‘The Mandalorian’: How Disney Learned From Past TV Mistakes and Created an Instant Hit

"The Mandalorian" follows Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe blueprint while avoiding the mistakes of that franchise's TV offerings.
"The Mandalorian" Episode 5
Toro Calican (Jake Cannavale) and the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) in “The Mandalorian.”

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” might have closed out the decades-long Skywalker Saga, but it was the small screen story of a lone bounty hunter and his little green friend that “Star Wars” fans responded to most positively last year.

Disney needed “The Mandalorian” to be a huge hit and drive subscribers to Disney+, and the company appears to have succeeded on most counts. While the platform’s large library of old Pixar, Marvel, “Star Wars”, and Disney films were key to its early success, there’s little doubt that many Disney+ subscribers signed up to watch the first live-action “Star Wars” show. Though Disney said 10 million subscribers had signed up for Disney+ a day after it launched, the company won’t share official updated subscription numbers until its next earnings report in February. Regardless, analysts have been optimistic about the service and a recent Cowen and Co. report said that Disney+ had around 24 million U.S. subscribers by the end of November.

The show’s recent Season 1 finale offered a bombshell surprise and hints about future plot threads that should ensure that longtime “Star Wars” fans will be eager to continue watching “The Mandalorian” — and continue paying for a Disney+ subscription when the series returns. This critical and commercial success offers some clues on how Disney may continue building out its largest franchises on its nascent streaming service in the coming years; the first season of “The Mandalorian” and early reports about its Season 2 suggests that the House of Mouse seems to have learned from some of the mistakes it made with its prior Marvel Cinematic Universe television shows.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe films are unqualified financial successes, but the franchise’s TV offerings have been somewhat mixed. There have been MCU shows on Netflix, Hulu, ABC, and Freeform, and although some of them were critically acclaimed, many were criticized for thin budgets that impeded the superpowered action and their seeming unwillingness to tie-in to the Marvel film world their characters also inhabited.

A September Variety report suggested that Marvel Television, which has since folded into Marvel Studios, lacked access to the franchise’s most notable characters, while IndieWire’s Ben Travers noted that budgetary constraints severely hampered the action in the final season of “Jessica Jones” in his Season 3 review. Aside from the upcoming final season of ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and Hulu’s “Helstrom,” which premieres later this year, all of the older Marvel Cinematic Universe shows, from “Daredevil” and “Runaways” to “Luke Cage” and “Agent Carter,” have concluded or were unceremoniously canceled as Disney continues to consolidate all of the franchise’s TV offerings on Disney+.

Unlike those older MCU shows, “The Mandalorian” didn’t have any budgeting issues: The reportedly $100 million series drew plenty of praise for its explosive action and impressive special effects. And while the show didn’t feature any familiar faces from the “Star Wars” movies, plenty of notable elements, such as the infant member of Yoda’s species, iconic weapons and locations, and the darksaber reveal in the season finale, made it a distinctly “Star Wars” production. (Recent news suggests that Season 2 will feature some characters from the Skywalker Saga, which will be more than enough to get fans to log into Disney+ every week to see if fan favorite characters like Boba Fett make their live-action small screen debut in Season 2.)

Crucially, “The Mandalorian” isn’t just about retaining Disney+ subscribers; it is also critical to maintaining interest in “Star Wars” as the franchise temporarily winds down, and that linkage with the rhythms of the theatrical world is a key learning for the company. There aren’t going to be any new “Star Wars” films for the foreseeable future and it’s possible that franchise fatigue could be setting in, at least on the film side: “The Rise of Skywalker” is currently raking it in at the box office but is nonetheless performing worse than “The Last Jedi” and “The Force Awakens,” while 2018’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” was a box office bomb.

A lull in major cinematic releases could give the franchise time to breathe while “The Mandalorian” and the upcoming untitled Obi-Wan Kenobi television series keep “Star Wars” relevant in pop culture. “The Mandalorian” director Deborah Chow, who helmed two of the season’s best episodes, is set to be the sole director for the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, which should excite “Star Wars” fans of all stripes.

"The Mandalorian"
“The Mandalorian”Disney+

The show also sets up the business side as competition increases, as “The Mandalorian” Season 2 will also drop during a critical period for Disney+. By Fall 2020, WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming services will have hit the scene.  After the MCU film “Black Widow” drops in May and close to when “The Eternals” will drop in November, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “WandaVision” will release on Disney+ in the late 2020 (the latter was recently moved up from its previous 2021 release date).

Disney will need more than those two still-unproven series to compete with the streaming industry’s newcomers and existing heavyweights, and the promise of more “Mandalorian,” be it viral baiting Baby Yoda .gifs and eye-popping shootouts to new cameos and other “Star Wars” tie-ins, means that the Disney+ tentpole is a safer bet to keep the streaming service relevant.

It’s a bet that Wall Street is keen on taking, as CNBC reported Thursday that Disney shares have been on the rise in the new year due to analysts’ optimism regarding the company’s new streaming service. One of those analysts was Rosenblatt Securities’ Bernie McTernan, who noted that the service has enjoyed a steady increase in popularity. “Awareness of the service and penetration of respondents has continued to trend higher throughout our surveys,” McTernan said in a note to clients.

Like the aforementioned Cowen report, McTernan’s note suggested that Disney+’s growth is likely pulling some subscribers away from Netflix. While “The Mandalorian” may not be singularly responsible for the impressive launch reception of Disney+, the series’ critical and commercial success has laid a strong foundation for Disney’s foray into the streaming market that the company will likely build on in the years ahead.

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