The box office results in December 2018 prove Lucasfilm and Disney made a mistake by choosing to not release a Star Wars movie during the month. When George Lucas was calling the shots, the galaxy far, far away was the gold standard for the summer blockbuster; the first six episodes of the Skywalker saga hit theaters in May where they all found a great deal of commercial success. But when the franchise became the latest part of the Mouse House's empire, it found a new home in the winter. The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi all premiered in December and collectively grossed more than $4 billion worldwide.
Not only did this provide plenty of distance between Star Wars and Disney's plethora of other tentpoles (namely, Marvel and Pixar - which own the summer), Star Wars was also able to be one of the few blockbusters in town over the holidays and take advantage of extremely minimal competition through the month of January. This is why it was so odd when the studios stubbornly stuck to a May window for this year's spinoff Solo: A Star Wars Story, which wound up becoming the first series installment to lose money at the box office. Reportedly, Lucasfilm pushed for a change due to the project's infamous production difficulties, but Disney refused to budge. Turns out, they should have.
With this December being the first Star Wars free Christmas since 2014, several studios looked to capitalize by releasing their own tentpoles over one of the busiest filmgoing periods of the year. Everyone was hoping for a Star Wars-esque splash, but that didn't happen. Aquaman won this weekend with a solid, but unremarkable, $67.4 million. Bumblebee stumbled with $21.6 million - the lowest Transformers opening of all-time. Mortal Engines crashed and burned before most people knew what happened. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse could only ride its incredible word-of-mouth to the tune of a $35.3 million debut. Even Disney's Mary Poppins Returns couldn't find that Star Wars magic, grossing just $31 million domestically as of this writing. The issue seems to be that while all of these were tentpoles for their respective studios, none of them were major "event" films like The Lord of the Rings, Avatar, and Star Wars have been in years prior.
Solo has the reputation of being a commercial failure, but its own opening weekend is actually well above all of the films discussed in the above paragraph. Its haul of $84.4 million was larger than Venom, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, and Mission: Impossible - Fallout. That illustrates the power of the Star Wars brand; despite coming out in the shadow of Infinity War and Deadpool 2 and being hamstrung by a lackluster marketing campaign, Solo posted a respectable debut that was disastrous primarily because of the film's substantially inflated budget. It's hard not to wonder how things might have turned out if Solo was Disney's big Christmas tentpole - something co-writer Jonathan Kasdan has pondered about. Disney did have Mary Poppins in place well before anything went wrong with Solo, but it'd be easy enough to mix things around, and the competition from other studios likely stays clear (although, it should be noted Jumanji peacefully co-existed with The Last Jedi last year). With more time to stage a proper advertising rush as well, the conversation around Solo is probably a bit different. It wouldn't break records, obviously, but it still would have done much better.
Fortunately, Episode IX is slotted into the December 2019 window, where it should perform extremely well at the box office (in all probability crossing $1 billion). This should be a lesson for Lucasfilm to heed in the years to come as Rian Johnson's trilogy and David Benioff & D.B. Weiss' series prepare to enter theaters. The marketplace has shown it can sustain annual Star Wars releases, but the movies need to come out at the proper time of year. These days, summer is simply too competitive and tight with a new would-be blockbuster opening each week. Alternating Decembers with the Avatar sequels would be a great way to keep Star Wars thriving and scoring big bucks for the Mouse House.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: Episode IX (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019