I honestly can’t remember the last time a movie has been #1 at the box office for two weeks running and all the talk swirling around it is has been what an absolute disaster it is.
But such is the case with Solo: A Star Wars Story and, objectively speaking, the hot take is a fair one. A film with a $250 million budget (and well over $300 million after advertising) that comes from one of the premiere brands in all of popular culture has to do better than that, particularly when all other Star Wars films have performed at blockbuster levels.
Sure, Solo‘s my second favorite of the Disney Lucasfilm era, but you can’t deny these numbers which are abysmal by Star Wars standards (it gets worse if you adjust for inflation, which really speaks to how paltry the Solo tickets sales have actually been).
In its 10 days of release, Solo‘s haul of just under $150 million may have been good enough to top all other current releases (if only barely), but that 10-day total is less than the 3-day receipts of all previous Disney Star Wars releases – The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and Rogue One – and by significant margins with the two proper “episode” giants.
Many analysts have recycled the conventional theories as to why: Solo was released too soon after The Last Jedi (a five month gap), overall Star Wars fatigue, a troubled production history that saw a director switch and a nearly-doubled schedule and budget, it coasted on too-safe fan service, no one can replace Harrison Ford, and on and on it goes.
While there’s undoubtedly some truth to those factors (although I’d nitpick a few as over-generalizations, too), I honestly don’t buy them as the primary explanations for such a dramatic underperformance.
More curious still is that Solo is actually a very entertaining movie with intrigue, myth building, and a few surprises, with an audience score of A- which means the word-of-mouth has been, at worst, good.
So here are three additional – and I believe primary – reasons for Solo being the first box office dud of the Star Wars saga.
1. Blockbuster Fatigue, Not Star Wars Fatigue
We’re starting to see the limits of what a glut of tentpoles can reap.
Once you get outside the still foolproof Marvel Cinematic Universe, a successful launch for any other franchise is going to need some considerable distance to open well. Solo opened after not one but two Marvel juggernauts (Avengers and Deadpool) had been dominating for the three previous weeks. People’s blockbuster thirsts had just been quenched two times over, so they simply weren’t compelled to rush out to a third that wasn’t continuing an interconnected serialized narrative.
Add to that the gangbusters attendance for Black Panther over February, March, and even into April where only one other film (A Quiet Place) was able to break out while many others fell by the wayside (Ready Player One, A Wrinkle In Time, Pacific Rim: Uprising to name just a few). Solo opened at a time when moviegoers were stuffed, with some perhaps still recovering from a full-on tentpole hangover.
Another sign that Blockbuster Fatigue extends beyond Star Wars: the upcoming Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is tracking at a $140 million opening weekend, significantly lower than Jurassic World‘s $209 million debut in 2015. Granted, Fallen Kingdom isn’t spiked by the pent-up nostalgia that fueled Jurassic World as it skyrocketed past even the highest expectations, but a projected $70 million dollar deficit for the sequel is shockingly steep. And if it tracks like Solo, it may not even reach that.
2. Memorial Day Weekend Is A Shadow Of Its Former Self
The first big vacation weekend of the summer also used to be the big summer movie kickoff. Anything prior to Memorial Day weekend was still a spring movie, not a summer event. Not anymore.
A shift started to evolve in 1999 and 2000 when, respectively, The Mummy and Gladiator had huge openings over the first weekend of May that surprised analysts, but the trend didn’t stick until the Marvel Cinematic Universe solidified that frame as the marker to launch their biggest title each year.
Since that time, we’ve seen a small but steady erosion of the grosses that Memorial Day weekend used to yield as it has been demoted to the third big weekend of the summer rather than the first. In fact, Solo‘s $103 million opening was the first Memorial anchor in four years to cross $100 million. The holiday record set by Pirates of The Caribbean: At World’s End of $140 million still holds after 11 years (aka the year before Iron Man and the MCU revolution).
All that to say: studios and analysts need to stop looking at Memorial Day as a “big” launch weekend. It’s an antiquated notion by ten years at least, if not twenty.
3. The Last Jedi Boycott Is Real
Until recently, I thought the #BoycottStarWars movement was fringe and would have a negligible, insignificant effect. I now firmly believe that the tanking of Solo proves my assumption to be wrong. The boycott is real, it’s significant, and we’re seeing it in real time.
The hashtag protest has been around intermittently since The Force Awakens but, as Disney’s first three Star Wars successes have shown, it hasn’t made a dent. Until now.
Actually, until about this past January. After writer/director Rian Johnson subverted the innate heroism of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi along with the whole “Chosen One” mythos established across seven previous episodes, a backlash emerged in social media that divided the fan base unlike anything it had seen before. These so-called haters then dug in and doubled-down when they perceived – rightly or wrongly – that Lucasfilm reps from President Kathleen Kennedy on down dismissed the Last Jedi detractors as misogynist, racist, and sexist.
No doubt there were trolls that fit that description, but those who were simply as outraged as Mark Hamill was about what they felt was a betrayal of long-established Star Wars lore felt doubly-dissed when they took some comments by Lucasfilm officials as grouping them en masse with the bigots.
This reality became abundantly clear to me this past weekend when a I posted an unassuming tweet about the documentary The Director and the Jedi that’s on the Last Jedi home video bonus disc. Like moths to a flame, the #BoycottStarWars contingency flocked to post comment after comment about their grievances, with many confirming that they indeed are boycotting Solo even despite reports that it’s the kind of fan-affirming mythos-embracing entry they desire. Some are boycotting Solo despite really wanting to see it; that’s how strongly they feel. They want Lucasfilm to hear their voice.
As anecdotal as my tweet thread may be, I believe it speaks to a much larger union that is making an impact.
So Where Does Star Wars Go From Here?
Oddly enough, it stays right on course – with Episode IX at least. The good news is that the next release works as a response to the conventional wisdom I mentioned earlier. There’ll be a gaping 18-month chasm before Episode IX opens in December of 2019, and it’ll be another episode of the Skywalker storyline to boot; indeed, it’ll be the closing chapter of that nine episode saga, written and directed by J.J. Abrams who steered The Force Awakens to the biggest domestic box office success of all time (Star Wars or otherwise). Lucasfilm couldn’t have planned for a better re-set from the past six divisive months.
Beyond that, though, it’s anybody’s guess. Two brand-new trilogies have already been greenlit — one from Rian Johnson, the other from Game of Thrones producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — plus Logan director James Mangold has been hired to spearhead a Boba Fett stand alone. There’s even development of an Obi-Wan series in the Tatooine seclusion timeline starring Ewan McGregor and directed by Oscar nominee Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours), plus rumors of a Lando stand alone with Donald Glover have circulated.
But right now, with the exception of Episode IX, I’d wager that all bets are off. Lucasfilm is likely going through a serious evaluation of everything on its Star Wars slate, perhaps even as we speak, from the concepts to their collaborators. Don’t be surprised by anything that may come of it.
So what does that leave for Solo fans (like me) who would love to see more stories expand upon the rich material that this origin story set up? You may want to answer with Han’s classic quote “Don’t tell me the odds” because, quite honestly, they’re pretty bleak. It’s hard seeing Solo fans getting what we want.
The only possible avenue would be if Lucasfilm felt there was a financially viable path for a sequel based on a limited production budget (no more than $100 million, possibly less) that could recoup itself on a well-positioned opening weekend, with a surprising director hire to boost interest (maybe even George Lucas himself?!), and a promised return of Jabba the Hutt, Lando, maybe Boba Fett, and a bigger Imperial presence, perhaps a Vader cameo and/or Force-sensitive rogue Jedis. (I’d also take a separate Enfyns Nest movie. Do it at a low risk $70 to $80 mill budget, spring or fall release. That should be an easy greenlight.)
But honestly, if they’re really smart, Lucasfilm will fast-track a teen Leia stand alone starring Stranger Things breakout Millie Bobby Brown. The meme for that movie has been circulating with increasing speed over social media. Given Brown’s age and starkly similar appearance to a young Carrie Fisher (almost twin-like), I can’t imagine anything better than hiring a female writer-director right now to get this thing made and released by next summer. It’s the ultimate no-brainer.
If Kathleen Kennedy does that, I think the so-called “haters” will feel like their collective voice is finally being heard. In the process, they could also prove once and for all that the majority of them aren’t opposed to female protagonists.
That’s the best hope for balance anytime soon.