A Release Date Matters
Just why did Lucasfilm release Solo over the Memorial Day weekend? For all the film's box office performance has been disappointing, Solo was actually the biggest Memorial Day opening in the last four years. A number of high-profile movies have failed to crack the Memorial Day holidays, including X-Men: Apocalypse, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and Tomorrowland. Lucasfilm appeared to believe that a Star Wars film would, by default, perform well no matter when it was released. Clearly, they were wrong.
Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis has suggested the film also had too much competition. "There's a question of frequency," he explained, "and how many times people will go to the movies. Is this too much and too soon for a third time in a five-week period?" His comment referred to the fact Solo has been released against heavy competition from Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2, and there's likely truth in this. But the fact remains that Disney chose the release date, placing Solo in so competitive an environment. In fact, given Marvel Studios moved forward the release of Infinity War late in the day, Solo was initially expected to be taking on even tougher competition. Again, the assumption seems to have been that a Star Wars film will be a blockbuster hit no matter what. Hopefully, the lesson of Solo will be that Lucasfilm and Disney can't simply assume success with any Star Wars film. That will mean they schedule future spinoffs more wisely, carefully assessing the box office around the release dates.
Marketing is Still Important - Even for Star Wars
Some critics have complained that Solo is somehow "unnecessary," that the film isn't "needed." There's a sense in which this is a fair criticism; the reality is that none of these Star Wars spinoffs are actually necessary to the main narrative. That's why they should be supported by a strong marketing approach, one that doesn't try to tell viewers they "need" the movie, rather, it makes people want it. In the case of Solo, a relatively lackluster marketing campaign failed to achieve this goal.
Marketing for a modern blockbuster tends to kick off about six or seven months before the film's theatrical release. In the case of Solo, though, Lucasfilm held back. The studio seems to have been hesitant to market two movies at once, and so waited until well after The Last Jedi before they kicked their marketing into gear. The first trailer was only released three months before Solo hit theaters, in February's Super-Bowl Weekend. It wasn't a particularly impressive trailer, either, failing to give Alden Ehrenreich a chance to shine.
It's as though Lucasfilm believed audiences were already eager to watch the film, in spite of the fact no evidence suggested that. By the time marketing picked up, it was simply too late to catch the audience's eye. Again, Lucasfilm's overconfidence in the Star Wars brand proved to be a catastrophic weakness. Even a Star Wars film needs a strong marketing push.
Don't Depend on the Fan-Service
Let's move on to one final, important lesson; fan-service is not enough to guarantee success. The relaunched Star Wars franchise has been overly dependent on nostalgia; Solo is frankly drenched in fan-service. Perhaps the most amusing scenes are Lando's journal entries, which are actually humorous references to old Expanded Universe novels. But the problem is that there's a difference between appealing to the franchise's most vocal, committed fans, and to general audiences.
There's a sense in which the Star Wars spinoffs are designed for fan-service. After all, does the average moviegoer actually care about how the Rebel Alliance acquired the Death Star plans? Is the average viewer really interested in seeing moments described in the Original Trilogy, or in learning how Boba Fett - swallowed so ignominiously by a Sarlacc - became a feared Bounty Hunter? As Solo proves, Lucasfilm simply cannot depend on fan-service. The Obi-Wan Kenobi and Boba Fett movies have to reach beyond this, and establish a more general appeal.
Ultimately, the sad truth is that Solo: A Star Wars Story is proving to be a disappointment to Lucasfilm. Critical responses are lukewarm, while the box office performance is hardly what the studio is used to. That shouldn't dissuade Lucasfilm from continuing their anthology films, but it should make them pause and reflect, in order to learn crucial lessons and prevent this kind of situation happening again.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019