Memorial Day is no longer the official start of the blockbuster summer season, and no one learned that lesson harder than last weekend’s disappointing opener “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” While even low-balled estimates of its opening weekend box office take eyed something in the $105 million to $115 million range, the Ron Howard-directed film ended the weekend with just $103 million in domestic returns. For a film that is estimated to have cost about $400 million — including its original budget, weeks of reshoots, and a major marketing budget — that’s a poor start, but for the billion-dollar cash cow that is the “Star Wars” franchise, it’s something else: a rarity.
So what went wrong — and what can the studio do to fix it?
Since relaunching the franchise in 2015 with the release of “The Force Awakens,” kicking off a whole new trilogy and expanding the already-vast universe that George Lucas first created back in 1977 with the release of “A New Hope,” Lucasfilm and Disney have added a lot to Star Wars canon. Beyond the new trilogy (now with one more film to go), there’s also a newly-announced television series, a mysterious new series of films from “The Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson, in addition to more books and comic books. (For a complete breakdown, go here.)
Before all that, though, there were the rumored standalone films — or, in early parlance, the “anthology” movies — that aimed to spin off beloved stories and characters into new territory. While the first buzz on the standalone stories was all about prequels, from a Yoda story to a Obi-Wan Kenobi feature, Lucasfilm went in an unexpected direction with the first one: “Rogue One,” which dramatized the heist of the Death Star plans, an often hinted-at subplot that helped put into place everything that happened during “A New Hope” and beyond.
Then came “Solo,” featuring a brand-new star (Alden Ehrenreich) stepping in for Harrison Ford, to explore Han Solo’s early days. It seemed like a safe bet — a story about arguably the series’ most beloved star and a prequel that could introduce some fan favorite elements in new style. But it didn’t pan out, both in terms of box office returns and critical response (70% on Rotten Tomatoes, the lowest of the new films). With persistent rumors of still more standalone films in the works, including a Boba Fett film from James Mangold, it might be time to reconsider not only how these standalone films are rolled out, but how they’re shaped from the start. Here are some ideas.
Don’t Crowd the Release Calendar
“Solo” opened just six months after “The Last Jedi,” the closest two “Star Wars” films have ever opened in the four-decade history of the franchise. The term “Star Wars fatigue” has been thrown around plenty when it comes to parsing the new film’s low box office returns, and while that might be jumping the gun a bit, it suggests a new challenge for this franchise. While the blockbuster world has changed immeasurably over the past decade — thank the massive success of the MCU for that, which will turn out a staggering three films this year alone — the crammed calendar strategy hasn’t worked for every series, even one as beloved as “Star Wars.”
In its most recent incarnation, “Star Wars” was churning out a movie a year, alternating between trilogy films and standalones, and “Solo” marked the first jump into a much beefier (and more frequent) release strategy. For a first go, it’s not looking so great. But don’t blame the proximity to “The Last Jedi” alone, because the box office as a whole is jam-packed with exciting, must-see franchise films that created direct competition.
Back in 1977, when “A New Hope” made its own debut over Memorial Day weekend, the summer holiday was the first big proving ground for that season’s blockbusters. These days, the summer season is already in full swing, and “Solo” was opening on the heels of other movies that had already staked their claim for supremacy, from “Avengers: Infinity War” to “Deadpool 2,” and even strong hangers-on like “A Quiet Place” and “Black Panther.”
Get back to those December release dates, and pace those films out. It’s the first quick fix. (Of note: the next “Star Wars” film on the calendar is set for December of next year; finally, some breathing room.)
Expand the Universe
For all the talk about tapping into the rich “Star Wars” universe, the newest films have remained insular. While “Rogue One” offered up a mostly new cast, it was telling a classic story that’s been in the franchise ether for decades. “Solo” took that one step further, taking a mess of known characters and injecting them into another piece of lore (Han’s Kessel Run).
It’s not that “Star Wars” as a whole is averse to moving beyond long-standing characters and their untold stories — animated series like “The Clone Wars” and “Star Wars Rebels” have used new characters in fresh settings to expand out the mythos — but the franchise has so far eschewed that kind of storytelling in its live-action films. That needs to change.
Pay Attention to the Stories Fans Want to See
And yet, there are still characters and stories that fans are eager to see dramatized on the big screen, including standalone stories about some of the biggest names in “Star Wars,” from Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi. After Donald Glover’s captivating performance as young Lando Calrissian in “Solo,” some sort of prequel about the lovable rogue also seems like a good idea (especially with a proven performer attached).
Similarly, a Leia prequel is a no-brainer — and, considering the success of the last three female-led “Star Wars” films, good box office sense — because it’s always been clear that the princess-turned-general did a whole lot of living (and spying!) before meeting up with Han and Luke. The one roadblock: casting someone to fill the late Carrie Fisher’s very big shoes.
An Obi-Wan movie doesn’t have to worry about such constraints, as Ewan McGregor, who played the Jedi in the prequels, has made it clear over the years that he’d be willing to return to the character. That’s certainly much more interesting than a Boba Fett prequel, which would hinge on caring about a character we never actually see and who never speaks a word.
Not Every Story Needs a Prequel
The default for any story shouldn’t be “prequel!” Turns out, if you build and craft a character thrilling enough to earn an early-years-throwback, you’ve likely already made a character who stands out and stands alone just fine. While “Solo” delves into some of the more entertaining aspects of Han’s early years, including introductions to Lando and Chewie, that vaunted Kessel Run, and even his acquisition of the Millennium Falcon, none of that feels required. It’s just icing on top of a story fans already know in broad strokes.
And if you are going to go the prequel route, there’s a fine line between fan service and fan silliness. No one needs to know how or where Han got his dice. The origin of his surname? Also unnecessary. The tiny details that round out a character are not the kind of thing an entire film needs to succeed, and tend to come across with a kind of wink-wink, nudge-nudge goofiness.
No More Director Drama
It’s unclear just how much the average moviegoer knew about the behind-the-scenes “Solo” drama that led to the ousting of original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller and the hiring of replacement Ron Howard. Nevertheless, that controversy made for yet another awkward stumble when it comes to Lucasfilm’s choice of directors, and a pricey one at that. Even before Howard, Tony Gilroy notoriously helped lead “Rogue One” reshoots, and later explained that the production was “in such a swamp…they were in so much terrible, terrible trouble that all you could do was improve their position,” providing an uncomfortable look inside the machinery of a “Star Wars” production.
The public might not be hip to that drama, but it’s starting to tarnish the excitement that should enshroud any given Star Wars production. One familiar complaint: Why hire young, cool directors only to jettison them when times get tough? If nothing else, swapping out directors risks Disney and Lucasfilm’s bottom line, as reshoots, new director salaries, and other additional costs can add millions to these big budgets. When a massive box office haul is no longer guaranteed, that’s the first thing that needs to be snipped.
The next “Star Wars” film, the currently untitled J.J. Abrams-directed “Episode IX,” arrives in theaters on December 20, 2019.