There’s a very real chance that Solo: A Star Wars Story could become the first Star Wars movie to actually lose money at the box office. This comes only six months after The Last Jedi split fans in half, sparking a wave of fervent backlash against director Rian Johnson, including a petition asking that the movie be struck from the official canon.
This double whammy of disappointment will almost certainly be triggering some soul-searching over at Lucasfilm. But how worried should Kathleen Kennedy and her colleagues be? I hopped into a chat with my Popcorn Muncher Podcast co-hosts, Patrick Wilson and Luke Stevenson to discuss the future of Star Wars. Here’s a transcript of that chat, edited slightly for length and clarity.
Tom: So it’s fair to say that the Star Wars universe is having to ask some questions about itself at the moment. The Last Jedi split fans down the middle and Solo has united everyone in an enormous shrug of the shoulders that might ultimately lead to Disney actually losing money. Is the ship sinking, or is business as usual still a viable approach?
Luke: I think this is the beginning of the ship starting to sink, and while I think Disney takes part of the blame, I think its down to the kind of unhealthy mindset we all have around Star Wars.
Tom: There’s certainly a feeling of entitlement. People want Star Wars to be exactly the way they want it.
Patrick: If the Marvel model is anything to go by, this is just a bump in the road that will be smoothed over and the machine will roll on. If Star Wars can survive the prequels, it will survive a naff Han Solo movie.
Luke: That’s the problem though. Star Wars can’t fit into the Marvel model because no one has an idealised version of what Marvel should be in our heads. Despite the fact they’ve done a bajillion movies, Marvel is still only 10 years old. Its still new. Star Wars is part of a 40-year legacy, which most people still hold up as the most important cultural touchstone in cinema. The reason Rogue One and The Force Awakens work is because they give you that feeling again, that perfected version of childhood Star Wars in our minds. As soon as they start to move away from that to try to ‘universe it’ so to speak, it struggles and then fans switch off.
Tom: Exactly. It’s that idea that people want Star Wars to be different, but only different within their idea of what Star Wars should be. The Last Jedi, love it or loathe it, took real creative risks. It felt different, in style, story and themes.
Patrick: Star Wars needs to be more malleable. Stuff has to be okay with feeling less like Star Wars and not as close to the originals. Solo is safe in all the wrong ways and audiences have shown they don’t care.
Luke: I think another problem is scheduling and marketing. We have an annual Star Wars Day now, a film every year and, in this case, films six months apart. We get toys before the release of a film. Star Wars was always about selling toys, really, but it never felt as corporate as it does now, and it’s exhausting.
Tom: But that’s true of every major blockbuster franchise. Getting shitty at Star Wars for being corporate seems mad to me, given how corporate it always was. Negotiating a major merchandising cut was one of George Lucas’s biggest triumphs.
Luke: I consider A New Hope my favourite movie, but fuck me if I wasn’t bored of Star Wars before Rogue One. I loved Rogue One either way, but then by the time the next stuff came around, I was too tired again. Lucas invented the merchandising of films, for sure, and that’s always been a part of Star Wars, but you can’t deny it feels more aggressive now. He would’ve sold more toys if he did a movie every year but he never did that.
Tom: I think it comes down to the cultural cachet it all has. You have to work yourself up for a Star Wars movie because of the level of hype it has as a cultural event. What we’re experiencing now is audiences not being able to muster that excitement when they already did it six months ago and then two or three weeks prior for Avengers: Infinity War.
Patrick: Solo releasing alongside two major blockbusters gives no room for a general audience member who may see only one cinema release a month.
Tom: That was the ultimate killer for Solo. Christmas is such a good slot for a blockbuster.
Luke: BUT. Deadpool 2 and Avengers came out within two weeks of each other and still made loads of money. People will see blockbusters back to back if there’s the will to justify seeing it.
Patrick: There was also no hype. They did a big decade-long build to a movie blow-out, then followed it with a highly anticipated sequel to that smash hit – and then a Solo movie with no bearing on anything.
Luke: That’s the problem with people seeing Star Wars as whatever interpretation they had of it when they were young. As soon as it starts to deviate, it breaks people’s desire to see it, and that is why I think it’s starting to slip now.
Tom: The Last Jedi messed with people’s heads. It was so removed from the classical image of Star Wars.
Luke: And it was a bad film, don’t forget that.
Tom: We’re never going to agree on that.
Patrick: Leaning on things we know has been a common criticism of new Star Wars and Solo is the first example of it actually failing. Rogue One had several aces up its sleeve, but this had a pair of twos.
Tom: It comes back to what you said earlier, Patrick. Star Wars isn’t malleable. Marvel can reinvent. Star Wars can’t, based on the reactions we’ve seen.
Luke: Marvel hasn’t had to reinvent, though. It’s still inventing. If they stop Marvel films and in 30 years come back to the well, that’s the only time when the two are a fair comparison, because you’re asking people who grew up with those films to accept change to them. It’s like every thing we ever see in movies about nostalgia. People remember the good stuff at the expense of the bad, so their memories aren’t real. I don’t think people will ever judge Star Wars fairly because of its place in people’s consciousness, which makes franchising it more widely than nostalgic episodes nigh-on impossible.
Tom: But the Marvel films are different within the confines of their formula. Ant-Man is a comedy, Winter Soldier is a political thriller, Ragnarok is a silly fantasy epic. Star Wars is a space-set adventure movie, whichever film you look at. That’s the difference.
Patrick: Is a fairer comparison the CHiPs reboot?
Tom: Out of left-field there! I’m intrigued. Tell me more…
Luke: Ooh, his CHiPs are down, let’s see where he takes it.
Patrick: I mean, that’s all I have. I just thought everyone would like to remember there was a CHiPs reboot.
Tom: No one wants to remember that movie.
Patrick: To be fair, it’s an example of nostalgia driven cinema production. It comes in cycles. We’re getting CHiPs and The Equalizer now. In the 90s, it was Addams Family and The Beverly Hillbillies.
Luke: I still think Marvel and Star Wars aren’t comparisons because we are in the first era of Marvel, so we will look back on it in 20 years time as a multi-genre extended universe. Star Wars was always one genre, which is how we now judge it.
Tom: But that’s precisely my point, in a roundabout way. In order to fit into the current franchise model, Star Wars has to diversify. That’s not something the fans are willing to stand. The prospect of Star Wars as a “multi-genre extended universe” makes some people so angry that they have to harass young women on social media.
Luke: I think it’s wider than just fans – it’s wider audience expectations. I think diversifying a familiar franchise is possible if you split it up a bit. Four films in three and a half years is not adequate space to do that, and I think that’s where the Disney blame comes in.
Patrick: But with all the examples I just gave, none of them were truly franchisable. Nostalgia only gets you so far. Where is this generation’s Star Wars?
Tom: Pop culture is too fragmented now for Star Wars to happen again. Even a film that makes $2bn worldwide isn’t something that “everyone” goes to see in the way that Star Wars was.
Patrick: But surely there has to be something that inspires new film makers like that did
Tom: I think the last film to even come close was Avatar. You can feasibly see someone, in 20 years’ time, writing that they saw Avatar when they were 10, at the height of its cultural dominance, and it inspired them to make movies.
Luke: This era isn’t for filmmakers though, it’s for TV makers. Just like Star Wars and Jaws defined cinema in a new way in that era, this era is all about how TV is reinventing entertainment.
Tom: Well, this is sad. I’m going to have to concede a point in favour of TV. Because I think you’re right.
Luke: Because of how franchises are run now, you could rarely see someone being inspired by a fifth Star Wars movie that had to stick close to a set of characters. No one is inspired by this reinvention of Han Solo.
Tom: So people don’t want to see these movies and no one is inspired by them. With that said, Episode 9 is still going to make a gazillion dollars, right? And it’s JJ Abrams again, so nostalgia and formula is a near-guarantee.
Luke: Basically, I think the problem with Star Wars is it exists in a specific sandbox. It can’t invent new elements because it is held on a pedestal. Therefore, it will find itself unable to do new things, and the creativity in doing old things runs out really fast.
Patrick: If you stray from the canon of fans, they go apeshit. It’s hard to make dramatic changes. See how angry people were about midichlorians. Even though I agree that was ridiculous
Luke: I think you can do it, but more slowly than every six months or a year. And if you make it part of your business strategy to release movies based on characters’ origins, you limit the creative potential, which is why I think the Rian Johnson trilogy is more exciting, or at least it was before he proved borderline incapable of handling a movie that size.
Tom: So to bring this to a close, do you think it’s fair to say that Star Wars needs to make a change, or can they just carry on as normal and hope things turn around?
Luke: On its current trajectory, it won’t make it past the next single character movie. They can argue Solo is a flop based on reshoots inflating the cost, but I think there’s a mood where people are asking what’s the new thing here, and others afraid of the new thing. I think they should do Episode 9 and give it a two year break.
Tom: I think a break after Episode 9 would be the key thing for me. Star Wars needs to be allowed to feel special again. I don’t think making the character movies and spin-offs is necessarily a bad idea, but they can’t all be $250m mega-blockbusters. Save that for the episodes.
Luke: Stop trying to prequel things and stop trying to Marvel things
Patrick: Why not make some current universe stuff? Make stories that affect the new characters rather than playing safe with what people know. Make new tales with what is successful now, not what was in the past. Maz Kanata: A Star Wars Story.
Tom: Anything that gives Lupita Nyong’o work is good with me!
Luke: Hey, she got plenty of work in that 30 second scene from The Last Jedi. So we could have that casino planet stuff.
Patrick: Casino Child Slave Labouring War Profiteers: A Star Wars Story
Luke: Discussing the Future of Star Wars While Disney Counts Its Money: A Star Wars Story
Tom: Flogging the Dead Horse of a Joke Format In a Stark Metaphor for Disney’s Treatment of Franchises: A Star Wars Story
Do you feel like Star Wars needs to change up its format in order to keep its growing universe moving? Are you happy for things to continue as they are? Let me know in the comments section.