Yesterday, Disney announced that it was shuffling its release schedule to move Star Wars: Episode IX — the last film in the main “sequel trilogy” — from December 2019 up to May 24th, 2019.
Now, at first glance, this is pretty pedestrian news. Films get moved around all the time, whether that’s due to trying to avoid competitors, taking more time on editing or special effects, or just the realities of Hollywood politics. But this particular move is somewhat strange.
After all, between The Force Awakens and Rogue One, Disney and Lucasfilm have already shown that Star Wars films can break box office records in December, far away from the traditional summer movie season where genre films like these have tended to thrive in the past. The only other major sci-fi franchise that seemed to be gunning for the December release — James Cameron’s long-gestating Avatar sequels — was delayed again until 2020 days before Disney’s announcement, leaving December 2019 seemingly wide open for another Star Wars box office sweep. The only other major movie that has actually been announced for that month is the Wicked movie adaptation, which, even assuming that project doesn’t get delayed again, doesn’t seem to pose that much of a threat to Star Wars’ traditional sci-fi audience in the same way that Avatar might.
The best theory I can come up with to remotely explain the move is that Disney and Lucasfilm are clearing December out for a second as-yet-unannounced Star Wars movie. Marvel has already proved to executives at the House of Mouse that multiple franchise entries in a cinematic universe can still draw audience with two superhero films per year since 2013, a success it looks to build on by upping that rate to three going forward. And what better way to continue to keep fans excited for new Star Wars stories after the conclusion to the current batch of “Episode” entries than by launching whatever comes next?
Two of Disney’s biggest films, possibly ever, are now stepping on each other’s toes
Because if there’s little reason to move Episode IX from where it was, the specific choice of May 2019 is even more confusing. Looking at the schedule, the fourth (currently untitled) Avengers movie — the one that’s expected to serve as a conclusion to the roughly 22-film story arc of the Infinity Stones that has comprised Marvel’s movie franchise so far — is set to come out just three weeks before Star Wars: Episode IX now. Two of Disney’s biggest films, possibly ever, are now stepping on each other’s toes.
But things get even more crowded for Disney in 2019. It’s not just Star Wars and Marvel releasing their biggest, arc-ending films in the span of a month. Because less than a month after Star Wars hits, Disney is releasing Toy Story 4 on June 21st, a sequel to Toy Story 3, which remains the single most lucrative Pixar film ever released. But you’ll have no time to catch your breath after that, because Disney wants you back in theaters on July 5th for a Spider-Man: Homecoming sequel, and then back again on July 19th for the live action The Lion King remake — which, if the live action Beauty and the Beast and Jungle Book movies are anything to go by, will likely also be an insanely lucrative hit. Oh wait, I forget Captain Marvel — Marvel’s first female character-led film — which starts things off in March. And if that wasn’t quite enough, the company also has Frozen 2 — you remember Frozen, right? Biggest animated movie of all time? — coming out at the end of November. And that’s not counting a couple of other spots on the calendar that Disney has staked out but has yet to announce a film for.
Last year, I wrote about how Disney’s box office strategy can be exemplified by its success in five brands: Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, Disney Animation Studios, and live-action remakes of its classic films. But if that was true in 2016 with films like Rogue One, Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, Zootopia, and The Jungle Book, 2019 is set to magnify the same strategy by releasing what could be the biggest possible film in each of those brands — most of them within a few weeks. That’s a frightening schedule if you work at a major film studio that isn’t Disney.
Disney isn’t the only one going full-tilt in 2019
And yet Disney isn’t the only one going full-tilt in 2019. It seems that some madness has taken hold of the entire movie-making industry. I encourage you to peruse the full list, because it’s looking more and more like this will be the make-it-or-break-it year for our current cinematic marketplace of franchises and universes. To quickly break it down, here are some of the highlights:
Warner Bros has The Lego Movie Sequel in February, Godzilla: King of the Monsters in March, DC’s Shazam! for April 5th, two still unannounced DC movies on June 14th and November 1st, and a Minecraft movie set for May 24th (which will have to go head-to-head with Star Wars now).
Universal? Fast and Furious 9, which hits on April 19th (just before Disney’s May onslaught), an entry in the Universal Monsters universe that the studio is trying to launch with Tom Cruise’s The Mummy for February 15th, How to Train Your Dragon 3 for March 1st, a Robert Downey Jr.-starring Doctor Dolitte remake for May 24th (again, good luck with Star Wars there), The Secret Life of Pets 2 on July 3rd, and the aforementioned Wicked adaptation in December.
Paramount doesn't have as much on its docket yet, but what it does have — Transformers 6 on June 28th and The SpongeBob Movie 3 — both are major entries in popular franchises as well.
2019 could be a moment for Disney and the entire film industry
Now, obviously, 2019 is still incredibly far away. It’s virtually guaranteed that some — if not many — of these plans will get changed and films will be shifted around or canned entirely. But with what we have so far, it’s looking increasingly like the year is going to be a culmination of a moment, both for Disney specifically with its focus on building its individual properties up, and the entire motion picture industry in general, which seems to be committing full-force to franchises.
What happens when there’s the Fast and Furious, Star Wars, The Avengers, Transformers, DC, a Pixar movie, and Minecraft all vying for audiences at the same time? Can the movie industry sustain this many franchises? And where does major commercial cinema go from here?
I don’t have the answer to most of these questions. But one thing is for certain: the moviegoing world of 2020 will look very different in the aftermath.