For movie theaters, this Memorial Day weekend has been a good turnaround, but for Lucasfilm and “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” it’s a time for some serious reflection.
Even though it is the first Memorial Day weekend release in four years to open to over $100 million over four days, “Solo” has a three-day start that is a staggering 47 percent down from its fellow “Star Wars” anthology film, “Rogue One,” and down 27 percent from the last “Star Wars” film to open in May, 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith.”
Compounding the problem is the fact that the major reshoots ordered for the film sent the budget spiraling to over $250 million. The global weekend total for “Solo” didn’t even hit that figure, as overseas receipts only amounted to a measly $65 million, giving the film a worldwide haul of just $143 million.
With that sort of start, “Solo” is in danger of even failing to hit the $700 million range made by solo-superhero Marvel movies like “Doctor Strange” and might struggle to make any sort of sizable profit given its exorbitant price tag.
Here are some of the sources of trouble:
1. Months of bad publicity
The struggle for “Solo” truly began when Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired five months after production began. From there, reports surfaced that the improvisational style of the two “Lego Movie” filmmakers clashed with the stick-to-the-script philosophy of longtime “Star Wars” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy.
In their place came Ron Howard, a hire that was seen by some fans as a safe choice by the studio to ensure the project would be completed without further creative conflicts.
“‘Star Wars’ has a pedigree to it, and a fan base that really watches all this behind-the-scenes stuff closely,” said Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock. “It became clear to a lot of fans months before ‘Solo’ came out that there were problems at the story level, and it put a big question mark over whether this film was really going to be worth watching.”
2. Alden Ehrenreich
The production problems that hit the press weren’t just on the story level. There were also reports that Ehrenreich, the young star of the Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” was struggling to fill Harrison Ford’s big shoes as the legendary smuggler.
So much, in fact, that Kennedy asked Lord and Miller to bring in an acting coach to help Ehrenreich, something that doesn’t commonly happen midway through production.
“Star Wars” fans aren’t entirely averse to the idea of a new actor taking up a role made famous by a previous one. Look on any “Star Wars” or movie message board and you will find fans interested in seeing Ewan McGregor return to play Obi-Wan in an anthology film after he took over for Alec Guinness as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the prequel trilogy.
But though some movie critics have praised Ehrenreich’s performance in the finished product, the news reports of his struggle to find the swagger that Ford so easily reached may have irreversibly soured some “Star Wars” fans on the prospect of going to movie theaters to see him play a young Han.
3. Lukewarm reviews and word of mouth
After “Solo” got good reception from its premiere screenings in Hollywood and Cannes and solid (but not spectacular) reviews from critics, it seemed as if the film might be able to overcome the long slew of news reports about its troubled production.
And first-night audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a solid A- grade to complement its 71 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, but the box office fell below projections as the weekend progressed, a sign of weak word of mouth.
After making $35.6 million on Friday, Saturday returns fell 31 percent to $24.6 million. As the weekend progressed, the four-day projections dropped from the pre-release figure of $130 million to $115 million on Saturday and then $100 million on Sunday. Bock believes that the pre-release publicity dampered the desire for “Star Wars” fans to turn out in force.
“With all the behind-the-scenes chaos, ‘pretty good’ probably just wasn’t going to cut it,” he said. “It’s not like the reception coming out of ‘The Force Awakens,’ when it was being acclaimed as a return to form for ‘Star Wars.'”
4. The short shadow of “The Last Jedi”
“Solo” was released just five months after “The Last Jedi,” the eighth installment in the franchise’s main saga. The biggest lesson Disney may have learned from this is that they just can’t release “Star Wars” films in such a short time span.
“It should also be noted that while the film came out in December, some moviegoers have seen it more recently than that,” noted comScore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “Some casual audiences didn’t see ‘Last Jedi’ until January, so having another ‘Star Wars’ come out less than half a year later may have left them feeling like they really didn’t need to see another one of these movies right when it came out.”
But one might ask: What about Marvel Studios, which has been releasing its films sometimes within three months of each other?
The key difference is that Marvel films are not the same as “Star Wars” films. While they are superhero movies, the more recent Marvel Cinematic Universe entries have varied in tone, style, and character, thanks in large part to studio head Kevin Feige’s initiative to hire directors with their own signature voice.
“Thor: Ragnarok,” for example, was very different from “Black Panther” — and both those films were very different from “Avengers: Infinity War.” That variety in tone, even as an overarching story is being built, gives audiences something different to look forward to every three months or so.
But “Star Wars,” by its nature, doesn’t have that variety, at least not yet. There’s a uniform aesthetic to the franchise, with its starships, lightsabers, and soundtracks composed or inspired by John Williams.
“The Last Jedi” showed the beginnings of Lucasfilm tinkering with that formula, but long-term, the studio may need to really examine what they offer to fans with “Star Wars” and when they give it to them. Disney has time to figure out a strategy going forward since its next “Star Wars” film, “Episode IX,” is due in December 2019. And while a slew of other projects have been announced — such as James Mangold directing a Boba Fett spinoff — none of them have been officially added to Disney’s release schedule.
“We’re always learning from audience reception,” Disney distribution head Dave Hollis told TheWrap. “We’re going to be digging through this over the weeks and months and seeing whether adjustments need to be made.”
5. Competing for the same fans as Marvel
One of those adjustments Disney might make is to give as much breathing room between the “Star Wars” franchise and Marvel films — and possibly superhero films in general. This Memorial Day weekend, “Solo” went up against the second weekend of Fox’s “Deadpool 2” and the fifth weekend of “Infinity War,” two films that, while not as fresh in theaters, still target the exact same Comic-Con audience that often has interest in both superhero films and space adventures.
Compare this to 2013, when the box office set a Memorial Day weekend record. The new films on offer that weekend were “Fast & Furious 6,” “The Hangover Part III,” and the animated film “Epic.” That’s a much more varied menu of films than what’s on offer this weekend, even if this year’s films come from major franchises.
And beyond just serving as alternatives to “Star Wars,” “Deadpool 2” and “Infinity War” were much bigger hits with both critics and core audiences when they opened. The presence of two major blockbusters that were marked with extremely giddy anticipation and paid off their hype could very well have made the bumpy run-up and less enthusiastic reception to “Solo” all the more glaring.
It’s still way too early to determine if “Star Wars,” the godfather of franchise filmmaking, will fall victim to the dreaded “franchise fatigue” that has plagued the likes of “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” in recent years.
And given that Lucasfilm produced three consecutive $1 billion-plus hits in as many years, one misfire isn’t going to necessarily be the end of the world. But neither can this poor performance be completely written off, and only time will tell to see whether Lucasfilm can avoid similar production and box office chaos in the future.