Star Wars Needs to Bounce Back But It’s Not in Big Trouble

by Ray Keating
Review/Analysis
DisneyBizJournal.com
July 16, 2018

DisneyBizJournal.com Movie Rating:  3 1/2 stars  out of 5
DisneyBizJournal.com Box Office Rating:  $  out of $$$$

If someone had told me a year before its release that Solo: A Star Wars Story would be a box office flop, I would have resorted to mocking – the same way Luke Skywalker mocked the Millennium Falcon the first time he saw it in Star Wars: A New Hope.

Fallout from The Last Jedi

But then came the December 2017 release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. While the Millennium Falcon exceeded expectations, The Last Jedi fell woefully short. Sure, The Last Jedi raked in $1.3 billion and the critics largely gave it a thumbs up. But while lots of people forked over money for Last Jedi tickets, fans were not happy. A recent quick look over at Rottentomatoes.com served up a 91% positive rating among critics for The Last Jedi, but a grim 46% among moviegoers.

What happened? Well, it basically came down to poor storytelling by the film’s writer and director Rian Johnson, including myriad story holes, and either a lack of understanding or not caring about the character of Luke Skywalker. In fact, during a panel discussion featuring Mark Hamill and Johnson, Hamill made a statement about keeping the fans in mind when telling new chapters in the Star Wars saga. That seemed reasonable, but not to Johnson. Here’s what he said: “I know that George Lucas, the one thing he never did was to make any decisions in any of his movies based on some idea of making anyone but himself happy with the story. If you second guess every creative decision that you have, that you’re led to, with some idea of yes but is this abstract notion, the fan going to approve of this, then you’re going to make a bad movie… I had to kind of tell the story that I believed in and then put it out there.” There’s a sliver of a legitimate point buried here, but it’s lost due to Johnson’s taking it too far – in what comes across as arrogance and immaturity. After all, without the fans footing the bill, Johnson would not be making films. Yes, Johnson went with his story, largely discarding the fans and the history of Luke Skywalker and Star Wars. It didn’t work.

The audience fallout from The Last Jedi wound up hitting Solo: A Star Wars Story (released on May 25, 2018).

A Solid Star Wars Film That Lost Money

While not being tops among the Star Wars movies, Solo ranks as a more-than-solid film.

It’s a largely fun adventure, with plenty of action, and some interesting character introductions and interplay, such as the relationship between the two characters we meet at the outset, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), as well as the meeting and developing friendship between Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Along with the characters, we experience love, betrayal, friendship, teamwork and the lack thereof, fear, courage, cowardice, and wrestling with what’s the right thing to do. In addition, it’s interesting to view the impact of Beckett (leader of a criminal group played exceedingly well by Woody Harrelson) on Han – for better and for worse. The young Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) brings some fun into the story as well, except for his weird relationship with the annoying droid L3-37. The movie serves up a few surprises and twists along the way, and hey, there’s even a high-tech train robbery. For good measure, Ehrenreich pulled off the considerable challenge of playing a young Han Solo. And given the need to switch directors in mid-stream, Ron Howard deserves credit for pulling off a fine directorial feat.

Nonetheless, Solo apparently lost money. According to various reports, such as from Variety, the movie cost some $250 million to make, plus another $150 million spent on promotion. But, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com (all box office numbers are from Box Office Mojo unless otherwise noted), Solo only pulled in $380 million in revenue globally, short of the $400 million cost.

Looking Ahead

A longtime ago (relatively speaking in Hollywood terms) in the Star Wars galaxy, the biggest unknown was when or if George Lucas was ever going to get around to making another film. When Lucas did return to his franchise, it didn’t seem to matter all that much that the three prequels – especially the first two – did not compare well to the original trilogy. They still had a certain fun about them, and raked in big revenues and profits.

But what about now? Is Disney in trouble with Star Wars? Hardly. Here are a few reasons why.

First, this is not new territory for the franchise. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) pulled in more than $1 billion. But Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) fell back to $649 million. There were rumblings. However, with Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) being the best of the Lucas prequels, the box office bounced back to $849 million. And a decade later, the first Star Wars film under Disney – The Force Awakens – earned more than $2 billion in box office revenue.

Second, director J.J. Abrams, who was at the helm of The Force Awakens, returns for the next movie, Episode IX, set for release in December 2019. Abrams clearly has more of an appreciation for Star Wars lore than Johnson. For good measure, while Solo came a mere five months after The Last Jedi, there’s a year-and-a-half from Solo to Episode IX, providing some breathing time and an opportunity to gin up new Star Wars excitement.

Third, that excitement will be further fueled by Disney’s opening the much-anticipated, immersive Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge parks at both Disneyland (summer 2019) and Disney World (late fall 2019).

Fourth, Bob Iger and the rest of the Disney management team correctly view Star Wars as a major, long-term source of revenue and profits, and are investing accordingly. While moviemaking is always part gamble, given audiences’ shifting tastes and quirks, and Disney certainly has had its missteps, the number of missteps have been limited given the size and scope of this entertainment giant. Disney will not allow its original $4-billion-plus investment to purchase the Star Wars franchise, and subsequent and forthcoming expenditures, to go to waste. There are more movies and series coming, including films from the creators of Game of Thrones, a trilogy from Johnson (one hopes he’ll bounce back being free to create his own set of characters and story), and multiple television shows (including one by Jon Favreau) for the forthcoming Disney streaming service. If success eventually requires cleaning out the current Star Wars team, led by Kathleen Kennedy, then so be it, that will happen. Or, if the next film hits hyperdrive, criticism of how the House of Mouse handles Star Wars will fade … at least for a time.

In the end, the safe money goes with Disney and its Star Wars assets continuing to grow – and feeding Disney’s reputation, expanding IP (i.e., intellectual property), and bottom line.

Ray Keating is the editor, publisher and economist for DisneyBizJournal.com, and author of the Pastor Stephen Grant novels, with the two latest books being Reagan Country: A Pastor Stephen Grant Novel and Heroes and Villains: A Pastor Stephen Grant Short Story. He can be contacted at raykeating@keatingreports.com.