The International Box Office Problem
As with most major blockbusters, costs have risen and domestic audience interests have plummeted. 2017 saw the North American Summer box office fall to its lowest revenues in over 20 years. Films that were supposedly sure-fire bets with homegrown audiences barely made a dent with their domestic releases. To compensate for this problem that has affected all the major studios, distributors have become increasingly reliant on international box office grosses, with the golden goose of the globe being China. The Chinese box office can make or break a film: See how they stopped Warcraft from being a major flop, or how the gross for the 5th Transformers movie was around $400m less than its predecessor in large part due to disinterest from Chinese audiences. Disney has fared especially well in the nation, with the Marvel franchise and animated films like Zootopia breaking records overseas.
The big problem here is that Star Wars has never been a big deal in China, and increasingly, it’s become evident that the nation’s audiences have little investment in seeing more of this universe. Each new installment has grossed progressively less in China, with Solo only making $3m there in its opening day and debuting in third place at the box office. Historically, Chinese audiences have no fan connection to the franchise. The original trilogy didn't even get a theatrical release in the country. Other franchises like Marvel have fared better under similar circumstances – Disney’s films were even briefly banned in the nation for a period of time, so their extensive brand building in China is one of their more ambitious business pursuits. However, Marvel had something in the country that the Star Wars films never had: Appropriate marketing.
The Marketing Problem
While this problem is particularly relevant to Chinese publicity campaigns, it's one that's also had an impact on Solo. In China, the Star Wars name was completely removed from the film's title and marketed more as Ranger Solo. It made sense to remove all connections of the film’s prequel status given how little audiences were invested in characters like Han Solo, but it still didn’t work.
Back in North America and English-speaking audiences, Solo leaned heavily on its prequel status and connection to the wider universe of Star Wars, a tactic not dissimilar to Marvel’s marketing. What that ultimately did was conceal the true nature of the film: An old-school space Western that’s at its best when it leans away from the origin story of Han Solo. If Star Wars is to become an annual tradition or have a release model similar to Marvel, then Lucasfilm and Disney need to market the films as absolute necessities for audiences to see. General audiences may love Han Solo but not care all that much about a younger version played by someone who isn’t Harrison Ford. Much has been made about the upcoming Boba Fett film but the marketing issues surrounding that could be immense – do audiences have that much investment in the character, and what is the hook to his story?
Solo had a similar marketing plan to the rest of the franchise in that it focused more on concept than character or story. Most of the trailers for Solo hide what the film is actually about and don't seem all that interested in Han himself. This strategy can work if there's enough investment in the material but this is a prequel with none of the original trilogy's actors, like the new trilogy, or a story people know, like Rogue One. It wasn't enough for any audience to just see the concept of a Han Solo prequel, with no hints at what the film itself was like. Audiences needed more than a shot of the Millennium Falcon to care about the film. Assuming audiences want anything and everything Star Wars related ignores why fans like the franchise in the first place.