The logic of this move is open to debate.
I've read positive commentary on this strategy, and it can basically be summed up as follows: Summer 2017 is crowded, Disney has already proved that Star Wars can work in the winter, a lot of merch will be sold during the holiday season.
Which is beside the point. All of it.
Disney has access to a lot of valuable IP through its entertainment studios. Lucasfilm offers Star Wars and Indiana Jones; Pixar creates cartoons like Toy Story and Cars; Marvel is home to very popular superhero mythologies; and Disney has built up many characters and storylines over its history that can either be animated or executed in a live-action format. All of that sounds great, until the issue of balancing all that product in a calendar year comes up.
It shouldn't be a problem, though. I've written before on the subject of thinking too much about release dates. There comes a point where you just have to go with it and figure out other ways to push a movie into living up to its potential and yielding a maximum amount of profit.
Let's consider summer 2017. According to Box Office Mojo's current release schedule, the month of May will see two big blockbusters - the next Guardians of the Galaxy entry, the next Pirates of the Caribbean adventure. June will see the release of another Cars cartoon. In July, there's the next Spider-Man. That's all the Disney stuff (the next Spider-Man movie will involve Disney). Besides that, there's competition from The Mummy, World War Z 2, Despicable Me 3, etc.
Every summer is highly competitive; there's nothing to be done about it. There's a limit to the value of shuffling release dates. If Disney did in fact move the next Star Wars feature because of a perception of too many of its tentpoles being released in the same summer, then it would show a lack of belief in the power of all those properties, or, at the very least, a lack of curiosity for exploring the data that a Guardians/StarWars/Cars/Pirates summer would generate. I would even go so far to say that the month of May should have been dominated by Disney. Why not Guardians/Star Wars/Pirates, all released in May, one after the other? Consider this: Guardians - May 5, 2017. Pirates - May 12. Star Wars - May 26. What would happen if that schedule was attempted? Would there be a lot of lost sales because of the three big releases in one month? That can happen in the summer anyhow when different studios vie for a particular time period. But could each of these films promote the next one in line; might Disney create a scale of economy in terms of combined marketing resources by selling all films at once? For that matter, is May 5 too close to May 26; why is Disney okay with releasing Guardians on May 5 and Pirates on May 26? This calls to mind the following solution: why not open Pirates or Guardians closer to the spring, maybe in March or April (the latter has the next Fast&Furious feature), and keep Star Wars in May?
A May release vs. a December release for Star Wars isn't a concern so easily dismissed. The Christmas box-office season is busy, but the summer box office is potentially even busier. There are more available consumers generally, and specifically, there are more consumers available in the quadrant that sees movies on opening weekend and attends ones they like multiple times. Perhaps there are politics over at Disney that helped to push Star Wars to December. Is there anything contractually prohibitive about moving, say, Pirates to Christmastime? Did execs over at Marvel push to get Star Wars out of its way? I'm obviously speculating, but such possibilities don't seem so strikingly implausible.
What if my idea of releasing three big movies in one month did go awry? It's always good to have a contingency plan, a hedge that allows the risk to be taken. If I were CEO, here's what I would do: I would put all three films in May, see what happens, and if need be, re-release them again at a near-future date as an experiment to see if the company's brands could adapt to such a strategy. Re-releasing movies is not a new idea. Another thing that could be tried: release the home video of a project that isn't doing the expected business a couple months after it hits theaters. Let's say Pirates is the casualty in my hypothetical Disney-movie shock-and-awe: bring it to digital and Blu-Ray by the end of July.
Here's another issue: if Disney really enjoyed the December release date for the last Star Wars chapter, then it could simply use December 2017 for one of those tales-from-the-saga entries. Imagine Han Solo's movie hitting at that time - it would make sense. Summer and winter would be covered.
Let's return to Guardians to illustrate yet another anti-December argument. You may remember that the movie was released on August 1, 2014. It was a surprise hit, making over $300 million at the domestic box office. I remember thinking after the movie captured everyone's imagination that the sequel should be an earlier summer event, justified by its popularity; a set of characters on its way to becoming a major brand would benefit from a longer summer run. To repeat, as of now, May 5, 2017 is when Guardians makes its debut. Disney thought correctly on Guardians, and the same thinking could have been used for Episode VIII.
On another aspect, those bullish on the date-change allude to the merchandise-revenue opportunity. This past holiday-selling season for Disney and Luke Skywalker/etc. has definitely impressed. However, it's unclear to me why merchandise can't be just as exciting in the summertime (this is Star Wars, after all), and why a new wave of products wouldn't simply take advantage of the following holiday season. Either way, May/December, the merch will move. Everyone knows this, and as I mentioned earlier in the piece, it's a beside-the-point element in the debate.
Disney made a mistake. The sequel to The Force Awakens should be released in summer 2017. CEO Bob Iger should reconsider.
Disclosure: I am/we are long DIS.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.