“Solo: A Star Wars Story” was the first movie in the canon focusing on the beloved Han Solo. It was first of the rebooted movies to come out in the competitive spring-summer season. And it was the first Star Wars movie since the massive $220 million opening of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” five months ago.
But with only $85 million in domestic box office receipts in the Friday-Sunday period, the newly releasd Disney/Lucasfilm release achieved some less desirable firsts. It was the first of the four contemporary installments to open below $150 million. And it was the first of the seven modern live-action movies, going back to George Lucas’s films of the late 1990s and early 2000s to open that low, period (after adjusting for inflation.)
The Alden Ehrenreich-starring spinoff did not even rate as the highest opening of the month — that honor belongs to “Deadpool 2,” which thwacked “Solo” with $125 million last weekend. Early overseas totals of $65 million weren’t much better, though they could still improve as the movie opens in more markets.
It’s impossible to know whether this is a blip or the beginning of a downward slide for the Star Wars brand. What is clear, according to five interviews with Hollywood executives: Disney needs to ensure it is just a blip. The company, which owns Lucasfilm, relies on Star Wars revenue both to fill its coffers and to gild its shiny Wall Street reputation — global box-office hauls such as the $1.33 billion for “The Last Jedi” has helped keep the company’s stock price over $100 per share for much of the past year.
Disney has a lot riding on the success of the franchise. A slew of movies are already being planned, including a story in the main canon coming in December 2019 from “The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams; an Obi-Wan Kenobi spinoff from “Billy Elliot” director Stephen Daldry; a new set of spinoffs from “Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson; and a Boba Fett spinoff from “Logan” director James Mangold. There’s also a series push, probably one developed by “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau likely to end up on Disney’s new streaming service.
[A Disney spokesman acknowledged that it’s “a little surprising to see it perform here where we might have expected it to come in a little higher.” But he said that with more weekends ahead and billions over the modern films, it’s “much too early to be jumping to fatigue.”]
There are several ways Disney could try to ensure it is just a blip. But that depends of course on what caused the drop and how fundamental these challenges are in the first place. Here are four paths to a potential Star Wars redemption — and why each one is trickier than it might appear.
Tell edgier stories. Part of the issue, according to critics and fan sites, is the lack of risk taken by the film. To shake it up, the franchise needs writers and directors willing to take more story chances. Lucasfilm need look only at its corporate sibling in Marvel, which faced similar concerns until 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which went for a more irreverent tone. That led to a box office windfall and set a new tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Why it’s tricky: “Solo” began its life by taking risks, hiring Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the meta jokesters behind “The Lego Movie” and the “Jump Street” series. But they clashed with Lucasfilm executives, including company chief Kathleen Kennedy, leading to the hiring of old-school Hollywood director Ron Howard. (There’s also the presence here, as there was earlier in the series, of throwback writer Lawrence Kasdan.)
Earlier attempts, such as the hiring of “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow for the coming “Episode IX,” didn’t end well either. (Trevorrow left last year, resulting in a return to Abrams.) This is a franchise with fundamentally conservative roots, and making the shift, within the culture of the company, might be tougher than it appears. Also Star Wars directors need to be able to handle the size and scale of these special-effects films, and not a lot of edgy directors do.
Fewer movies. Five months is not a long time for Star Wars to be away. Certainly it’s not the year that stretched between the previous three movies, or the 10 years between the last of the George Lucas movies and “The Force Awakens” in 2015. With Marvel that seems to help — releases in quick succession enhance one another. But with Star Wars, seen less as the rapid-fire sequel, novelty and absence may be the key to the game. Disney could do better by going back to the 12-month spacing — or even longer.
Why it’s tricky: This sounds good to fans. The problem is it doesn’t sound good to Wall Street or Disney financial executives. Star Wars movies are such juggernauts that Disney wants to cash in whenever it can. Waiting that long doesn’t help in that bid. Disney and Lucasfilm are encountering a major paradox here. Modern Hollywood says when you have successes you should replicate them early and often. But making Star Wars movies early and often may make them less successful.
Avoid the late spring. A related date issue to the one just mentioned: May is just too crowded. Disney certainly saw its numbers eaten into by “Deadpool 2,” whose second weekend of release took in $43 million. More big releases await in the weeks ahead, cutting into its total. Yes, studios like this time of year, when overall moviegoing is high. And they like a holiday weekend — an additional $18 million came in for “Solo” on Memorial Day. But every day around Christmas, when all three of the previous Star Wars movies came out, is a mini-holiday. It could stick to that period.
Why it’s tricky: Avoiding May or June be nice. But there are only so many periods on the calendar. And if Disney wants more than one movie per year (again, see above), it needs to look beyond December. It could, of course, pull a “Black Panther” and go in February. But that puts the releases in even quicker succession.
Avoid spinoffs. Part of the issue with “Solo” is it took on an offshoot of the Star Wars universe: a story of a young Han Solo somewhat disconnected from the main story thread. And not just an offshoot, but one of a beloved character we already saw played by a beloved actor in Harrison Ford. Disney could hew closer to the main story line and just ramp up production of those movies faster, making “new episodes” every year instead of every other year.
Why it’s tricky: Those movies involve a lot of writing and rewriting, and it’s not so easy to go fast. Also, if fatigue kicks in with spinoffs every year, it could really kick in with mainline stories every year. It may be that the “Solo” results are a blip. Or it may be that we just want only so many Star Wars movies — making Disney’s problems bigger and less amenable to Marvel-esque solutions than previously realized.