“We have a lot of work to do in trying to understand this. We are all over it and will spend a lot of time digging into why things happened the way they did in various markets.”
That’s Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis talking to The Hollywood Reporter about Solo’s underwhelming box office debut at home and abroad. It’s a rather unfamiliar tone for Hollis, whose held his current job at Disney since 2011 and has thus been part of the brain trust responsible for turning the studio into one of the most successful in Hollywood history. He’s had to massage data and find nice things to say about box office disappointments before, but he’s rarely been this candid about outright conceding failure.
Perhaps that’s because this is essentially Hollis’ last week on the job. He gave his notice back in March, agreeing to part ways with Disney to relocate his family to Texas and support his wife Rachel’s emerging media company. It’s the end of Hollis’ 17-year stay with Disney, and Solo is his last hurrah before his replacement, Cathleen Taff, takes over. So, at least as far as distribution is concerned it is not Hollis who will really figure out what went wrong with Solo and how to correct things in time for December 2019’s Episode IX; it’s Taff.
Here’s a freebie for Hollis, Taff, and their team, though. What went wrong with Solo? Easy: By bunching up two Star Wars movies in a five-month period, you sacrificed the franchise’s event status, and, really, you did it for absolutely no good reason. Mark Hamill himself even tried to warn you, as he told CinemaBlend:
I will say they should pace themselves, because you don’t want to over-saturate it. I said to Disney, ‘Really? Five months after we come out comes [Solo: A Star Wars Story]? Can’t you at least wait until Christmas?’ But they’ve got things booked – they’re doing Marvel and their own movies, so that’s beyond my [purview.]
What the studios love more than anything else when it comes to scheduling blockbusters is historical precedent and reliable projections. You put “x” kind of movie out at “y” time of the year because that formula has worked in the past. That’s why way back when Bob Iger first announced Disney’s six-year plan for Star Wars Force Awakens was supposed to come out in May. The first Star Wars was instrumental in turning Memorial Day from an ignored holiday in Hollywood into the official start of the summer movie season, and all of the subsequent movies in the franchise were also May releases.
Putting one of these things out in December had never been done before. Disney only reportedly did it because J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy were fighting over whether they could get Force Awakens done in time for a 2015 release. But, it worked. Disney found a new formula and stuck with it, releasing Force Awakens, Rogue One, and Last Jedi as end-of-the-year properties and watched as each one of them cracked a billion worldwide and topped the yearly box office charts.
Then they got greedy and arrogant, seemingly scheduling Solo so close to Last Jedi as a test for whether the market would support a two-a-year schedule instead of one-a-year. Plus, they oddly underestimated how much of an impact Infinity War would have on the box office and were perhaps too far into contractual agreements for marketing efforts to back out of Solo’s Memorial Day release after Deadpool 2 moved one week ahead of it.
The whole world could see that unless Solo truly brought the goods – unless Ron Howard and crew defied the odds and turned in something spellbinding and fun and must-see – it was going to suffer financially. Memorial Day isn’t the prime box office holiday it used to be, and Infinity War and Deadpool 2 were set to easily beat Solo to the punch. Maybe Disney and LucasFilm simply missed the signs because Solo didn’t wrap filming until October 17th, meaning at the same time Deadpool 2 was ramping up its marketing Solo was still knee-deep in post-production just trying to finish the damn film. Then they had to wait until Last Jedi had finished the bulk of its run to start marketing, making Solo the rare four-quadrant blockbuster to wait until the relative last minute to launch an all-media advertising assault.
Now, and quite predictably, insiders tell THR Disney is rethinking its strategy and likely deciding against releasing any two Star Wars movies so close to one another. Moreover, regardless of all the Star Wars projects in development – Rian Johnson’s new trilogy, the other trilogy from the Game of Thrones guys, Jon Favreau’s live-action TV series set sometime after Return of the Jedi, James Mangold’s Boba Fett movie – the only thing with a set release date is Episode IX.
There’s plenty of time to sort everything out, and one of the biggest questions to answer is whether Solo is just an unfortunate misstep felled by a troubled production and questionable internal justification (i.e., the “does this movie need to exist?” question) or if it’s a sign that pushing so aggressively on so many Star Wars projects is devaluing the brand. We can’t overreact. After all, a Star Wars movie grossed over a billion worldwide just 5 months ago, but now Solo’s looking at possibly making less than half of that and turning into a significant loss for Disney. It’s not a good look for a franchise still dealing with the fan fallout over Last Jedi and Star Wars: Battlefront 2’s loot box controversy.
It’s a problem of Disney’s own making. They never should have scheduled Solo so close to Last Jedi. They never should have underestimated Deadpool 2 and Infinity War, especially since they’re the ones who made that last one. And Bob Iger’s strategy of exclusively favoring blockbusters has spread throughout the industry, crowded the release calendar and mandated that practically every movie must be the biggest movie ever just to turn a profit. Disney has failed like this before. See: John Carter. But this is its first Star Wars failure. Here’s hoping it will be their last.