Even Disney feels there was too much Star Wars too soon, and they're right to pump the brakes and slow down. Back in 2012, the Mouse House shocked the entertainment industry by acquiring Lucasfilm for the grand total of $4 billion. Of course, new Star Wars movies were part of the deal, and the studios went to work on developing an entire slate that would see annual releases. The Skywalker saga would continue with a sequel trilogy set decades after Return of the Jedi, and there would also be standalone spinoff films that explored other corners of the galaxy far, far away.
As we approach the end of what is essentially Lucasfilm's "Phase 1," the Star Wars franchise is in a very interesting place. The Last Jedi continues to divide fans as the polarizing debates rage on more than nine months after the fact, and this summer's Solo has the unfortunate distinction of being the first Star Wars movie to lose money at the box office. Currently, there are no confirmed Star Wars release dates after Episode IX in December 2019, raising questions about the brand's future. Disney CEO Bob Iger made headlines recently when he said there would be a "slowdown" of Star Wars movies, and that's arguably for the best.
How Disney Rushed Star Wars
Under George Lucas' watch, there were six live-action Star Wars films released in a 28-year period. Sixteen long years separated the end of the original trilogy and the beginning of the prequel trilogy. And in both instances, the installments were released three years apart. This allowed anticipation for each entry to grow, as the arrival of a new Star Wars movie was seen as a significant pop culture event. Even with the prequels earning mixed reviews from critics and fans, they all grossed over $300 million domestically and turned a healthy profit. The Phantom Menace still ranks in the top 15 on the all-time box office charts with $474.5 million.
Simply put, Star Wars' cinematic input increased exponentially in the Disney era. Four years bridge the premiere of The Force Awakens and the debut of Episode IX, and J.J. Abrams' finale will be the fifth new Star Wars movie released in that span. Disney has almost equaled Lucas in just a fraction of the time, churning out content at a rapid pace. Disney may have felt they had another Marvel Cinematic Universe on their hands when they got the Star Wars rights, but those properties are created very differently. Whereas Marvel has a plethora of comics titles with decades of publication histories to exploit, Star Wars is just... well, Star Wars. The anthology films tried to incorporate other genres in the Star Wars formula, but Rogue One and Solo still had the "feel" of classic Star Wars.
There also may have been a miscalculation on Disney's part in regards to what Star Wars stories would generate interest. Obviously, Episode VII was a guaranteed hit, but they seemingly chose the wrong narratives when it came to the spinoffs. Most of the concepts that were discussed lacked a clear hook for audiences, instead playing on the nostalgia of seeing original trilogy favorites again (i.e. "young Han Solo," "Obi-Wan on Tatooine"). There's a reason that after Solo underwhelmed, Lucasfilm put other character-based anthologies on hold.
Disney Rushed Intro Controversy, Too
It's one thing to ramp up production on Star Wars movies and make them annual occasions, but Disney's own stubbornness brought them to this point. As many people know, Solo had a rather unusual production, with Ron Howard replacing original directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller towards the end of principal photography. Howard basically reshot the entire movie, which doubled Solo's budget to a whopping $250 million. Disney had no issue reaching into their deep pockets to give Lucasfilm the necessary funding to fix the movie, but they put their foot down when it came to other aspects.
When it became apparent Solo needed a massive overhaul, Lucasfilm requested a release postponement to December 2018, but Disney (already irritated by previous Star Wars delays) rejected the idea. Solo had to make its May 2018 premiere, and the film wouldn't get any extra help from Disney's marketing department. The Mouse House wanted to give Avengers: Infinity War (which hit theaters a few weeks before Solo) all the attention and didn't start promoting Solo until early February with a Super Bowl TV spot and teaser trailer. Many people pointed to the lackluster advertising campaign (rather than film quality or franchise fatigue) as the main reason why Solo tanked commercially. There's still hope it could break even via home media sales.
Solo completely changed the narrative around Star Wars. Its three Disney era predecessors all earned more than $1 billion worldwide and were the highest-grossing films domestically in their respective years of release. Last Jedi discourse was toxic, yes, but all of the new movies were critical and commercial smashes, and backlash doesn't have a real impact at the box office. Solo's failure, however, was the first real crack in the armor and proof even something as venerable and popular as Star Wars could fail if not handled properly. A move to a less competitive window may have led to different results, and even if Solo wasn't 2018's top movie (Black Panther clinched that title long ago), it may have ended its run in the black. There's no denying Solo was a misfire and gave Lucasfilm valuable lessons to take into the future, but Star Wars isn't dead.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: Episode IX (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019