By Tanner Kinney
The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinion of Byte or Byte’s editorial board.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Disney has control of the box office with every film it releases. If you want your film to succeed, and it has the same target audience as the next big Disney film, you move your release date. Whether it be animated films aimed towards families or their films aimed towards an older audience, Disney is a black hole, absorbing all ticket sales within a 10 movie radius. Despite claims that “superhero fatigue” will eventually hit Disney Marvel films, they are still going strong. It seems superhero fatigue is more just fatigue of terrible films, like Justice League.
Yet, the impossible seems to have happened. A big budget blockbuster film from a well-established franchise tanked in the box office. The winner of the big loser trophy is Solo: A Star Wars Story. A Star Wars film with a troubled production, that got released after two major titles in Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2. Despite ranking first in its opening weekend, Solo bombed with only roughly 100 million dollars in domestic sales, and roughly 172 million dollars worldwide. Those numbers seem pretty good though, but with a 250 million dollar production budget that doesn’t even include marketing, which could easily add another 250 million onto it, Solo has quite a deficit to overcome. The questions: why did Solo fail? Is Disney Star Wars in trouble? And can Solo even have a chance to make its budget back? Let’s break out the calculators and see if Solo can win in the end. I don’t have a really good feeling about it.
Let me preface this by saying that I feel nothing about Star Wars. Despite writing about Star Wars twice previously, I was never a long time fan of the series. I think prequel memes are funny, even if they are a cynical fabrication by Disney executives to get people to love the prequels (even if it’s ironic love). I think the original trilogy is good. I even actually really like The Last Jedi, being one of the 46% of audience members on Rotten Tomatoes to give it a positive score. But Star Wars was never really my thing. I’m here for the numbers, and to see if it wasn’t Rian Johnson, but Hollywood hack Ron Howard who put Star Wars in a grave.
To start, let’s establish the budgets for the films I’ll be talking about. The budget is essentially the baseline goal of sales a film needs to meet within its theatrical run. Beyond breaking that barrier is pure profits for the production company. Since this is about Solo specifically, I won’t be looking at profits today. It’d be a challenge to get anywhere near an accurate estimate for how much Solo will make, along with the other films that are still in their theatrical run that I’ve included to provide comparisons. I will, however, make a prediction about the future of Solo, and whether it will even start to make profit. The films included as points of comparison will be the other Disney-Star Wars films, and the two major competing blockbusters for Solo, Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2. For reference, most data is taken from BoxOfficeMojo. Any numbers that can’t be found there were estimates found through various searches. Those will be specified. Now then, the first graph:
Surprisingly, the budgets for the Star Wars films have been relatively consistent, all hanging between 400-500 million. The budget for The Last Jedi is an estimate, but is in line with what’s expected. As always, production budgets don’t include marketing, so the base numbers are doubled to get an estimate of how much the total budget is (though some films may have more or less marketing). Deadpool 2, of course, is smartly budgeted and therefore makes huge bank for Fox. Infinity War’s budget is massive, estimated at 716 million, but that’s expected of “the most expensive Marvel film ever.” Solo is on the more expensive end of the Star Wars films, likely due to the increased production costs from going through a bit of production Hell.
These budgets are pretty in line with what’s expected of these major blockbusters. In my last article looking at box office numbers, most of the films from the past few years had budgets in this zone. Most of the films in my last article also made sizable profits in just opening weekend. Those were superhero films though. Could any of the Star Wars films compete with the opening weekend of a Disney-Marvel film, and make their budgets back? Since, optimistically, a film should pay its cost back with opening weekend, so every week from there out is pure profit.
Opening weekend woes
The first number, in light blue, is the domestic sales of the film. The second number, in dark blue, is the sales worldwide (domestic sales+foreign sales). Worldwide sales tend to, if things are going well, more than double the sales made from domestic sales. Only particularly niche films don’t manage to do that. The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, Deadpool 2, and Infinity War all managed to succeed in doing that. Rogue One got close, but not quite there. The only outlier, then, is Solo, which only made an additional 72 million in foreign sales on top of 102 million domestic sales, totaling in roughly 174 million worldwide.
Not only do Solo’s worldwide sale not even come close to scratching every other movie on the list (despite having a four day opening weekend, thanks to Memorial Day), it doesn’t even get close to touching the massive 500 million dollar budget. By comparison, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and Deadpool 2 all made their budgets back on opening weekend. Rogue One would eventually make its budget back, and Infinity War has also made its huge budget back by now. Fortunately for Solo, opening weekend tends to only average out to 30 percent of the overall sales of a film.
Week two worsens
The drop off between week one and two is always a good indicator of the health of a film’s life. Nowadays, many films have a significant drop off between week one and two, averaging roughly 50 percent consistently across films of any genre. When I first drafted this article, we didn’t have numbers for week two, so I had calculated the average percent difference between week one and two of the other five films. This came out to 57.4 percent, which was used to calculate an estimate to how Solo would look in week two. Fortunately, now we have actual numbers. Unfortunately, they are much, much worse, with a -65.2% drop. Opening weekend numbers are also included to provide a visual comparison, as adding the percentages to these graphs tends to get a little scuffed. Finally, all the numbers are domestic numbers, since beyond opening weekend, foreign numbers aren’t tracked by the site I used for my data. Now then, with that established, look at this graph:
The only film that manages to escape the 50 percent drop off was The Force Awakens, managing to only have a -39.8 percent change. The Last Jedi had a massive drop between opening weekend and week two, almost certainly because of the negative press from fans. Deadpool 2, curiously enough, had a similarly huge drop, likely because of the release of Solo. Now that Solo has released, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two films have similar numbers again
Keeping in mind that these are domestic numbers, worldwide numbers experience similar declines to that of the domestic numbers. So then, let’s take Solo’s opening weekend worldwide number: 174 million. Let’s assume that Solo’s worldwide decline is roughly the same as the estimate I had for its domestic decline week two. Finally, although, typically the drop off between weeks improves as the movie stays in theaters, let’s use an extreme example of my -57.4 percent change that I had originally estimated over the course of Solo’s theatrical run. So, explaining my super radical math, 174 (zeros removed for simplicity) is multiplied by 57.4 percent (or 0.574), which results in 99.876. That number is then subtracted from 174 to get 74.124, or the estimated week two worldwide numbers. The process is then repeated, replacing the 174 with the new week’s sales. I repeated this process several times to get a full month of Solo being in theaters, on a consistent decline in sales.
The final result was, after five weeks in theaters, Solo only grosses a very rough estimate of 329 million. That’s still well below its budget. Even predicting a gentle decline would only alter the results maybe a full 100 million at best. The result of all of this number munching is that Solo is almost destined to be a box office failure. This film will have to make its money back through toy sales and other means. If that doesn’t happen, Solo will be a failure, the first in the entire history of the series to be a failure (at least, in profits).
Which leaves me with a question: how did this happen? What about Solo was so different from the previous Star Wars films that made it a failure? Was it the critical reception? The fact it was a standalone? The negative press the film got throughout its production? Well, let’s take a look at one last graph: one for Rotten Tomatoes scores:
The Rotten truth
Unlike a lot of the superhero films, there isn’t much of a divide between critics and fans on (most) Star Wars films. That’s still consistent with Solo. The truth of the matter here, though, is that Solo is also well below every other film I’ve used. It’s also the third worst rated Star Wars film of the whole bunch, including the prequels. Yes, one of the prequels is rated higher than Solo. Sure, fans seem more warm towards Solo than they were towards The Last Jedi, but the fans also wanted to burn Rian Johnson at the stake and launched a full crusade against the film. Solo doesn’t even have fans riled up to do that. Which leads me to the conclusion about what happened to Solo, and what it means for the future of Star Wars films:
The general public does not care about Solo. The general public might not even care for the standalone films. Rogue One may have done well enough, but it was one budget setback and PR disaster away from being a failure like Solo. Which means people only care about the major trilogy, but even then interest is waning after The Last Jedi soured the fans and a lot of the general audience. Disney wants Star Wars to be this evergreen franchise, where they can set up a series of films that are in an interconnected world. In theory, with all of the extended universe material, this should be fairly easy. So far, however, this experiment has been a failure. Only Kathleen Kennedy knows what the future of Star Wars is, but for the sake of good movies that succeed, I’m hoping she’s considering her options after the disappointment that is Solo. And if she doesn’t have a plan, then Disney needs to give her the axe, and give Star Wars to someone who cares.
Did Ron Howard bury Star Wars? Probably not. The real question mark remains after the release of Star Wars Episode IX. If the film can’t find a way to keep the general audience interested, the films will die. The extended universe was always a niche thing anyways for the really hardcore Star Wars fans. I’m curious to see how the next standalone film will do, and I’m especially curious to see how the first film of the next trilogy after that does. But don’t worry Disney, if the idea well starts running dry, just give me a call. I have plenty of ideas.
Images: Byte Staff, IMDb
Tanner is a Film and Media Studies major and a Digital Media minor. His Neo Yokio review won a second-place CSPA Golden Circle award for the 2017 semester. He enjoys playing JRPG’s of any variety, regardless of how obscure and strange it is. Tanner is also the host of Byte at the Movies, the premiere movie discussion live-stream.