When Warner Bros. first officially announced an Aquaman movie as part of the DCEU, it was set for release at some point in 2018. The film was, early on, dogged with rumors that suggested trouble – chief among them the rumor of Warner Bros. commissioning two separate scripts and just going with whichever one worked best. But in the wake of The Flash and Justice League hitting roadblocks (the former has been through two directors already and now looks unlikely to arrive before 2020, while the latter has reportedly been subject to several cases of mid-production studio meddling), Aquaman has emerged as one of the strongest productions in the franchise, currently set to be the next film released after 2017’s Justice League.
We’ll now have to wait a little longer for director James Wan’s take of Aquaman, however, with news breaking that the film has been pushed back from its October 5th, 2018 release by two months, to December 21st. Normally this sort of release shift is by-the-by; it’s too slight to really suggest a production issue, especially this far out, and is rarely more than marketing repositioning. But December 21st 2018 isn’t any old release slot.
This date was, until just a few weeks ago, set for James Cameron’s long-promised Avatar 2 before delays pushed that movie back. However, it’s more important than just that; it was widely expected that the Han Solo standalone movie would ultimately wind up grabbing the spot, since the Star Wars franchise will have used that window for the previous three years (The Force Awakens in 2015, Rogue One in 2016 and the upcoming The Last Jedi in 2017). Warner Bros. placing Aquaman there isn’t just capitalizing on the coveted pre-Christmas window, then, but the potential start of a major studio battle.
Why Is The December Release Date So Important?
Before looking at what Warner Bros. has done, it’s first worth establishing just how important the pre-Christmas December date is (in a word: very). The winter months are typically quiet times at the cinema, with a mixture of simple family fare and prestige movies playing in December before studios dump their duds in January. This culture makes it hard to float a random film – the cinema-going habit isn’t necessarily there – but the lack of competition makes it ideal for a mega-blockbuster that’s got enough clout. With the right movie (one that hits all four audience quadrants), it can turn what would regardless do well in the packed summer season into a year-dominating behemoth.
The trend started with Titanic, which was originally set for a Summer 1997 release but was pushed back from the typical blockbuster months by special effects delays. Many contemporary commentators viewed this as an admission that James Cameron’s passion project was a dud, but it wound up making it the then-highest grossing film ever made. The date’s viability was further proven by The Lord of the Rings, which were so successful across Decembers 2001, 2002 and 2003 respectively that they muscled out rival Harry Potter from its original nearby November spot and to this day are regarded by some as Christmas films. After these cases, select films positioned themselves there – King Kong and I Am Legend – but the level of success wasn’t matched until Avatar in 2009; its unmatched success is due to a myriad of factors, but time of year is essential. Since then there’s been a constant battle for the spot; The Hobbit cornered it in 2012, 2013 and 2014 pretty much by nature of its legacy, but since then a new King appeared to come in to claim the crown.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was originally set for the franchise’s usual late-May release date, but J.J. Abrams had trouble reaching that and it was thus pushed back seven months to December 18th. The director actually wanted it to go back further into Summer 2016, but the selected date proved an unexpected gift; The Force Awakens became the third highest grossing film of all time (second, not counting re-releases), dominating the box office for so long it became the tenth biggest film in 2016 as well. Rogue One followed suit and shortly after Episode VII finished its run The Last Jedi moved to December 2018. It looked like Lucasfilm was cornering December and making it an official Star Wars month; the movies were guaranteed hits and comparable tentpoles daren’t release anywhere near (Fox tested the waters last year with Assassin’s Creed and paid for it).
As such, Han Solo’s May 25th date was always taken as a placeholder, set to change as soon as Lucasfilm could announce it. There’s no official word on this being the case, but it would go against Lucasfilm’s track record and all industry data to release it in the packed summer months. As such, Aquaman’s move is the setup for a major showdown, putting the DCEU and Star Wars – two franchises that have mostly stayed out of shared discussions – right against each other
The DCEU vs Star Wars
It’s easy to read the Aquaman date move as an explicit show of force by Warner Bros. The “Star Wars-cember” comments have been coming too thick and fast for it to not have stuck, so the advantageous move into the slot so swiftly after Avatar vacated seems to be done to beat Lucasfilm to it. Of course, it’s possible the whole thing’s all innocent and they’ve simply pounced on the empty spot because of all the advantages already discussed. Either way – willingly or no – they’ve created quite a problem for Lucasfilm when it comes to placing Han Solo in the calendar.
Let’s first assume the Star Wars Story was to release in summer as currently planned. It’s the only film set for the May 25th, so would clear up then, and currently has a free weekend after (not that it would remain that way), but following that is stiff competition from both Ocean’s Eight and Bumblebee, and the week after The Incredibles 2. To add to the problems, it’s not arriving too far out from sure-fire smash Avengers: Infinity War at the start of May. The latter two movies are particularly important; both released by Disney, that creates an inter-studio conflict that simply isn’t needed.
The bigger issue with summer, though, is that it disrupts the flow of Star Wars releases. Audiences are just getting used to the annual tradition, and this throws it completely out of whack; there’ll be a film only five months on from The Last Jedi, leading to hype overlap (marketing for Han Solo would have to begin later this year, clashing with the main push for Episode VIII), and then a whopping nineteen months until Episode IX (presuming that does wind up in December 2019). Competition isn’t a deal breaker, but that might just be.
We have to now presume the film moves to December 2018. There’s no way that when it actually rolls around that Aquaman and Han Solo will release on the same day – that’s financial Russian roulette – but Disney could be bold and play chicken; move the movie to December 21st outright and see if Warners budge. They’ve played it before with Captain America 3 and Batman v Superman (Dawn of Justice was originally set for Civil War’s spot, but Cap muscled the fighting duo out), although things are less certain here; for all the brand help, a Han movie is less dependable than what was in many respects Avengers 2.5, and expectations for Aquaman hinge on the success of Wonder Woman and Justice League, two movies yet to be released. It could work, but is more of a gamble than it may seem.
One other possibility for Lucasfilm is to release Han Solo the week earlier, on December 14th. Opening weekends are the lifeblood of the blockbuster industry, after all, so that allows Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s film to make its no-doubt staggering first-three-day take unimpeded. But that ignores how both The Force Awakens and Rogue One had serious legs, making considerably more than average in the following weeks and months. Quality definitely played a part here – both films got over 80% on Rotten Tomatoes – but even if Han Solo wasn’t up to their standard you’d expect something still strong. Aquaman cuts right through that, vastly decreasing long-term sales. There’s also some further potential conflict care of Mortal Engines; the Peter Jackson-produced YA adaptation is set for that Friday. Odds are that will move soon just because of Aquaman, but it’s worth noting as direct competition.
What Does It Mean For The Franchises?
No situation is ideal for either movie – Aquaman only wins if Lucasfilm keep Han Solo where it is – and telling where the potential fracas can go is tricky.
On the DCEU side of things, the shift for financial gain leaves a thirteen-month gap between Justice League and Aquaman. This’ll do nothing to help them catch up with the cultural juggernaut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and only highlights just how many production issues are plaguing their near-countless films in various stages of development. On the flipside, it gives a good springboard for them to get a box office smash and from this early stage shows a lot of faith in one of the more mocked Justice League members (both in classic and Khal Drogo form). James Wan has been given creative freedom with the movie, and so hopefully he really has delivered on his promise. There’s also rumors of a second film shooting in 2017, which may (heavy on the may) even offset that gap.
For Star Wars, the whole issue questions what the release strategy will be going forward; it may have already lost December 2018, setting a potential precedent that goes against everything Lucasfilm has been working towards since the Disney purchase. In more focused terms it could mean Han Solo is a more modest success. It’s already been treated to a high-level of skepticism, with the stacked cast and crew (in terms of raw talent, it rivals the other movies of the Disney-era) not offsetting what is a questionable expansion idea, and having its release handled differently is only going to hurt perceptions further; there’s no real situation where it winds up afforded the same open track of its recent predecessors. That said, while the film is potentially very important for defining the Anthology enterprise, the franchise as a whole is big enough to weather any issues, meaning that on a grand scale it may ultimately not be a major issue; Star Wars is moving at full speed and has a plethora of future options.
No doubt the coming weeks and months will give a better idea of the true situation; DC’s post-2017 plans are hazy at best, so quite what the Aquaman move means is hard to gauge at this point, while it will likely be at Star Wars Celebration in April when we get proper word on what Lucasfilm has planned for Han Solo. For now, one thing is abundantly clear: December isn’t as safe a month for Star Wars as everybody thought.