Disney’s Star Wars Streaming Puzzle

Andor is one of the least-watched Star Wars series so far despite receiving the best reviews of any new Lucasfilm project in years. Photo: Disney+
Julia Alexander
October 25, 2022

Star Wars is at a pivotal juncture in its nearly half-century existence, as Disney pushes the franchise beyond its lucrative but poorly-received sequel film trilogy into a true omni-channel media property fueled by new shows on Disney+. Of course, that’s all easier said than done. Sure, Lucasfilm scored with The Mandalorian, its debut streaming spin-off that drove millions of initial subs when the platform launched in 2019. But the division has struggled to recapture the same level of excitement with subsequent efforts. Andor, the latest addition to the Star Wars live-action TV universe, is one of the least watched series so far, despite receiving the best reviews of any new Lucasfilm project in years. 

This is not surprising, given the more mature setting that isn’t ideal for kids—and, in some ways, it might actually be a positive development for a franchise that’s sometimes too obsessed with its own mythology. Previous Star Wars shows like The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi tie into nostalgic storylines from the previous films. Mandalorian literally pulls in Luke Skywalker by the end of the second season. But Andor, based on the 2016 film Rogue One, is one of Lucasfilm’s first major attempts to expand the I.P. sandbox. The galaxy becomes Lego bricks instead of puzzle pieces. And that comes with some risks.

Disney’s challenge lies in determining how Star Wars can expand beyond its already sizable fanbase—both by bringing in younger consumers without an emotional attachment to the original films, and by hooking audiences that normally wouldn’t care about Star Wars. We’ve seen Marvel embark on this strategy with Ms. Marvel (a quirky teen comedy in the vein of Scott Pilgrim) and She-Hulk (a satirical workplace comedy that literally pokes fun at Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and the Marvel content machine) and Warner Bros. with Batgirl (if it had ever been released). Andor, which was created by Bourne Legacy director Tony Gilroy, is a Star Wars show designed by, and designed for, people who aren’t all that interested in more of the same Star Wars. That might not be what superfans want—but, in the long run, it’s exactly what Disney+ needs. 

The Numbers Story

Before diving in, let’s look at what the data says…

The Bad: Andor debuted with 624 million minutes watched, according to Nielsen. Spread out over three episodes, that’s 208 minutes an episode—less than Boba Fett (381 million minutes per episode), and way less than Obi-Wan (513 million minutes per episode) or the second season of The Mandalorian (about 516 million minutes per episode). Without all three episodes, Andor likely wouldn’t have cracked Nielsen’s Top 10—and even then, it only cracked Top Original Series, not all series. Andor also has far less global demand than any of the other Star Wars series, according to Parrot Analytics, where I work as director of strategy. While Andor has 50x the average demand of all series globally, Boba Fett had 77.6x, Obi-Wan had 68.7x, and Mandalorian had 85x at this point in their respective seasons. 

The Good: Andor has the highest Rotten Tomatoes critics score of them all at 95 percent, with a solid audience score of 83 percent. Boba Fett had a split of 66 percent and 55 percent; Obi-Wan had a split of 82 percent and 64 percent; Mandalorian had a split of 93 percent and 92 percent. Andor is a full ranking higher than Obi-Wan on IMDB (8.1 vs 7.1). Interest in the series has also remained relatively consistent globally over the first six episodes, according to Google Trends. It’s trending in the right direction, and Parrot data shows consistent demand across each new episode, even with very little growth. 

Disney, of course, would like to see Andor reach Mandalorian levels. TV, after all, is a hits business. Disney would also like to sell merchandise, license characters, and base immersive experiences on Andor as it has with Mandalorian. And, frankly, Disney wants people to fall in love with Andor the way they did Mandalorian, because love for Baby Yoda is monetizable for years. But as Disney is thinking about how to continue scaling Disney+ subscribers using its core brands, Andor is representative of a novel use of I.P. that could bring new people in, both to the service and the franchise. 

Separately, there is internal pressure for the next Star Wars movie to be a critical and box office hit, as my colleague Matt Belloni reported a few days ago. Box office returns for The Rise of Skywalker were less than The Last Jedi, and box office returns for The Last Jedi were less than The Force Awakens. Don’t even bring up Solo, which lost close to $80 million on $393 grossed globally. That’s not John Carter-level bad for Disney, but it’s not great for a Star Wars movie. So much flailing on the big screen has made for nervous strategic planning. 

Disney’s streaming effort, meanwhile, should broaden and reinvent the genre, as it did with its 2003 and 2008 versions of The Clone Wars animated series, which reached an entirely new generation by embracing animation. (A live-action Disney+ show featuring Ahsoka Tano, who appeared in the 2008 spin-off film and sequel series, is currently in production.) In 2021, Star Wars Visions used anime to try to refresh the format again, attracting the youngest generation yet of new fans. According to audience demographic information collected by Parrot, nearly 40 percent of the audience was Gen Z, whereas Mandalorian skewed much older (Millennial and Gen X). As one former Disney and Lucasfilm executive told me, “Disney+ should be where they experiment with broadening and refreshing the I.P., because when something works they can then take it to the big screen. You also pre-build an audience of fans to show up in cinemas, reducing the theatrical risk somewhat.”

The Franchise Development Philosophy

There are six core guidelines I offer clients who ask for guidance regarding franchise I.P. development. One of those is creative reimagination for each new generation, which often includes: 1) a fresh look that feels modern, 2) new captivating lore, 3) removing what has not worked and, most importantly, 4) looking forward to the next decade instead of focusing on the present. This is crucial to every part of the franchise chain, but especially so on Disney+, where a consistent stream of Star Wars shows has cheapened the perceived value of the brand. Reinvention is key to increasing brand value perception and, therefore, Disney+’s value perception as a whole. 

Disney+ is continuing to grow internationally, and will continue to do so as it continues to roll out into new territories. Domestically, however, growth has slowed. The company only added 100,000 subscribers in its third quarter. Price increases in the fourth quarter may affect churn rates in Disney’s strongest revenue markets. Part of sustaining growth is increasing perceived value for current subscribers and adding content that appeals to non-hardcore fans. And Andor was specifically designed to appeal to non-Star Wars fans, according to Gilroy. Disney+, after all, already has the Star Wars nerds in its pocket. Now it needs to create valuable, substantial storytelling inside and outside of its core franchises that appeals to adults and children alike all year round. Andor appeals to both Star Wars fans and the “prestige” crowd who weren’t interested in Boba Fett or Baby Yoda. 

Disney+ represents a new creative strategy, according to Lucasfilm executive James Waugh, who noted in an interview ahead of Visions last year that streaming has “changed the way we’re viewing a lot of what’s possible with Star Wars.” This led to a lot of firsts, some more successful than others, but as Gilroy told Variety ahead of Andor’s release, “Why not use the Star Wars canon as a host organism for absolutely realistic, passionate, dramatic storytelling?” The former Disney executive I spoke to agreed, noting, “They may not have gotten the viewership they wanted, but they chose this series to be the one to try something different,” adding that his worry is “this may make them take less risks, and give us more of the same old stuff.”

Shock and Awe

In the ’70s and ’80s, around the heyday of Marvel Comics, and at the time of a strong speculator market, executive-level decisions were made to double down on what seemed to work. Fresh characters were introduced through a rapid succession of new books, designed to interweave with one another and sell more comics. Effort was placed on going to market, often and consistently, instead of focusing on storytelling. Eventually, the price of comics became too high for many fans, spending decreased, the speculator market fell, and Marvel Comics went bankrupt in the mid-’90s. Consumers didn’t want more; they wanted awe through proper world building

The last time Lucasfilm backtracked on trying to do something new, it went from the fresh ideas of The Last Jedi to a retread in The Rise of Skywalker, which became the worst reviewed and lowest grossing in the trilogy. Nervousness led to decisions that focused on perceived stability, not expanding the franchise through creative reimagination. The result was serious questions about what the Star Wars film franchise is, and where it’s headed. Disney+, however, has the unique advantage of being able to do more, for less, and to experiment in a way that the Star Wars film division can’t, or won’t do as frequently. So while Andor is the least watched live-action Star Wars series on Disney+, it’s also Lucasfilm’s most important streaming bet yet.