"Obi-Wan Kenobi," which aired its finale last week, appears to have been a hit for Disney+.
But it could have been a major blockbuster as a movie released to theaters.
The series was originally conceived as a movie, but Disney's "Star Wars" strategy shifted.
Disney's "Obi-Wan Kenobi" debuted its finale last week, the final episode in the six-part "Star Wars" series that followed Ewan McGregor's Kenobi 10 years after the events of "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith."
It was the latest example of how the lines between movies and TV are blurring in an entertainment landscape dominated by IP. It was also the latest in a line of "Star Wars" series, after "The Mandalorian" and "The Book of Boba Fett," that highlight how the company is steering the franchise away from its big-screen roots for the streaming age.
That wasn't always the plan. Disney's original strategy for the franchise, starting with 2015's "The Force Awakens," was to release one movie per year. It's hard to know whether that would have oversaturated the franchise, but at the very least, Disney arguably missed out on plenty of box-office revenue by abandoning an Obi-Wan movie.
Screenwriter Stuart Beattie recently revealed that the "Obi-Wan" series evolved from a film script he had written, and that he pitched an Obi-Wan film trilogy. He said the idea was ditched after "Solo," a "Star Wars" standalone movie, was released in 2018.
"Solo" disappointed at the box office, grossing less than $400 million worldwide while every other Disney-era "Star Wars" film had earned over $1 billion, and was the only "Star Wars" movie to lose Disney money. Soon after it debuted, former Disney CEO Bob Iger said that fans should expect a "slowdown" in "Star Wars" releases.
The following year, Disney launched Disney+, and it has since announced a dozen "Star Wars" shows for the service. Meanwhile, is has no immediate plans for "Star Wars" theatrical releases, but more films are expected to hit the silver screen at some point in the future.
Some planned projects have been put on hold, including "The Last Jedi" director Rian Johnson's film trilogy, according to a Vanity Fair feature published last month.
Disney+ is a major priority for Disney, and "Star Wars" has been essential in retaining subscribers. The service has quickly grown into a top streaming service to rival Netflix with 138 million subscribers globally. "Obi-Wan" appears to have been a hit; its premiere episode was Disney+'s biggest original series debut, by Nielsen's measurement, with 1 billion minutes viewed in its first weekend in the US.
But it's also hard to imagine an Obi-Wan movie not doing gangbuster business at the box office.
An Obi-Wan movie could have been a blockbuster
"Solo" was an outlier; even "Rogue One," another standalone movie, made over $1 billion worldwide. "Revenge of the Sith," McGregor's last film appearance as Obi-Wan, grossed $380 million just in the US ($570 million after inflation).
"Solo" also recast its title character, while McGregor returned to his Obi-Wan role. Lucasfilm has been careful to avoid recasting beloved characters in projects since, instead relying on de-aging technology, such as for Luke Skywalker in "The Mandalorian" and "The Book of Boba Fett."
"There should be moments along the way when you learn things," Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy told Vanity Fair. "Now it does seem so abundantly clear that we can't do that."
Theaters are charting a slow but steady comeback. Business is up significantly from this time last year, when movie releases were slim. But the box office still hasn't hit pre-pandemic levels, and this past weekend was down 33% in the US compared to the same weekend in 2019, according to Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock.
Movie's like "Top Gun: Maverick" and "Jurassic World: Dominion" have performed well, and they both play on the kind of nostalgia an Obi-Wan movie would have. But studios still aren't releasing as many movies as they once did, which is a big reason why the box office is still down. Theaters are desperately missing "Star Wars" this year.
And while the "Obi-Wan Kenobi" series may have been popular, it appears to have received a mixed reaction. It has an overall 63% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes based on over 10,000 user ratings.
Disney runs the risk of diluting the cinematic potential of the franchise, and alienating longtime fans, with underwhelming TV shows ("The Book of Boba Fett" received a 57% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes).
"Solo's" box office, combined with Disney's streaming ambitions, pushed the company in a different direction. But an Obi-Wan movie could have been a major hit, and a much needed product for theaters as they continue to recover.
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