NOTE: Box office totals as of June 5, 2018
After only two weekends in theaters, it's safe to say Solo: A Star Wars Story will be remembered as the first box office failure in the franchise. Ever since Lucasfilm brought back their wildly successful property with The Force Awakens in 2015, they've been riding a commercial hot streak that was highly impressive. After Episode VII brought home a cool $2 billion worldwide, both Rogue One and The Last Jedi followed suit with $1 billion hauls of their own. The collective global gross of these three movies exceeded the $4 billion Disney paid for Lucasfilm, proving the Mouse House was smart to invest in the galaxy far, far away.
Since every Star Wars movie to this point was a clear hit, the expectation was that Solo would be one as well. Despite the infamous production difficulties and general sense of apathy surrounding the project, early projections had Ron Howard's spinoff breaking the Memorial Day opening record en route to a worldwide debut of $300 million. Unfortunately, these estimates couldn't be further from the truth, and Solo is on the path to losing money.
Why Did Solo Bomb At The Box Office?
There's no sugarcoating the fact that Solo's numbers aren't pretty. In 12 days of release, the film has earned just $155.9 million domestically and $271.3 million worldwide. At one point, it was supposed to gross $170 million Stateside in its first four days. Solo will now have an uphill climb to reach $250 million for its U.S. total and is expected to earn only $400 million worldwide. When it's all said and done, it'll put Disney at least $50 million in the red, depending on how home media, TV rights sales, and other revenue sources pan out. This is hardly what Lucasfilm had in mind when they green lit a movie centering around one of the franchise's most popular characters (admittedly, with a new actor in the role).
During the aftermath of Solo's performance, the main culprit to emerge is an uninspired marketing campaign, which failed to sell general audiences on why the prequel was a must-see. In stark contrast from the three preceding Star Wars films of this era (which had eight-month long marketing campaigns), promotion for Solo didn't start until much closer to release. In an effort to avoid pitting Solo against Last Jedi hype, Lucasfilm opted to not give people their first look at the film until the Super Bowl in February, roughly three months prior to the premiere. By then, there was such a negative narrative around Solo, the trailers and TV spots became easy to dismiss. It also didn't help matters the first promotional materials largely hid Alden Ehrenreich's Han and key story details.
Thinking they could coast by on the Star Wars name came back to hurt Lucasfilm, as they decided to debut Solo hot on the heels of Avengers: Infinity War ($257.6 million debut) and Deadpool 2 ($125.5 million debut). Both of those comic book movies were highly-anticipated sequels that were integral chapters in their respective franchises. Infinity War marked the culmination of the last 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while Deadpool 2 set the table for the upcoming X-Force (and was also the follow-up to the highest-grossing R-rated film of all-time). Since casual moviegoers typically see just a handful of titles per year, and many saw Infinity War and Deadpool 2 in close proximity, Solo was considered by the masses to be an easy one to skip. After all, there's only so much money to go around.
While probably not the biggest factor, it's also possible the generally positive reviews for Solo played a hand in it falling short commercially. The film's direct competition was Certified Fresh, but Solo has a much softer Rotten Tomatoes score of 71%. That on its own is a fine result (and better than some expected due to the reshoots), but since reactions weren't exactly glowing (and demand was questionable), it never jumped out as something viewers needed to see in theaters. For the first time, Star Wars was "just another summer film" rather than being one of the year's premier cinematic events. The lack of urgency for Solo is really what sunk it commercially, and its shortcomings give Lucasfilm several valuable lessons to learn.
Where Does Star Wars Go From Here?
It's important to keep in mind that Solo bombing is not going to kill the entire Star Wars franchise, just like The Incredible Hulk didn't derail the MCU and The Good Dinosaur didn't sink Pixar. We reiterate Lucasfilm is coming off three consecutive $1 billion blockbusters, and Episode IX will almost definitely join that club when it opens next Christmas. The law of averages dictates that even the titans of this industry have moments where they slip, and with Star Wars films coming out at a faster clip than ever before, it was only a matter of time before one fell short of expectations. The decks were stacked against Solo from the beginning, so it isn't surprising this was the one to flounder.
That being said, one of the reasons why Solo is in this dire of a situation is because of its ballooning production budget. Thanks to the behind-the-scenes woes, the spinoff is Lucasfilm's most expensive endeavor to date at more than $250 million. This was never the plan; the studio envisioned Solo as a "smaller scale" film that would cost in the range of $125 million, but they ended up shooting essentially the entire film twice in order to get it right. Now, we should say that $271.3 million worldwide against a $125 million budget still isn't great, but it at least makes Solo's money back and turns a minor profit. Ideally, the bizarre circumstances in which Solo was made will never happen again, and as long as Lucasfilm keeps costs under control, they'll avoid something like this in the future. Who knows, perhaps Solo makes more if there was no director change and all of the bad publicity to come from that. What this does is underscore the importance of hiring the right filmmaker at the start.
Related: No, Disney Isn't Killing Star Wars
The budget significantly hurt Solo, but the full situation is more complex than that. In their post-mortem, Lucasfilm is going to have to re-evaluate a few things. At the top of that list is release dates. The franchise found a gold mine by dominating the holiday movie season, as The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi were all the top-grossing films domestically in their respective years of release. Star Wars was able to take advantage not just of its immense popularity, but also limited competition in December and enjoyed the status of being one of the few tentpoles in town. Solo took the series back to its original summer home, but that's an experiment that did not work out well. Theaters are more crowded with four-quadrant pictures in the warmer months. There's nothing wrong with Star Wars moving away from summer (letting Marvel and Pixar stake that territory) and sticking to winter. It's just smart business. Lucasfilm also needs to be more mindful of how they market upcoming projects, ensuring each installment is can't miss entertainment. This shouldn't be an issue for Episode IX, which will likely have a similar campaign to its sequel trilogy predecessors.
It's still too early to tell if Solo will impact the development of future Star Wars movies. It would read as a gross overreaction if Lucasfilm were to pull the plug on anything they officially have in the pipeline (Rian Johnson's trilogy, David Benioff & D.B. Weiss' series), as that would send a horrible message of no confidence. Canceling something that's been announced would be an even worse look than Solo flopping. When The Incredible Hulk faltered, Marvel still stuck to their Phase 1 plan, which was a risk that paid off in spades. More interesting cases are the long-rumored spinoffs Lucasfilm has yet to confirm, like Obi-Wan and Boba Fett. Solo's box office indicates there may not be a large market for individual character anthologies, though with a smarter approach and better execution, both of those aforementioned projects could be hits. But whenever Lucasfilm announces their next Star Wars slate, it'll be quite fascinating.
Solo has the unfortunate distinction of being the first Star Wars to fail commercially, but its performance is not the end of the world. The franchise remains in a good place and Kathleen Kennedy has set up some exciting projects for the future. Lucasfilm does need to take a step back and change a few things, but it doesn't have to be a massive overhaul. Anybody can rebound from one bomb. If the first post-Episode IX films stumble out of the gate and prove there isn't interest beyond the episodic saga films, then Lucasfilm is in a bit of trouble. For now, Solo is just an anomaly, and as long as the studio is wise moving forward, they'll be fine.