Solo: A Star Wars Story was an unprecedented box office failure, but it could have been a hit if Lucasfilm played their cards differently. After being acquired by Disney in 2012, the studio went to work on developing a number of new Star Wars films, some of which took place outside the mainline Skywalker saga. Rogue One was the first of these out of the gate, and it's hard to argue with the results. Receiving widespread critical praise, the spinoff became one of the biggest box office hits of 2016, earning more than $1 billion worldwide. The Last Jedi became the third straight Star Wars movie to reach $1 billion last December, but then the galaxy fell upon some hard times.
Lucasfilm had Solo positioned to be their big summer tentpole, but the prequel came up well short of expectations. Despite generally positive word-of-mouth, Solo tanked at the box office, grossing less than Justice League in its opening weekend. As of this writing, it's earned only $369.8 million globally and Solo will go down as the first Star Wars installment to lose money for its distributor. In the aftermath, the future of the film series is reportedly in a state of flux, though Lucasfilm and Disney could have been able to avoid this situation. Let's explore how.
Lucasfilm's Mismanagement of Solo
On-paper, a movie about young Han Solo's exploits has all the makings of a hit film. It's probably why Lucasfilm opted to use the movie medium to explore the smuggler's origins, while other fan-favorite characters (such as Leia and Obi-Wan) were relegated to other areas of canon. Unfortunately, the studio completely mismanaged Solo, nearly from the jump. We'll get to the obvious in a minute, but even before Phil Lord & Chris Miller improvised their way out of Star Wars, Lucasfilm made a decision that may have altered Solo's entire trajectory: its release date.
We aren't talking about the decision to keep it in May 2018 (more on that in a bit). The official Art of Solo book revealed Lucasfilm's original plan was for Solo to be the first Star Wars movie released after The Force Awakens. Things changed when Solo co-writer Lawrence Kasdan was called upon to help rewrite Episode VII, and the spinoff was subsequently put on hold. Given how prominent Han is in The Force Awakens, it makes sense this was the initial strategy. There are numerous thematic parallels between young Han and Rey that would have been more interesting to explore before Rey's story progressed further. Additionally, audiences' love for the iconic smuggler was rekindled thanks to Harrison Ford's well-received sendoff, meaning interest in seeing another story about the character (even with a new actor) might have been higher in 2016 than it was in 2018. After Rogue One and The Last Jedi came and launched their separate discourses, Han was largely in the background of the general consciousness.
Related: Solo's Ending Explained
Where Solo was placed on the slate is a matter of semantics. Things didn't truly go south on Solo until filming began. As many know by now, original directors Lord & Miller were fired four months into production due to creative differences that became too much to bear. With three weeks remaining for principal photography, Kathleen Kennedy made the switch to Ron Howard, who oversaw substantial reshoots that essentially entailed the entire film. Of course, that decision didn't come cheap, and Solo's production budget ballooned past $250 million - making it the most expensive Lucasfilm film ever. The project was initially envisioned as a "smaller" Star Wars film with a price tag of $125 million. That would have placed the break even point at approximately $250 million, so Solo would have turned a minor profit by now (though nowhere near the same amount as its predecessors).
Rogue One demonstrated a Star Wars spinoff could be saved with additional photography, but the Solo situation was several steps too far. It will forever be puzzling that Lucasfilm was fine with Lord & Miller's approach for the nearly two years of pre-production work (including casting the entire film) and only took issue when the cameras started to roll. It goes without saying there should have been a greater emphasis on what the studio's vision for Solo was, as it obviously conflicted with what Lord & Miller had in mind. Perhaps then, red flags are raised well before things go too deep, and Howard (or someone like him) comes on board before production is underway. From a certain point of view, it's admirable Kennedy was willing to make the tough Lord & Miller decision, but she also deserves her share of the blame for allowing the movie to fall out from under Lucasfilm.
Speaking of blame, Disney made some questionable calls on Solo as well.
Page 2: How Disney Hurt Solo's Prospects
Disney Played Hardball With Solo
Lucasfilm discovered a goldmine by releasing Star Wars films in December. The three installments that premiered over Christmas collectively earned more than $4 billion worldwide, recouping what Disney paid for Lucasfilm. It was curious, then, when Solo remained embedded in its summer (the traditional home of Star Wars) date, where it would open on the heels of Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2 - two highly-anticipated sequels. Especially when Solo's production woes took hold, many felt Lucasfilm would benefit from delaying it, allowing Howard more time to fine-tune the picture. But that wasn't their call to make.
Knowing the severity of the situation, Lucasfilm proposed to push Solo back to December 2018, but Disney rejected it, citing frustration with the numerous other Star Wars delays. It's worth pointing out that the Mouse House had Mary Poppins Returns on the schedule for this Christmas long before anything bad happened with Solo, but they still could have reconfigured things (perhaps finding Solo a less-competitive fall window). As the debut of the spinoff drew near, there was a stark contrast between how it and its Disney brethren were perceived. Force Awakens, Rogue One, and Last Jedi were all the holiday moviegoing events of their respective years, while Solo was just another summer tentpole. If it had came out during a different time, it might have been able to monopolize the marketplace and capitalize on the demand to see a genre film.
Related: No, Disney Isn't Killing Star Wars
Arguably, what really did Solo in (more than franchise fatigue, Last Jedi backlash, or anything else) was an uninspired marketing campaign. Disney reportedly informed Lucasfilm there would be no "preferential treatment" in regards to Solo marketing so it didn't interfere with Infinity War. The first look at the spinoff wasn't unveiled until the Super Bowl in February 2018, about three months before release. Previously, Disney-era Star Wars movies saw promotional campaigns that spanned eight months, slowly building up over that prolonged period. At the time, the trailer delay seemed genius, but all it did was reinforce the negative narrative surrounding the project. Casual viewers felt Lucasfilm was hiding Solo from the public and had largely checked out.
When marketing did rev up, it did little to get people excited. Disney, under the impression fans were completely onboard for a young Han Solo movie, kept star Alden Ehrenreich in the shadows for a while. It was telling when Donald Glover's Lando Calrissian became the most talked-about aspect of the Super Bowl spot. Ehrenreich delivered a strong performance as Han and is perhaps the best part of the movie. Lucasfilm should not have been so afraid to display him front and center from the beginning. TV spots (most notably the one featuring the sabacc game) did their part to sell viewers on Ehrenreich, but by then it was too late. Most viewers were disinterested in Solo, instead turning their attention to Infinity War and Deadpool - both of which had excellent marketing campaigns. Star Wars, for the first time in its existence, was merely an afterthought and lost out. Solo always looked like a fun heist film in space, but there was never a greater hook to it than that.
Funnily enough, Lucasfilm and Disney got the opportunity to apply the lessons they learned from Solo very quickly. Kennedy moved on from original Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow well before filming began, and Disney agreed to move the film from May 2019 to December 2019 once J.J. Abrams was hired as a replacement. With Star Wars back in its Christmas window, the marketing campaign should emulate the other films of the sequel trilogy, meaning Episode IX will likely be a major hit. Hopefully, Solo is just a one-time bump in the road all franchises go through, and when Lucasfilm reveals their next Star Wars slate, they can move forward without any hinderances.