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The Case for Mid-Budget Star Wars

Star Wars is at a crossroads. While The Rise of Skywalker’s worldwide box office will gross over a billion dollars, that’s a far cry from The Force Awakens’ two billion. ROS will end up below every Avengers film, both Jurassic World films, and even its predecessor The Last Jedi. Perhaps most shockingly, the finale to the Skywalker saga could well end up with a lower total gross than DC’s Joker. Uncertain, the future is.

Imagine it’s 2016, and someone says to you an R-rated psychodrama would make more money than Episode IX of Star Wars. How would you react? You’d probably tell them to lay off the death sticks. Yet as I type these words, Joker stands ahead. There is, for sure, a large confluence of factors that led to this upset. Both films are divisive, but controversy boosted Joker while deflating Star Wars. Critical reviews for ROS were tepid at best, while Joker has been nominated for eleven Oscars, including Best Picture. Regardless, it can’t be ignored that Joker has made its production budget of (at most) $70 million back at least fifteen times over. ROS, with a price tag of $275 million, has returned less than four times as much. A billion dollars is nothing to sniff at but as a return-on-investment that’s far from a home run.

2019 was the year the mid-budget film struck back. Joker leads the top of a wide pack, followed by It: Chapter Two, Us, John Wick: Chapter 3, Knives Out, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, and many more. Audiences flocked to smaller films and studios saw strong, sometimes enormous, returns on budgetary investments of less than $100 million—while tentpoles like Dumbo, Alita: Battle Angel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and X-Men: Dark Phoenix floundered.

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