Lucasfilm and Disney are facing a moment of reckoning.
Over Memorial Day weekend, they were jolted when Solo: A Star Wars Story battled hard to hit $103 million domestically and bombed overseas with $65 million. The film badly trailed the launch of fellow stand-alone pic Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which debuted to $155 million domestically in 2016 on its way to topping $1.056 billion globally. At its current rate, Solo may not gross much more than $400 million in all after costing at least $250 million to produce before marketing.
Solo's initial performance marks a rare loss for Disney. Moreover, it is forcing the studio to reexamine its strategy for the iconic Star Wars franchise, which Disney took over when it bought Lucasfilm for more than $4 billion in 2012. Most box-office analysts say the main problem is the fact that Solo debuted just five months after Star Wars: The Last Jedi hit the big screen, resulting in a clear-cut case of audience fatigue with the Star Wars extended universe.
While the studio isn't abandoning its plan to release one Star Wars feature per year, insiders concede Disney and Lucasfilm aren't likely to release two Star Wars movies so close together again, regardless of whether they are anthology films, like Solo, which recounts Han Solo's beginnings, or part of the official episodes, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and its follow-up, The Last Jedi. (Some fans complained about Last Jedi, which could have dampened enthusiasm for Solo.)
On top of that, Disney would surely prefer a year-end launching pad going forward, rather than a summer bow. Force Awakens, Rogue One and Last Jedi all opened in mid-December and had no direct competition. Each did blockbuster business and were the biggest films of their respective years (2015, 2016 and 2017).
In contrast, Solo opened only one week after Fox's Deadpool 2 bowed to $125.5 million domestically. Deadpool 2 earned $55 million over the four-day Memorial Day holiday frame — money that might have gone to Solo. The Star Wars stand-alone also unfurled in the wake of fellow Disney/Marvel monster blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War, which has amassed $621.7 million domestically and $1.9 billion worldwide.
"There's a question of frequency, and how many times people will go to the movies. Is this too much and too soon for a third time in a five-week period?" says Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis, suggesting Solo's underwhelming start may have been affected by those two preceding movies.
The exec adds he's hopeful Solo will enjoy a strong run over the next two weekends in North America. Hollywood's next big live-action tentpole, Universal's Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom, doesn't debut until June 22, although more immediately, Disney and Pixar's animated event film Incredibles 2 opens June 15, a week after the female-fronted Ocean's 8.
"Let's measure how we feel about this until more time passes," Hollis says.
Not even Hollis tried to sugarcoat Solo's international performance so far, which includes a paltry $10.1 million launch in China. Foreign box-office grosses often make up 65 percent to 70 percent of a Hollywood tentpole's bottom line. The share for the last three Star Wars films was closer to 50 percent; Solo is looking at a much smaller split.
"We have a lot of work to do in trying to understand this," says Hollis. "We are all over it and will spend a lot of time digging into why things happened the way they did in various markets. We have a year and a half before Episode IX comes out."
That's the silver lining Disney and Lucasfilm are counting on. The J.J. Abrams-directed Episode IX doesn't open in theaters until December 2019, which gives Lucasfilm time to recalibrate before announcing its next moves with the franchise. No other Star Wars pic is set to open before then. And although numerous films are in the works, no Star Wars movies are dated after Episode IX, though December 2020 is an obvious date for the continuation of the series.
Marvel may be able to release several blockbusters in quick order — look no further than last November's Thor: Ragnarok, February's Black Panther and, most recently, Infinity War — but The Force appears to need more breathing room to retain a sense of urgency.
"Until the Star Wars universe is firing on all cylinders like the Marvel universe, I think it would behoove them to ease their foot off the pedal in terms of spinoffs," says box-office analyst Jeff Bock at Exhibitor Relations. "Marvel [likewise owned by Disney] has proven time and time again you can release movies year in and year out, but they are dealing with a cast of all-new characters for the most part, while sprinkling in old favorites here and there. That's a model that would also benefit Star Wars going forward."
Bock also questions whether Solo suffered from a bad release date — or an underlying "content" problem. "If you have an above-quality product, the release date is a secondary concern," says Bock. "I think that's true for any film — it matters more if you're trying to pull a fast one on audiences."
Ron Howard famously took over directing duties midway through production when Christopher Miller and Phil Lord departed Solo over creative differences with Lucasfilm president Katheleen Kennedy and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan.
Solo stars Alden Ehrenreich in the titular role — a part made famous by Harrison Ford — opposite Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo and Paul Bettany. The story follows Han Solo as he teams up with a band of misfits and mercenaries — including Lando Calrissian as well as a young Chewbacca — to stop the villainous Dryden Vos.
"A Star Wars film is always an event, with an enormous spotlight placed upon the opening-weekend performance. Solo, though expected to open to bigger returns, comes a mere five months after the release of The Last Jedi and is part of the 'anthology' films, a different feather than the 'saga' series," says Paul Dergarabedian of comScore. "With Episode IX, the franchise will have plenty of time to build up steam and crowd theaters like its December release brethren that have been among the most successful films of the past five years."
May 28, 8 a.m. Updated with revised weekend estimates.