Skywalker comes out.

“We think it will be great,” Iger said. — Bloomberg