“Solo: A Star Wars Story” opens as the sole new wide studio release Memorial Day weekend, a rare occurrence. (The last time was 2008, when “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” debuted.) That wide berth indicates the presumed dominance of the “Star Wars” franchise, a respect that wasn’t granted to its last three titles. And yet for all that deference, “Solo” is tracking at $115 million to $140 million for the three-day weekend. By comparison, the first “Star Wars” spinoff title, “Rogue One,” opened to $161.6 million adjusted in 2016 — and without the benefit of a holiday weekend.
Pre-opening estimates aren’t an exact science, of course; just last weekend, “Deadpool 2” anticipated an opening between $130 million and $150 million. Its $125 million domestic start hinted at a small shortfall after two massive Marvel hits (and a 12 percent drop in total tickets sold from the 2016 original). So will “Solo” follow suit? (As always, all numbers are adjusted to 2018 ticket prices.)
Memorial Day weekend used to represent the start of summer movies. That changed in 2008, when Marvel dominated the first weekend of May with “Iron Man,” and they’ve owned the weekend — and the unofficial launch of summer — ever since. That expanded definition of summer allows more room for more major releases, but it’s deprecated the value of the Memorial Day slot. (Also: International box office trumps domestic, and there’s no analog late-May holiday in the rest of the world.)
The adjusted best numbers for the Memorial Day weekend are “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (2007, $186.1 million), “Lost World: Jurassic Park” (1997, $180 million), and “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006, $171.8 million). It’s been five years since the holiday even provided a $125 million four-day total.
“Solo,” with Alden Ehrenreich as the younger version of Harrison Ford’s iconic character and co-starring “Atlanta” star Donald Glover, is a “Star Wars” standalone that takes the origin-story approach utilized in the Marvel Comic Universe, George Lucas’ second trio of “Star Wars” stories, and even in the backstory of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II.”
“Star Wars” openings are usually record breakers of one stripe or another. With the 1983 release of “Return of the Jedi,” it opened to a then-record $67 million adjusted (just over 1,000 theaters, far fewer multiple screens than current practice.) “The Phantom Menace” in 1999 was second best, in part because Fox wanted long runs and discouraged multiple screens in their deals. “Attack of the Clones” in 2002 had the fourth-best opening weekend at the time; “Revenge of the Sith” in 2005 was third best.
The first “Star Wars” title under Disney, “The Force Awakens” in 2015, became the best opening ever (a record which, adjusted, it still holds). “The Last Jedi” was fourth best. Only “Rogue One,” the first title outside the core canon, fell a bit short: When released, it was #18 on the all-time list.
However, except for “Attack of the Clones,” every “Star Wars” film has been the biggest hit released in its year, including “Rogue One.” That’s a dominant performance likely to be never matched. (By contrast, Marvel films were best of their years only three times prior to 2018.)
Still, let’s go with the high-end estimate of $140 million for three days. That would place it #39 all time, between the first “Deadpool” and “The Matrix Reloaded.” That’s strong, but it will only make “Star Wars history” by having the opening weekend that doesn’t make box-office history.
With an opening that falls between $115 million and $135 million, “Solo” would be the third- or fourth-best of 2018 to date; just over midway in those numbers would put it ahead of “Deadpool 2.” “Rogue One” stands as the #22 opening of all time; at $135 million, “Solo” would place #42. At $115 million, #60. Perfectly decent. Just not anywhere near the franchise’s usual level.
Before anyone concludes that this would mean the “Star Wars” series has peaked, a number of things to consider:
— Although “Solo” has the weekend to itself as a new title, it comes with “Deadpool 2” in its second weekend, and “Avengers: Infinity War” still strong. That’s big competition.
— With $1.5 billion in 2018 domestic Marvel business to date, we could be reaching a level of saturation where people don’t feel a pressing need to see another event film. That was also suggested by “Deadpool 2” and its lower-than-expected opening weekend.
— “Solo” is the fourth “Star Wars” film in less than two and a half years, and the second in under six months. Though Marvel (and D.C. Comics) titles are more frequent, they have a wider ranger of characters and plots. Theoretically, it’s possible Disney could oversaturate the market.
— Because of its Cannes showing last week (aimed at international publicity), word on the film has gotten out much earlier. Reviews went public more than two weeks before the film opened, and the consensus response stands at barely favorable (63 score on Metacritic). The level of last-minute mystery has been reduced, along with the overall excitement.
— “Solo” comes with controversy after original director Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were dumped mid-shooting and replaced by veteran Ron Howard. The final result is what matters, but an event like that can make an audience take a wait-and-see attitude.
After this weekend, expect Marvel to retain its crown as the biggest film universe.