NEW YORK — The reaches of the galaxy far, far away might not be quite as vast as previously thought.
In a box-office blip that echoed through the multiplexes, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” didn’t fare well over the Memorial Day weekend, amassing an estimated $103 million in ticket sales from Thursday night to Monday. Most movies dream of such openings, but the standard for “Star Wars” is different, as is the bottom line.
“Solo,” which switched directors mid-production, cost more than $250 million to make, and it was expected to debut with around $150 million. For the first time, the “Star Wars” juggernaut was humbled at the box office. The opening marked the worst debut in the franchise’s history and Disney’s stock slid 2.5 percent in trading Tuesday.
No one yet needs to run panicked through the streets yelling “Save the Wookies!” But for the first time since Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4.05 billion, the profit potential within George Lucas’ space saga no longer appears limitless.
Instead of opening up a new Han Solo trilogy, the disappointing arrival of “Solo” only intensified the questions bubbling around one of the movies’ biggest properties. Is there a filmmaker beside J.J. Abrams that can win over both die-hards and new fans? How slavish should subsequent sequels and spinoffs be to the originals? Is there anyone in China who cares a lick about lightsabers?
“I think they knew they had a problem a long time ago,” said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “What, 75 percent of the directors are fired and don’t finish the film? You’ve got internal problems.”
Those problems came to a head on “Solo,” where filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were replaced during shooting by Ron Howard, who steered the film in a less irreverent comic direction that stayed closer to the script co-written by Lawrence Kasdan, the veteran “Star Wars” scribe of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” Once envisioned as a western-style prequel romp, “Solo” became an existential battle over the tone of “Star Wars,” as Lucasfilm struggled to find a balance between old and new.
“If this is the business of movies now — and these are the ones that are actually in theaters — then it’s got to be this push and pull, constantly,” Kasdan said in an interview ahead of the film’s release. “There’s an added thing when you make a ‘Star Wars’ movie. You run into people in England — and in Marin County but mainly in England — who have been working on it off and on for 40 years. That’s like entering a cult. You have the same people who worked on Chewie’s costume in the original film, still working on it.”
Finding a way to propel “Star Wars” forward while maintaining spiritual ties to Lucas’ hallowed original trilogy is only going to get more complicated. Up next is Episode IX, which J.J. Abrams has taken the helm on after Colin Trevorrow was jettisoned. But after that film, which in December 2019 will close out the third “Star Wars” trilogy, a fleet of sequels and spinoffs are planned.
“Last Jedi” writer-director Rian Johnson is developing another trilogy in the main line of films. “Game of Thrones” creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff will write and produce a separate batch of “Star Wars” films. Jon Favreau is writing and executive producing a live-action series for Disney’s upcoming streaming platform. James Mangold (“Logan”) is to write and a direct a Boba Fett film. Rumors have long swirled about an Obi-Wan Kenobi spinoff. And Disney will next year add “Star Wars” villages to its theme parks.
The litany of releases has, for some, diluted the power of “Star Wars.” ”Solo” followed “The Last Jedi” by just five months, leading some to wonder if moviegoers are showing signs of “Star Wars” fatigue.
“These first three films that we released did more than $4 billion. This is our fourth movie now in what is our fourth year of having the Lucasfilm franchise,” said Dave Hollis, distribution chief for Disney. “It feels a little premature to talk about fatigue. We’re also planning our releases for ‘Star Wars’ movies in the same rooms where we’re planning movies for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And we had ‘Thor,’ ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Infinity War’ in November, February and May, and they were all wildly successful.”
But whether “Star Wars” can be Marvel-ified remains unclear. While the novelizations, merchandising and collective cultural force of “Star Wars” remains a mammoth industry, it all feeds primarily off that original trilogy of films. (64 percent of the audience for “Solo” was over the age of 25.)
And its international footprint is also missing one very big toe. China, where Lucas’ first movies weren’t released, has shown scant interest in new “Star Wars” installments. “The Last Jedi” survived only a week in Chinese theaters. “Solo,” which earned a relatively paltry $65 million overseas, did even worse, opening with just $10.1 million in the world’s second largest moviegoing market — an untenable black hole for any global blockbuster today.
“China in particular requires a longer conversation and probably a longer deployment of a strategy to introduce, in many instances, characters that other countries have had the benefit of growing up with,” said Hollis. “So it will take some work.”
Bock believes Lucasfilm needs to get more creative with “Star Wars,” trust filmmakers to experiment, try an R-rated film and do whatever it takes to boost popularity in China. “If that means hiring Dwayne Johnson for the next one, then that’s what you do,” says Bock. “He’s the franchise fixer.”
But the best solution for “Star Wars” might be even simpler. A full half — and, arguably, the clearly weaker half — of the “Star Wars” canon follows events leading up to “A New Hope.” ”Solo,” ”Rogue One” and Lucas’ little-loved 1999-2005 trilogy all function as preludes for what’s the come.
So whatever changes need to be made in the “Star Wars” universe, Lucasfilm could start with this: Look to the future, and give up the prequel.