As ‘Solo’ sputters, some are nervous about Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ future
Until “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” Walt Disney Co.’s efforts to continue the long-running space opera series were virtually unassailable. Disney’s first three “Star Wars” movies, starting in 2015 with “The Force Awakens,” paid off handsomely for the entertainment giant and its chairman and chief executive, Bob Iger.
But with “Solo,” the seemingly invincible saga has delivered a box-office dud.
The prequel, about the adventures of a young Han Solo, has grossed about $264 million worldwide, including $149 million in the United States and Canada, since its May 25 debut, significantly lagging behind the previous movies.
The film, which cost an estimated $250 million to produce, may result in a write-down of $50 million or more for Disney, one analyst predicted Monday.
Although some analysts said “Solo’s” crash landing was likely a one-off blip for an otherwise successful franchise, others worried it could be the first sign that the barrage of new “Star Wars” material is wearing thin for audiences. So-called franchise fatigue would be a problem for the Burbank-based studio that has staked much of its future on the continued success of the “Star Wars” movies, which are expected to drive toy sales, theme park visits and a new streaming service.
“It does make you a little bit nervous,” said Barton Crockett, a media and entertainment analyst with B. Riley FBR, in an interview Monday. “Disney is putting a lot of money into this brand. It’s crucial that this brand feels fresh and relevant.”
Disney declined to comment for this story.
To be sure, the “Star Wars” movies have been a boon for Disney since it paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm in 2012. The first three films Disney made — “The Force Awakens,” the 2016 spinoff “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and last year’s “The Last Jedi” — grossed $4.5 billion in worldwide receipts and propelled untold merchandise sales.
And Disney can easily absorb one or two duds. Apart from “Solo” and the recent misfire “A Wrinkle in Time,” Disney is having a stellar run at the box office. The company has enjoyed a streak of hits from its Marvel Studios, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation subsidiaries. Marvel’s “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” hauled in $1.3 billion and nearly $2 billion, respectively. Pixar is poised to release the highly anticipated sequel “Incredibles 2” this month, which is expected to be a big draw.
Faced with a rare Disney misstep, analysts offered a multitude of explanations for what went wrong with “Solo.”
One possible factor was audience fatigue. The new movie was released just five months after “The Last Jedi,” the follow-up to “The Force Awakens.” Though “The Last Jedi” grossed $1.3 billion and earned mostly positive reviews, its creative choices divided fans, sparking a backlash from a vocal subset of “Star Wars” enthusiasts that may have damped excitement for “Solo.”
Another reason may be that fans weren’t sold on having relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich in the role of Han Solo, the beloved character originally played by the inimitable Harrison Ford. Also, reviews were lukewarm compared with the recent “Star Wars” movies, and in today’s social media age, negative sentiment spreads rapidly. Some critics said the new film played it safe and missed an opportunity to take the franchise in new directions.
Then there was the behind-the-scenes drama in which Lucasfilm, led by President Kathleen Kennedy, ousted the original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“The Lego Movie”) and replaced them with Ron Howard, who was enlisted to get the troubled production back on track. Lord and Miller were viewed as risk-taking mavericks, compared with the steady hand of Howard. But some saw the shakeup as a bad omen.
“It was a confluence of negative things that turned into a tsunami for Disney, starting with all the negative press before the movie was even released,” said Jeff Bock, box-office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “It’s like putting blood in the water.”
“Solo” grossed $84 million in its first three days in theaters, missing analyst expectations during Memorial Day weekend. In another troubling sign, the movie collected $29 million domestically in its second weekend, representing a steep 65 percent tumble from its opening.
International numbers were equally lackluster even though “Star Wars” has big global appeal. The movie has grossed $115 million outside the U.S. and Canada, including $15 million in China, a key box-office market where the series has failed to catch on. Analysts expect the film to eventually amass about $450 million in worldwide box-office revenue, which would be far lower than the prior spinoff “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” ($1 billion).
Yet, “Star Wars” is a resilient brand. The series managed to outlive the backlash against the earlier trilogy of prequels that launched in 1999 with “Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”
“‘Star Wars’ has survived a couple of pretty bad prequel movies,” said Doug Creutz, media and entertainment analyst with Cowen and Co. “I don’t believe in franchise fatigue, I believe in mediocre movie fatigue.”
The series faces its next test when the yet untitled “Episode IX,” directed by J.J. Abrams, who made “The Force Awakens,” opens in December 2019. The longer gap between release dates should alleviate fears of franchise fatigue, analysts said.
After that, the question is where Disney takes the space opera next. The company has already announced a flurry of new “Star Wars” productions, including a trilogy from “Last Jedi” writer-director Rian Johnson. The studio has also enlisted “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to write and produce another series of “Star Wars” films.
Additionally, “Star Wars” is a key component of Disney’s plans for the direct-to-consumer service, which is expected to launch next year in an effort to stave off competition from digital entertainment insurgents such as Netflix. “The Jungle Book” director Jon Favreau will write a live-action “Star Wars” series for the new streaming service.
On top of that, the studio is reportedly working on movie spinoffs for characters including Obi-Wan Kenobi and bounty hunter Boba Fett, though those films have not been officially announced.
Meanwhile, other Disney businesses will continue to bet big on the continued cultural power of “Star Wars.” Disney is set to unveil “Star Wars”-themed lands, dubbed “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge,” at its Florida and California resorts next year.
For the future movies, Creutz said the studio will need to avoid director turnover and other production issues that hobbled “Solo.”
“There’s clearly some issues going on at Lucasfilm,” Creutz said. “If they want to step back and look at what they need to change in their production process, they have some time to do that.”