Why the concern over Solo’s box office numbers are overstated

If you’ve been following the news surrounding Solo: A Star Wars Story whatsoever, you likely have seen plenty of headlines talking about the concerns, the disapointing box office numbers, about the film stalling, and about why Disney should be concerned about the Star Wars product.

Ok, fine.  Much of the media does indeed thrive on hot takes and titles like that to drive their own numbers.  I get it.  But I really don’t think the box office numbers spell doom for Star Wars or indicate that Lucasfilm should change course from their plans.

The film had a gross of $103 million over the four-day holiday weekend, according to Variety, and that was far lower than the projections that had the film making between $130M and $150M on its opening weekend.  So without a doubt, this movie had a worse opening weekend than was expected.  And, of course, it is the lowest opening of any of the Star Wars films in the recent era, by far.

It is not wrong to say that the film disapointed compared to box office projections.  But I do believe it would be wrong to freak out over that right now.  Here’s why:

  1. It still did well for Memorial Day Weekend.  The highest opening Memorial Day Weekend came a decade ago with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and numbers two and three also came out at least a decade ago.  In fact, Solo had the best Memorial Day opening since 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.  To put it into perspective further, Solo had the seventh-best Memorial Day Weekend opening of all-time.  So, in other words, Memorial Day Weekend isn’t always the best for films opening anymore, and Solo actually did quite well historically.  Had it met estimates, it could have been the biggest opening on this weekend of all-time.  Even still, though, it’s among the best ever.  And it’s Thursday preview was the highest ever for Memorial Day Weekend, with a gross of $14.1M.
  2. The market is really competitive this summer.  Keep in mind that the average person and/or family does not have unlimited money to spend at the box office, which means that there will be choices that need to be made.  Currently in theaters are the record-breaking and long-awaited Avengers: Infinity War, as well as Deadpool 2 – and this summer will bring plenty more anticipated films, such as Incredibles 2, Oceans 8, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and others.  So really, what this should tell us is that Solo was and is facing stiff competition from the summer lineup, and the film isn’t anticipated enough to truly stand out from that group.  That may be a concern in and of itself, but I think given the other films that families will have to chose from this summer, it makes it more explainable why Solo isn’t a massive hit.
  3. It comes just five months after the last Star Wars film.  Not only was Solo featuring competition from the summer box office, but it may have featured some fatigue from the latest Star Wars release.  The Last Jedi came out in December, and just five months later Solo comes out.  And I’m not particularly referencing here that percentage of fans who hated The Last Jedi, and here’s why: much of the hate for TLJ was about it supposedly (1) not honoring the legendary characters; (2) being too different; or (3) featuring too many female leads and too much social justice.  So what about Solo?  It’s a movie (1) all about honoring and adding to a legendary character that (2) feels very nostalgic and like Star Wars and that (3) features a male as the lead.  So it makes no sense for those who hated The Last Jedi to protest Solo without revealing themselves to be fans of hating Star Wars rather than fans of Star Wars.  So instead, here’s what I’m meaning here: Star Wars movies coming out in theaters have long been viewed as a huge event for many fans.  Heck, there were people worried about having a Star Wars film each year, much less two Star Wars films in the span of five months.  This is the first time that Lucasfilm has ever tried doing two Star Wars films this close together, perhaps testing the waters for the future.  But I think the danger with that means that audiences (especially more casual audiences) will begin to see Star Wars films as less of an event and as more normal.  When that happens, the box office numbers will decline.  For this reason (and many more), the true test of Star Wars at the box office will be Episode IX in a year and a half.
  4. This is more of a niche film than the others.  No movie is ever truly necessary, but within that caveat, we realize that the Solo film might be the most unnecessary Star Wars film to date.  That isn’t a criticism at all – I think Star Wars needs to tell stories that don’t really affect the Skywalker saga directly or that don’t pit the fate of the galaxy in the protagonist’s hands – but it is very much an explanation for possible box office disappointment.  Even Rogue One tied into the original trilogy incredibly well and very closely.  Solo, on the other hand, is mainly an adventure tale about Han Solo set a decade before the events of the original trilogy that add to our understanding but that isn’t necessary.  So perhaps the biggest takeaway from the box office numbers for me is this: Star Wars is dependent upon the casual audiences for its’ success too.  Why?  Well, the die-hard Star Wars fans still went to see Solo this weekend.  Like always, I went multiple times.  But it seems that this movie didn’t drive the casual audiences like the Skywalker saga does.  That’s understandable and expected, and it doesn’t mean this movie shouldn’t have been made.  But it very much helps our understanding of the box office numbers.
  5. Star Wars doesn’t do as well in China.  One of the most concerning things about Solo‘s box office numbers is its’ international release, which has not done too well.  The movie made just $65M in international box office gross, with the United Kingdom ($10.3M) and China ($10.1M) leading the way.  That’s concerning, and it’s one of the major reasons for its’ disapointing opening.  If a film can’t gain much traction overseas, it is likely not going to do amazing overall.  But in particular, Star Wars films don’t do too well in China, and this isn’t new with Solo.  Solo did worse in China than other Star Wars films have done recently, but it’s simply a more exaggerated illustration of the franchises’ difficulty selling their films in the second-largest market in the world.  One proposed explanation for Star Wars’ struggles in China is that it just made its way there in more recent years and therefore has not become the cultural phenomenon it has in North America.  Whatever the reason, this film doesn’t expose new issues for Star Wars as much as it does highlight old ones via a more severe disapointment, not a new one.
  6. It still did well.  For a non-Star Wars movie, this opening would be considered a success.  It grossed $84,751,000 in the opening three-day weekend, which is the 80th-best opening weekend of all-time.  That’s nothing special, but it’s also not terrible.  It had a better opening weekend than films such as: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the three Hobbit films, the three Lord of the Rings films, two Harry Potter movies (The Half-Blood Prince and The Order of the Phoenix), Avatar, and animated films such as Monsters, Inc., Monsters University, Zootopia, The Incredibles, The LEGO Movie, Frozen, Toy Story 2, etc.  Here’s my point: all things equal, Solo still did quite well for its opening weekend.  The concern is that it’s a Star Wars film and that it fell short of projections, but amidst that we must not miss that it still did fine overall.
  7. The movie actually exceeds expectations.  One of the real interesting things, as Jason Ward pointed out on Twitter over the weekend, is that while the film has disappointed relative to the box office, it has far exceeded the expectations of many moviegoers as far as the movie itself goes.  But ironically, that’s not being discussed much.  When The Last Jedi did really well at the box office, much of the discussion was on a small percentage of fans who didn’t like the movie.  When Solo isn’t doing well at the box office, much of the discussion is on the poor box office numbers.  That inconsistency should suggest that perhaps the focus is primarily about finding fault with Star Wars.

It seems that Disney is exploring why Solo fell short of projections at the box office this weekend, as well they should.  After all, as Beckett says, “there’s a lesson to be learned here.”  There are surely lessons for Lucasfilm to learn from this, including (but not limited to): Star Wars needs to figure out its’ marketing in China; Star Wars is dependent upon the casual fans for massive box office success; Star Wars must be careful not to diminish the excitement of a new film; Star Wars might be better suited for a December release rather than in the midst of a massive summer lineup; etc.  All of that is well and good.

But I also sincerely hope that these box office numbers won’t deter Lucasfilm from future storytelling or even a Solo sequel.  These films are not expected to be as massive as the Skywalker saga, and that’s ok.  After all, Marvel doesn’t panic and change course when Ant-Man doesn’t do as well as an Avengers film.  The same principle should be true of Star Wars.  So for Star Wars, as they’re going to be moving away from the Skywalker saga following next year’s Episode IX, the real challenge is to figure out how to market other films and get those to do well also.  And the solution for that isn’t to stop making these films, it’s to figure out how to drive excitement for them.

Solo is really well done, a wonderful addition to the Star Wars saga, and a really enjoyable ride.  And the focus for Lucasfilm should continue to be on high quality productions, not going away from what they’re doing but figuring out how to make what they’re doing appeal to more general audiences like the saga films do.

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