Star Wars is mostly TV now — and the Disney franchise’s often-fractured fanbase is cool with that

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Ewan McGregor reprises his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the new Disney+ series “Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

ANAHEIM, California – By the time Oscar-winning filmmaker Taika Waititi’s untitled Star Wars film is set to hit theaters in late 2023, it will have been four years since a tale from a galaxy far, far way has been on the big screen — and that’s OK with fans.

“The movies as a whole have been really underwhelming,” said Alex, an assistant administrator at an architectural millwork manufacturer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He did not provide his last name. “Whereas the shows have been phenomenal. Better than the movies themselves, especially the sequel trilogy.”

Alex was among the thousands of die-hard fans who attended the Star Wars Celebration this past weekend in Anaheim. It was the fourteenth incarnation of Celebration, an event that has occurred intermittently since 1999, before Disney bought George Lucas’ space opera franchise. The convention started as a way for fans to gather and celebrate their love for Star Wars, but has grown into a platform for Disney to announce new projects and stir up fervor for upcoming releases.

Star Wars television shows have helped bolster Disney’s fledgling streaming service by drawing in subscribers who are devoted to the franchise, which has rung up $6 billion in global box office receipts. “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” became Disney+’s most-watched premiere globally over the weekend, the company reported Tuesday, proving that fan fervor is strong for this 45-year-old franchise no matter what format it comes in.

Streaming growth is a key part of Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s business plan. He set a goal of 230 million to 260 million subscribers by the end of 2024. As of the end of the fiscal second quarter, Disney said it had nearly 138 million subscribers.

Between Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe series offerings on Disney+ this year, including “Moon Knight” and “Ms. Marvel,” the company is hoping customers have several compelling reasons to remain with the service until the end of the year rather than cut ties and re-up on a month-to-month basis. But while Disney has continued to release multiple Marvel movies a year, it has embraced a streaming-centric model for Star Wars, at least for the time being.

This year at Celebration, Disney touted its upcoming slate of television series, including “Andor” and “Ahsoka,” which are about popular supporting characters from previous stories. The first season of “Andor” will have 12 episodes and will premiere in August. Other live-action projects include the Jude Law-led “Skeleton Crew” and “The Acolyte,” a series set during the final days of the High Republic, roughly 100 years before the events of “Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.”

CNBC spoke with dozens of fans at the convention, and it was clear that they are happy with the direction Disney is taking the franchise. And they’re looking forward to more.

“I think it’s more bang for my buck,” said Corinthia Warner, 26, a delivery driver from Eugene, Oregon. “I get more content, but the same degree of story. Like if it were a movie, it would be condensed down into a two-hour format, but the fact that we get about an hour every week makes for a slower paced and more developed and thorough story that I really like.”

Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano in “The Mandalorian” on Disney+.

Warner was one of many fans at Celebration who gushed about “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” calling it “the perfect segue between the prequels and the original trilogy.” The series, which focuses on the titular Jedi (Ewan McGregor, reprising his role from Lucas’ prequel trilogy) and his mission to protect young Luke Skywalker, will run episodes throughout the month of June.

“It marries the best of the old and the new Star Wars,” Warner said.

Fans have been clamoring for live-action Star Wars television series since creator George Lucas first teased “Star Wars: Underworld” during 2005’s Celebration. Lucas said the show would take place between “Revenge of the Sith” and “A New Hope” but wouldn’t feature main characters from previous films.

Set primarily in the Coruscant Underworld, the show was expected to be action-heavy and focus on everyday people within the Star Wars universe. However, Lucas placed the series on hold in 2010 due to budget constraints, and the project was never fully realized.

Now, nearly a decade later, Disney has shifted its focus from blockbuster films to carefully curated episodic storytelling via its Disney+ streaming service. The transition came in the wake of mixed reviews for 2018’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and 2019’s saga finale “The Rise of Skywalker.”

Star Wars fans have always had divisive opinions about their beloved franchise. New movies, in their view, have been both too tied to past ones and strayed too far. New characters draw a similar amount of adoration and loathing from fans.

However, “The Mandalorian,” which premiered in 2019, is proof that Star Wars can strike a balance between nostalgia and innovation and that the franchise doesn’t need to be in theaters to thrive.

The show, which is slated to release its third season in 2023, harkens back to Star Wars’ roots. It echoes themes and storytelling devices from serialized narratives about Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, heroic sci-fi characters from the first half of the 20th century who inspired Lucas to create the original 1977 film.

It also allowed Disney to introduce live-action versions of beloved characters from animated shows like “The Clone Wars” and “Rebels.”

Disney has also continued telling new stories through animation with shows like “The Bad Batch” and the anthology series “Star Wars: Visions.” Upcoming shows include “Tales of the Jedi” and “Young Jedi Adventures.”

“I think they are amazing,” Francisco, an occupation therapy assistant from Santa Ana, California, who did not provide his last name, said of Disney’s slate of Star Wars TV shows. “So far I’ve loved everything that’s come out. Them taking a step back from the movies to figure all that out, I think that’s a good thing. Now that they’ve got these shows as a model of how to treat Star Wars, I think they can go back to the features and do a better job.”

The Mandalorian and the Child on Disney+’s “The Mandalorian.”

It was a common consensus amongst fans that the break from theatrical releases was a smart move for Disney. Many bemoaned how the sequel trilogy, which includes “The Force Awakens,” “The Last Jedi” and “The Rise of Skywalker,” did not have a singular vision. Instead, the three films were handled by different directors who had very different ideas of how characters and the plot should move forward.

“They retconned everything in the third movie,” Francisco said.

Having seen what a consistent vision from “Mandalorian” showrunners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, who previously oversaw animated Star Wars series, can produce, fans believe the studio will be more careful about how future theatrical releases are handled during preproduction and production.

The film franchise has been incredibly lucrative for Disney since it purchased Lucasfilm from George Lucas in 2012 in a deal worth around $4 billion. The five feature-length films produced by the company have generated nearly $6 billion at the global box office, inspired two theme park lands and an immersive hotel. Not to mention, merchandise sales.

“I feel like television is definitely a better format for people to experience Star Wars,” said Hayden Kirkeide, a 22-year-old who attends the University of California San Diego. But she is still eager to see Waititi’s film.

“I, of course, love the movies.”

Sophie Tremblay

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