Despite major behind-the-scenes rumblings, Han Solo is still aiming for May 2018 and Star Wars 9 is locked in for the same month in 2019. And there's little room for last minute maneuvering to Christmas: December 2018 has already filled up with Peter Jackson's franchise-starter Mortal Engines, the year's lone DCEU entry Aquaman and Disney's own holiday release Mary Poppins Returns, while Warner Bros. has just placed Wonder Woman 2 on December 13, 2019, the date you'd have expected Episode IX to land should it move. Add that Avatar 2 and 3 are slated for December 2020 and 2021 respectively (years yet to have Star Wars films officially announced) and it's looking like Lucasfilm has lost its short-lived stranglehold on the pre-Christmas box office that has made the franchise return so successful.
And make no mistake: while nostalgia and a deft marketing campaign were essential in helping Episode VII crack $2 billion, it feels like a large portion of that success needs to be accounted to its release window. December 2015 was completely devoid of remote competition (the previous major film was The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 in early November), meaning for the entire month up to release the film could market itself with no real distractions and, subsequently lacking any competition, hit with the biggest opening of all time (a record that looks unlikely to be toppled domestically). However, the window also gave it legs; after it arrived we were entering the January drought, leaving a good month where it was the single major tentpole in town. The only serious competition came from Oscar fare, and with that audience you're typically dealing with minimal overlap or people who attend the cinema above average; The Force Awakens was the tenth-biggest seller of 2016, a year it wasn't even released in.
To make clear this wasn't a fluke, Rogue One - a story that would a decade ago have been a little-read piece of EU fiction - made $1 billion off a very similar release strategy. The Last Jedi is set to repeat that this year, likely to strong-albeit-not-greater-than-Awakens money. This has led to a bigger game plan clearly crafted around these December dates; allowing for Episode VII's hard sell in the wake of ten decades of prequel hate, each of the movies has been marketed in a very similar way (teaser in Spring, behind-the-scenes reel in July, second look late Summer, final trailer Fall) and production has fallen in line too - the movie-after-next starts production once the promotional blitz for the current release is done.
How Star Wars Lost Christmas
But after that they're shifting back to May releases, which bring with it competition from the rest of the summer lot, some of it incredibly direct: Solo will now have to arrive not only under criticism of its core idea and the fact it lost directors shortly before the end of production but just three weeks after Avengers: Infinity War and six days before Deadpool 2 in some territories, while two years out Episode IX already has five major tentpoles in the month around it. And it's obviously hurting that tightly woven schedule, with Solo under heavy time constraints even before the director change.
To suggest box office struggles would be fruitless and frankly wrong, but this is nevertheless a major change to perceived Disney Star Wars formula. We already talked about how Solo would have to deal with a shorter window between films when Aquaman sealed off December 2018 but it's now clear Episode IX won't be moving either; thanks to the same franchise, no less. Indeed, it seems like Warner Bros. are trying to mark out Christmas as their prime DCEU slot, similar to what Marvel's done with the first weekend of May and second of July, with pushing out Star Wars a nice bonus.
While a competitive release wouldn't lead to Episode IX's failure, being a sequel to Summer 2017's biggest movie means Wonder Woman 2 is a definite challenge. Some may argue that because Diana's core appeal is to older and female audiences, traditionally underrepresented demographics, it's playing to a different audience. However, that ignores the logic of four-quadrant mega-tentpoles and that Lucasfilm has invested a lot of time into diversifying the series' appeal, something this would totally nullify.
Moving ahead, Avatar is harder to fight. Again, Star Wars would probably win a box office battle, but both films' take would be vastly hurt by competition caused by releases even a few weeks apart. No Star Wars movies have been announced for 2020 or 2021 - in fact, that we haven't yet heard about a new spinoff suggests we aren't getting one in the former year at least - but if Lucasfilm do have plans they wouldn't at this point challenge James Cameron's dependable behemoths (which look a fair bet to make those dates this time - unlike previous missed releases, the movie is now in production).
December is now locked up all the way through to 2022, forcing Lucasfilm's hand and for the first time since The Force Awakens' early box office predictions came in put the studio on a back foot. Or has it?
- Star Wars 8/Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) release date: Dec 15, 2017
- Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) release date: May 25, 2018
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: Episode IX (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019