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6 lessons from the box-office success of 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'

Washington Post

It delighted; it polarized; it made a bucket full of money. "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," the 10th "Star Wars" theatrical film overall and second in the revived space-opera trilogy, opened to $220 million domestically this weekend, the second-biggest opening of all time not adjusting for inflation, behind only another "Star Wars" movie.

Director Rian Johnson's action adventure will certainly take the 2017 domestic box-office top spot when all is said and done. (That's currently held by "Beauty and The Beast," with $504 million.)

But the movie won't get there simply on name recognition. Its haul springs from a set of complex production and marketing calculations. Here are six lessons to be drawn from how "The Last Jedi" was made, how it performed and how it generated reactions.

Keep it going

The new "Star Wars" was a test of franchise movie strategy - do spinoffs hurt or help when it comes to sequels? More specifically, would "The Last Jedi" have done worse, better or the same had "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" not come out a year ago at this time?

The argument for spinoffs (beyond squeezing more movies out of a brand) is simple: It keeps a universe in the collective consciousness rather than hoping that moviegoers remember it after a multiyear layoff.

The counterargument is nearly as simple: Spinoffs create saturation, and saturation risks fatigue. For now, it hasn't. Yet whether the same can be said for installments to come after "Solo: A Star Wars Story," which came out in May, and this month's "The Last Jedi," the final film of the revived trilogy, remains to be seen.

So, is there sequel-itis?

"'The Last Jedi' opened a mere 11 percent behind 'The Force Awakens' record-shattering domestic launch of $247.9 million on the same weekend in 2015, a rare feat in the age of sequelitis," wrote the Hollywood Reporter in its weekend box-office story.

This last clause is both true and false. Many big-name sequels this year did open to notably lower numbers than their predecessors, from "War for the Planet of the Apes" to "Fifty Shades Darker" to "The Fate of the Furious" to "Cars 3."

Yet several sequels saw their openings go considerably higher this year -" Thor: Ragnarok" and "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" in particular. Both, it should be said, are in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

By now it's clear that studios can pile on, even in 2017. It's just that they can do so only with a very specific set of franchises and characters.

Divisions

Speaking of the Hollywood Reporter, one of its senior writers got into some Twitter hot water over the weekend by noting that "Last Jedi" was facing a moviegoer backlash despite the critics' love: "While it's making a ton of $$$, #TheLastJedi is dividing critics & moviegoers; TLJ has a 93% critics score, but only a 56% audience score. (COCO, for example, has 97% critic, 96% audience score)," it read. The tweeter appeared to be referring to the critics' and users' scores for the film on the Rotten Tomatoes website.

Borys Kit tweeted "While it's making a ton of $$$, #TheLastJedi is dividing critics & moviegoers; TLJ has a 93% critics score, but only a 56% audience score. (COCO, for example, has 97% critic, 96% audience score)."

Others in the thread then jumped in. Wait a minute, they essentially said. Someone with the Twitter handle James Argenta responded, " . . . the film had an A CinemaScore," which is a more accurate gauge than online polling. "It's just a group of a few dozen fans" who are pulling the vote down, the tweet said.

Then again, it's not like CinemaScore is a scientific blue-chip. It aims for a maximum for 400 to 600 respondents (even political polls quiz more people), and it surveys exclusively on Friday night, when hardcore fans inclined to like a franchise turn out. So should it be used to judge audience reactions? Or is that swath of troll-vulnerable democracy - online scores - the way to go? Even the question of how to define a polarizing movie can be polarizing.

First among lasts

Make of this what you will, but movies with "last" in their title - with their suggestion of a long cinematic history that came before and a great urgency to catch it now before it's gone - seem either to become massive successes or grim failures. There's just not much in between. "The Last Emperor" and "The Last King of Scotland" were Oscar powerhouses, and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and now "The Last Jedi" are blockbusters. Then there was "The Last Airbender," "The Last Mimzy" and "The Last Boy Scout."

Reeling in parents

The holy grail for studios, demographically speaking, is a family-friendly movie that parents still really want to see themselves. It has to be a throwback while still seeming cool today. "Star Wars" savvily stirred youthful heat from the minute it began hiring popular young stars like Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley, but could it maintain the street cred with fans of the original now in their 30s, 40s and 50s? Casting came in handy here, too, and the return of Mark Hamill - and the surprise appearance of that old-school character not to be revealed here for those still avoiding spoilers - helped it achieve that goal. (That "The Last Jedi" marked a farewell for Carrie Fisher, who died last December, may have had the biggest impact.)

There remains a fine line, though, between odes to the original and stunt casting, a line that the "Star Wars" movies must perennially walk.

Director (musical) chairs

Even more than the cast, the biggest x-factor was Johnson himself. When it comes to franchise directors, most studios these days go for relative unknowns (James Gunn for "Guardians," Gareth Edwards for "Rogue One") who can be molded or veteran hands like J.J. Abrams who already know what bosses want and can tailor it to them from the outset.

Johnson didn't really fit in either category. He was a well-known original voice who had made offbeat storytelling to increasing commercial success, from "Brick" to "The Brothers Bloom" to "Looper." But he was hardly a veteran acquainted with the rigors of the studio system; he once drew the plot of "Looper" on a napkin for a reporter in a sketch that ended up looking strikingly like the finished movie.

Johnson's melding with a big machine like Disney/Lucasfilm appears to have avoided too many ground gears, but that may prove the exception. The division, run by Kathleen Kennedy, has a history of clashing (and ultimately parting ways) with a host of more original voices, with Colin Trevorrow and Phil Lord-Chris Miller each relieved of his directing duties on upcoming "Star Wars" installments.

Johnson's success should be proof that those kinds of voices will work commercially. But that's a lesson that may not be absorbed any time soon: Trevorrow and Lord-Miller were replaced by Abrams and Ron Howard.

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