In June, reports emerged that Disney/Lucasfilm was pausing development of its A Star Wars Story series. This came a month after the release of the second entry in the series, Solo, which is expected to be the lowest grossing film in the franchise’s history by nearly 50% (domestic, inflation adjusted) and the only one to lose money (at least $60MM and as much as $100MM). This is a steep decline for the franchise. Each of the three preceding Disney-era Star Wars films was the highest grossing film of the year, including Rogue One, the first anthology film and the first Star Wars sequel/spinoff to focus on an entirely new cast of characters. These films netted Disney an estimated $320–780MM in profits each – a far cry from a loss.
Solo’s fall was so precipitous it caught the most vocal Star Wars critics off guard. Less than 24 hours before its US premiere, the film was projected to gross $130-150MM over its four-day opening weekend – less than Rogue One’s $155MM three-day, but enough to become one of the biggest films of the year. It ended up with $101MM. Internationally, the film opened with less than half as much as Rogue One, with China down more than 66%. The collapse suggests that despite significant awareness and positive reviews (71% on Rotten Tomatoes, A- audience CinemaScore), audiences weren’t that interested in another Star Wars title. To many, this reaffirmed the “Star Wars fatigue” narrative that began five months earlier following the release of The Last Jedi (TLJ), perhaps the franchise’s most controversial title, which also fell short of expectations.
This hypothesis of Star Wars fatigue is hard to believe, and not just because it started with a film that won 2017’s box office crown and the total profits crown. What we’re seeing is what I’d term “accrued disappointment” , a trend obfuscated by unprecedented short-term success but that almost always surfaces later down the line.
Getting to a Galaxy Far, Far Less Popular
Let’s start with a quick step back. Star Wars arguably has one of the biggest narrative tapestries – spanning countless millennia and galaxies – and fandoms. If the right stories are told, it’s hard to see why the Star Wars Universe can’t support an annual release. After all, the box office otherwise supports two to three films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) each year, plus two to three other Marvel films (e.g. X-Men) and one or two DC Comics adaptations. Writer-director James Gunn has said that Guardians of the Galaxy (an MCU title that ranked 3rd in the 2014 US box office) was “intentionally my version of Star Wars.” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, released the same year as TLJ (which ranked 1st), was the fifth biggest film of the year.
So why are audiences tiring of Star Wars? The problem isn’t Rian Johnson or Ron Howard – it’s Disney, which despite having invested heavily to correct the problems it created, rushed Star Wars from day one. The results, in hindsight, shouldn’t surprise.
Many debate the quality of George Lucas’s prequel trilogy, but the films were carefully planned and internally consistent. George Lucas and Lucasfilm spent more than a decade developing and producing the first Star Wars trilogy, and even longer on the second. Disney had a different approach. After acquiring Lucasfilm in Q4 2012, Disney announced that the first film would be released less than two and a half years later (Q2 2015), with five more to come over the following five years (thus doubling the total number of Star Wars films over an eight-year period). While fans rejoiced that the company behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be reimagining the biggest franchise in history, things quickly went wrong behind the scenes. After 11 months, Disney had to push back the release dates of the first two films by more than six months each (two years later, the fourth film was also pushed back six months). After only two films had been released, four of the directors originally announced for the first six films had been fired or replaced. Two of the firings happened so late into filming that upwards of 80% of the two films had to be reshot, to the tune of more than $100MM each.
Until Solo, this chaos didn’t seem to affect the franchise’s box office – and despite substantial cost increases, profits, too, remained industry leading. Still, the creative ramifications were significant. In The Force Awakens (TFA, or Episode VII), writer-director J.J. Abrams set up three major antagonists: Supreme Leader Snoke, Captain Phasma and The Knights of Ren. However, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi (Episode VIII) quickly killed the first two and ignored the third. Over time, Johnson has felt the need to explain these decisions, which many argued undermined TFA and violated key storytelling principles. He said that in the process of writing his sequel to TFA, he determined that Snoke “didn’t really have a place in the story” and “had to die,” adding that “hopefully it can be addressed elsewhere or even [Abrams] may address it in Episode IX.” Similarly, Johnson has said that more time with Phasma “would have been fun. But it just wasn’t the story [I was] telling… Maybe there will be one eventually at some point.” Regarding the Knights of Ren, Johnson said “I just didn’t see a place for them in the movie”… so they disappeared entirely (even when TLJ flashed back to scenes from TFA that had shown the Knights of Ren, they were nowhere to be found). With Abrams returning to close out the trilogy, more whipsaw seems likely (as Johnson seems to be intimating). Still, this is likely better than handing Episode IX over to yet another writer-director, as Disney had planned until firing Colin Trevorrow in September 2017 (thus delaying the film’s release by six months… five months after its release date was first announced).
When considering the development process for Disney’s Star Wars trilogy, it’s easy to understand why various characters and plotlines don’t mesh between Episodes VII and VIII – and to imagine that we’ll see attempts to reconcile these problems in IX. Fundamental narrative decisions for TLJ were made before TFA had finished filming. For example, Abrams originally planned for TFA to end with Rey finding Luke Skywalker meditating while surrounded by a field of floating, Force-powered boulders. However, this conflicted with Johnson’s subsequent decision that Luke Skywalker had “shut himself off from the Force for years.” This issue was corrected before filming, but it points to the enormous differences between the two directors’ visions for the franchise; Luke’s rejection of the Force is the defining plotline of Johnson’s film. Still, not all of these problems were addressed in time. In TLJ, rolling dice feature prominently in a scene where Luke consoles Leia over the death of Han Solo. The dice are callback to a scene Abrams ultimately cut from TFA and thus the reference is confusing and meaningless.
As anthologies, the A Story Wars Story films have fewer cross-film consistency problems – but the internal problems are both acutely and chronically worse. While Solo’s cast was praised, some critics have argued that various cast members seemed to be acting as though they were in different films. This makes sense. The casting was overseen by the film’s original directors, Phil Miller and Christopher Lord, who intended to bring their satire/comedy sensibility to the film. But the film was subsequently reshot by the more literal director Ron Howard against a script that had expunged much of Miller and Lord’s contributions. Rogue One was similarly affected, with star Riz Ahmed telling the LA Times “my character started off as this total other dude, and by the end of the movie, from a combination of what I was doing and what they felt the story needed, he was just a totally different character with a different name, a different job, a different everything.” No wonder his character’s role seemed unclear and inconsistent. Costar Ben Mendelsohn has also gone on the record saying Disney initially shot an “enormously different” version of the film. These changes come from replacement director Tony Gilroy, who has said Rogue One was “in so much terrible, terrible trouble that all you could do was improve [Disney’s] position.” Solo’s reshoots were so significant that key cast members needed to be replaced, including the primary antagonist (originally played by Michael K. Williams, who gave way to Paul Bettany). This also meant that while Disney’s Star Wars films typically released their first trailer a year in advance, Solo’s wasn’t ready until barely three months before the film’s release. This didn’t help stimulate anticipation.
More writing time doesn’t guarantee a better product, but it would likely have solved each of the aforementioned issues. It’s clear that Abrams and Johnson had different (and rather possessive) takes on the Star Wars trilogy, yet neither had full ownership of the creative or execution. Nor was there enough time for the two writer-directors to properly align. Instead, each party could only focus on meeting the deadlines for his entry and pass along responsibilities to his successor (and again, Lucasfilm had a different writer-director leading each installment of the trilogy until late 2017). This process is the opposite of Georges Lucas and RR Martin, both of whom have been lauded for the depth of their narrative universes and the singularity of their visions – and who are famously slow writers. Similarly, a longer pre-production process likely would have avoided unnecessary script changes, director firings and reshoots – a trend that became increasingly public and undoubtedly harmed ticket sales.
There was an even more intangible cost to Disney’s deadlines: story selection. While The Force Awakens was hugely popular upon release, its reputation has soured as criticisms that it was mostly a remake of A New Hope proliferated. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the film’s writers cribbed heavily from their source material; to meet its (already delayed) release date, the film had to begin casting and set building only six and nine months after Disney acquired the rights to the franchise. Rogue One was also a creative and financial success, but many believe the film’s grim ending (everyone dies) is partly responsible for declining interest in the franchise, especially outside the US. This ending may have been narratively necessary (else it makes little sense that the film’s rebel heroes are never seen again), but the decision to tell this story wasn’t. But if you’ve a short runway to entering production, it helps to focus on a story that’s already been established. And for what it’s worth, many consider the Rogue One’s best part to be… a retelling of the very start of A New Hope.
Solo, too, focused on expanding an already established (and classic) character – one many argued needed no origin story. Not only does the decision to anchor these films around pre-existing stories represent a rejection of Star Wars’ expansive storytelling potential, it also helps explains the series’ relative underperformance outside the United States (especially in China, whose box office now rivals that of the US), as well as Solo’s struggles in attracting audiences under 25. Star Wars continues to trade on a cultural currency that isn’t universal and which is most relevant to those over 40. 1999’s The Phantom Menace was the first film to see theatrical release in China, for example, and none of that trilogy’s films grossed more than $10MM in the country. 2015’s The Force Awakens was the market’s first exposure to Han Solo – and he dies.
The way to solve this is to tell new stories, not expanded versions of old ones. This is the great irony of The Last Jedi’s most popular and meta line: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.” Even though Disney mandated that Episode VII focus on new Star Wars heroes, rather than the original trilogy trio of Luke, Leia and Han, the studio has largely refused to let the past die – even in spinoffs. And as many fans have argued, the decision to create both a direct sequel to the original trilogy and one that replicated its plotline (the Empire becomes the First Order, the Rebels become the Resistance, the Death Star becomes Starkiller Base) undermines the mythology of the preceding six films. The prophecy of the chosen one, which spans Episodes I-VI, foretold that a Jedi (i.e. Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader) would bring balance to the Force. The Force Awakens doesn’t dispute this prophecy, but suggests that its fulfillment provided fewer than 30 years of balance after a 1000-year wait.
Reawakening the Force
Regardless of the legitimacy of the above critiques, there’s something odd about criticizing a franchise that has grossed close to $5B and generated $1.4B in net profits over four films (a record). And Episode IX, which releases 19 months after Solo, is likely to outgross Solo’s lifetime box office in its opening weekend and rank first or second (to Disney’s The Avengers 4) in the year. Still, opening weekend interest in the films has declined (i.e. TFA to TLJ, Rogue One to Solo), as has their multiples (the ratio of a film’s lifetime gross to its opening weekend, which reflects a film’s “legs” and “word of mouth”) and the international share of total ticket sales. This is the opposite of how a franchise is supposed to trend, and the polar reverse of Marvel. Solo’s failure will represent one of the industry’s largest ever losses and perhaps the largest ever gap between expected and actual profits.
This is suggestive of accumulated mis-execution, which is endemic to the media business; movie sequels, album and book sales are typically referendums on the prior releases. World-class IP helps to insulate a franchise from earlier failures, but only so much can be done. In 2016, DC boasted about the irrelevance of critical reviews and exit polling after Batman v Superman (27% Rotten Tomatoes, B Cinemascore) and Suicide Squad (a barely known franchise in the DC universe that also earned a 27% and a B) opened to massive $166MM and $134MM grosses. Two years later, DC’s signature film, Justice League (40%, B+), cratered with $93MM. Audiences can only be disappointed so many times and still show up in theaters. Marvel, meanwhile, continues to reach even greater heights and has yet to have a title underperform.
To this end, it’s important to juxtapose the Disney-era Star Wars with Disney-era Marvel. Lucas has often said that Disney’s success with the comic book company is why he offered up Lucasfilm in the first place – and why he declined to take any competing bids. Yet Marvel’s approach is distinct. The studio famously plans its franchises more than a decade in advance and has always been willing to shelve or delay titles. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is also seen to have a truly singular vision – that of Kevin Feige – rather than one that swings from title to title and auteur to auteur in order to meet production timetables.
And while the MCU may have more concurrent films in production than the Star Wars universe, it took years to ramp to this point (both pre and post-acquisition by Disney). Lucasfilm released only six feature films during the two decades before being sold to Disney, at which point six films were scheduled for release in eight years. In addition, Marvel’s direct sequels (e.g. Thor 2 and Thor 3) are typically released three years apart, not two, which allows the studio to avoid overlapping production timelines and better incorporate audience feedback / try to fix what isn’t working. The best case study here is the massive tonal shift between 2013’s Thor: The Dark World and its sequel four years later, Thor: Ragnarok (the latter grossed 32% more worldwide and transformed the character into a fan favorite). Not for nothing, but DC’s (now largely abandoned) film universe was similarly harmed by overlapping production timelines and the inability to fully address audience feedback. Hence the tonal inconsistency of Justice League, which was deep into production by the time the creative failures of Batman v Superman had become clear.
While Disney’s willingness to spend $200MM fixing its Star Wars films is admirable (and unusual), most of these problems were of its own making. The Force Awakens didn’t need to release in 2015, just as Star Wars overall didn’t need to be rushed. Disney, after all, would still have led the industry without Star Wars.
But there is cause for optimism. Whether or not Disney is putting its spinoff plans on hold, it has now had years to improve its franchise planning processes and take the time required. Star Wars has two spinoff series in development, both of which are being singularly managed, benefit from longer lead times and reportedly have nothing to do with the Skywalker dynasty (however, one is focused on filling in the time between the original and prequel trilogies, rather than on the creation of a new story). And the as-yet untitled Episode IX has had twice the development time of Episodes VII and VIII (though its original writer-director, Trevorrow, was fired during pre-production). Still, it will take time to rehabilitate the franchise’s image of chaotic production, retreads and audience disappointment (to be fair, there’s a saying that “no one hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans”).
Solo, by most accounts, is a fun and well directed (if inessential) Star Wars film. It likely would have done much better released around Christmas, or at least farther away from the juggernauts of Black Panther, Infinity War and Deadpool. But overall, it’s mostly a victim of managerial failures and its predecessors. Han Solo might not have done the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs, but not everything need happen at the speed of light.