Star Wars will return in live-action to the small screen this fall for the first time since since the 1985 TV movie Ewoks: The Battle for Endor with The Mandalorian, part of the first wave of original programming for the new Disney+ streaming service. Set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and the fall of the Galactic Empire, the series from Jon Favreau introduces a new character -- a lone gunfighter who wants to stay beyond the grasp of the New Republic -- and brings with it a budget befitting an expansion of the blockbuster space opera.
Citing "people familiar with the matter," The Wall Street Journal reports production costs for the first season will run $15 million an episode. That's an increase from the $10 million widely reported last year.
That places the cost of a full, 10-episode season well into the range of current blockbuster film budgets, on par with Marvel's Thor and Warner Bros.' Wonder Woman. Adjusting for inflation, 1977's Star Wars cost about $48 million in today's dollars, equivalent to a little more than three episodes of The Mandalorian.
A live-action Star Wars TV series done properly would be an pricey proposition at any point in television history. Before its acquisition in 2012 by Disney, Lucasfilm produced 50 scripts for the proposed Star Wars: Underworld. However, the series was ultimately deemed too expensive. Now, in the streaming era, Disney has determined The Mandalorian is worth the price, which isn't that much higher than what's increasingly viewed as the new normal.
For instance, the finale season of HBO's Game of Thrones cost a reported $15 million an episode. Such high budgets required a steady build-up. After the $10 million pilot, traditionally a pricier proposition, early seasons of the hit fantasy drama were typically budgeted at $6 million an episode, at the time the high end for HBO's programming. Season 2's acclaimed "Blackwater" required an additional $2 million. By Season 6, Game of Thrones was averaging about $10 million per episode.
Such gradual increases, based on growing ratings, is how shows in the pre-Netflix era would end up with such large budgets. The Big Bang Theory went up to $9 million an episode, Friends to $10 million, and E.R. to $13 million. Networks were willing to accept hefty raises for their stars because these shows had already proved themselves. HBO's Rome was an outlier, starting at $9 million an episode in its first season; it was simply too expensive to last beyond Season 2.
Today, more series are granted sizable budgets right out the gate. Apple TV+ is taking the biggest risk, granting a new property a budget comparable to The Mandalorian and Game of Thrones Season 8. Starring Jason Momoa and Alfre Woodard, See is an original science fiction series set in a future where blindness is the norm, and the reemergence of sight is shaking the foundations of society. Apple is betting a stunning production value will attract subscribers in the increasingly crowded streaming market.
Sometimes pumping big bucks into a new show's first season works. HBO was able to sell Westworld as a potential "next Game of Thrones," in part because it was already spending Game of Thrones-level money on the production, at an estimated $10 million an episode. Netflix's hit historical drama The Crown was originally estimated to cost $13 million an episode, although it seems those numbers are closer to $10 million. Just one season of Amazon's Jack Ryan ($8 million an episode) has streamed thus far, but it's done well enough that the company has ordered two more.
Of course, massive budgets don't always guarantee success. Netflix's The Get Down went significantly over-budget, with $11 million an episode in production costs, plus an additional $5 million per episode in rights, lasted just one season. Marco Polo and Sense8 each cost Netflix about $9 million per episode and didn't prove popular enough to renew past two seasons (although Sense8's cult popularity earned it a finale movie).
Starz tried to trim American Gods' Season 2 budget from $8 million an episode in the premiere season, only for reshoots and production troubles to push the cost up to $10 million. The fantasy series is hanging on for a third season, but how much longer it can last is uncertain.
Despite the risks, high-end TV and streaming spending isn't going to decrease in the near future. The competitive streaming market runs on companies trying to outspend the competition on content, so budgets will keep increasing. Disney+'s Marvel miniseries are reported to cost about $100 million per series. If each runs around eight episodes, that's $12.5 million per episode. It's only a matter of time before one of the streaming giants spends $20 million an episode on some major series -- Amazon's The Lord of the Rings seems the most likely candidate for that milestone.
Created by Jon Favreau, The Mandalorian stars Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano, Carl Weathers, Giancarlo Esposito, Emily Swallow, Omid Abtahi, Werner Herzog and Nick Nolte. The series debuts Nov. 12 on Disney+.