Traditionally, the Star Wars film franchise has called summer home, with the three installments of the classic and prequel trilogies hitting theaters in May. Things changed when Lucasfilm released Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015. Disney, the studio's parent company, opted to premiere the new film in December, distancing the return of the galaxy far, far away from the Mouse House's other major property, Marvel. The results were greater than even the most optimistic could have anticipated. Upon its debut, The Force Awakens set the box office ablaze, breaking just about every record in the book en route to a $935.6 million domestic haul and $2 billion globally (becoming just the third film in history to reach that mark).
While this year's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story had always been scheduled for December, Disney originally had intended to return Star Wars to its typical summer window beginning with Star Wars: Episode VIII, initially pegged for May 2017. However, the overwhelming success of Force Awakens highlighted the benefits of being the only tentpole in town, so Rian Johnson's hotly-anticipated sequel was delayed to December 2017 in an effort to replicate the strategy so greatly employed for Episode VII. Fans could see a pattern beginning to emerge: release a trailer in April; Force Friday merchandise event in September; final trailer in October; movie premiere in December.
For that reason, some expected that Lucasfilm would eventually push back Phil Lord and Chris Miller's young Han Solo movie to December 2018 instead of sticking to its current May 2018 date. However, with the recent announcement that the first of four Avatar sequels is targeting a Christmas 2018 release, it all but eliminates the chances of that happening. Not only would it be illogical for two massive sci-fi blockbusters to come out at the same time, Disney has a vested interest in the Avatar franchise, too. "Pandora - The World of Avatar" is a themed area opening soon at the Walt Disney World Resort. This means that soon Lucasfilm will be in a position where they have to market two Star Wars movies simultaneously - something the studio has never done before. So how can they best pull this off?
The first three Star Wars films in the Disney era are all coming out in December, roughly a year apart from each other. This means that Lucasfilm has the freedom to focus on one project at a time, giving it maximum attention in promotion. They smartly did not (truly) begin the marketing for Rogue One until the book was officially closed on The Force Awakens, and it's unlikely any Star Wars 8 materials will emerge until well after the first spinoff completes its theatrical run. Each movie will get its moment in the sun without running the risk of overshadowing the next one. Unfortunately, this strategy won't work for the Han Solo movie due to the presence of Avatar 2.
Assuming that things stay the way they are, Han's solo film will hit theaters just five months after Episode VIII. Given the magnitude of the project as one of Disney's summer tentpoles, they'll perhaps have to start raising awareness for Lord and Miller's film while excitement for Star Wars 8 is reaching a fever pitch. This presents something of a problem for the studio, since the continuation of Rey's story (and the promise of a meatier role for Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker) will arguably receive more attention than the Han Solo prequel. Even if a talented actor like Alden Ehrenreich is following Harrison Ford's footsteps, the saga episodes are going to trump the anthologies in the eyes of casual audiences.
Conceivably, Lucasfilm could look to their Disney brethren Marvel as a guide. Marvel Studios frequently pushes two films at once, unveiling the teaser trailer for Doctor Strange three weeks ahead of the theatrical premiere of Captain America: Civil War. Last year, the first trailer for Ant-Man debuted months before Avengers: Age of Ultron's release, and Peyton Reed's story about the tiniest Avenger still found great financial success - enough to warrant a sequel in Phase 3. This is all to say that it is possible to run dual marketing campaigns; the studio just has to be smart about the way they handle it. And knowing Lucasfilm, they'll probably have a great plan in place when it's time.
While five months is obviously not as large a gap as an entire year, that still provides Lucasfilm with a fair share of breathing room between Episode VIII and Han Solo. Typically, summer movies do not begin promotional efforts until the holiday season anyway; the first trailers for Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Independence Day: Resurgence (among others) all hit roughly six months before their respective film's debut. So Lucasfilm could still run with their "one movie at a time" practice - albeit an extremely condensed version of it. They won't have the luxury of a slow rollout like before, but it'd be smart to attach the first Han Solo preview to Star Wars 8 as opposed to releasing it a month prior. That way, Star Wars 8 remains the priority for audiences and it isn't until after they see Johnson's film that they begin to focus on the second anthology.
The Han Solo film should be fine on its own, since it will in all likelihood be one of the most anticipated films of that summer. A larger question for Lucasfilm is how everything around the movie is impacted. For instance, will there be a Force Friday 2018 event in the winter, just months after the hypothetical Force Friday 2017 for Episode VIII? (which, let's be honest, is definitely in the works). Will Hasbro, LEGO, and other merchandise manufacturers still be able to capitalize on the holiday shopping craze with toys and goodies from a movie coming out seven months before Christmas? Star Wars 8's delay may have primarily been motivated by the box office performance of its predecessor, but Disney would like to dominate Black Friday with their ultra-popular franchise.
Chances are, they will. While Force Friday is on its way to becoming an annual holiday for Star Wars fans, it's hardly the only time licensed products are made available. There was a second wave of Force Awakens toys that hit shelves after the film was released, meaning something similar could be in store for Han Solo. New action figures of Han, Chewie, and supporting characters will certainly come out before the film's theatrical premiere, and then others (perhaps merchandise containing potential plot spoilers) in the months following, potentially coinciding with the Blu-ray that's sure to be in a few stockings that year. A full-blown Force Friday type of unveiling in fall 2018 might be overkill (no new movie to tie into), but Disney can still find a way to eat their cake and have it too with multiple product launches.
It will be interesting to see how Han Solo performs during the summer, in a crowded season which includes Avengers: Infinity War - Part 1, The LEGO Movie Sequel, Toy Story 4, and Jurassic World 2 (among several others). How it does at the box office could dictate Lucasfilm's future plans for the series. It's extremely doubtful Han Solo (or any upcoming Star Wars movie for that matter) will reach the staggering heights of Episode VII, but should the first Disney sanctioned summer Star Wars flick struggle to meet expectations, then they could look to December windows exclusively, alternating with Avatar. December 2019 (the proposed date for Episode IX) is still open, read as a conscious decision on Fox's part to give way to Star Wars. With the two properties now partners under the Disney umbrella in a sense, that could be a smart way to go.
Since Avatar 3 is coming in December 2020, the success of Han Solo will be very important when it comes to scheduling the third Star Wars anthology film. Officially, only two are coming through the pipeline - though rumors of an Obi-Wan Kenobi spinoff starring Ewan McGregor refuse to die. If Lord and Miller deliver another runaway success, then Lucasfilm can feel comfortable slotting more Star Wars movies in the summer. Should December prove to be the more fruitful window for Lucasfilm moving forward, then it will be interesting to see how their slate shapes up moving forward; the next open December isn't until 2021. Reports have suggested Disney intends to release a new Star Wars movie every year, but recent comments by Mouse House CEO Bob Iger suggest that post-Episode IX plans aren't ironed out yet. Theoretically, Lucasfilm could wait for the third anthology movie and give it the better date to bill it as the movie event of the holiday season.
Unless the public loses interest in Star Wars content within the next two years (unlikely), then Han Solo should do fine financially, even if it isn't a critical hit (though, Lucasfilm has assembled a talented creative team capable of delivering a quality product). The studio will have to market it a little differently, but overall raising awareness will be a non-issue. Fans already know the project is being developed, and there are plenty of major events (Star Wars Celebration, D23, San Diego Comic-Con) to get the ball rolling further. Disney has proven themselves promoting multiple Marvel movies simultaneously, so it's no big deal that Lucasfilm can't repeat their emerging pattern.
Though the chances of Han Solo being a box office bomb are low, it remains to be seen how effective the advertising efforts are with only a short time between the spinoff and Star Wars 8. Many will be watching the box office figures with a curious eye, since Star Wars will no longer have the summer to itself - as it did many years ago. Instead of being the film to see, it'll just be one of many releases during the crowded season and may not be in high demand a week or two after its debut (regardless of word-of-mouth). The Force Awakens saw a prolonged run of commercial dominance, something that's poised to happen again in 2016 and 2017. If Disney wants to make the absolute most of their $4 billion investment, then they could be better served taking turns with Avatar, now that they have to share that prime real estate.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens in U.S. theaters on December 16, 2016, followed by Star Wars: Episode VIII on December 15, 2017, the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25, 2018, Star Wars: Episode IX in 2019, and the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.