Hey Cultural Pundits, Don’t Get Cocky: Using Solo’s Demise to Discuss Bad Narratives

I think this one headline captures the surreality of Disney’s box office position:

Solo bombs with $150 million global debut

The headline above uses “bomb”, sarcastically, though most websites eagerly called it a flop unsarcastically. Yet, most films (and their studios) would love to open a movie over $100 million dollars in its opening weekend. Yet to my yet, expectations for Star Wars films aren’t like normal films; we expect them to win the year in total box office. Indeed, as one analyst pointed out, Solo will likely be the first Disney-produced Star Wars film to lose money. (Not Disney film to lose money. Sorry John Carter from Mars.)

(Though, overall, Disney will still make a lot of money on its Star Wars films. Tune in Wednesday for more!)

If our media loves anything more than success, it’s when the successful fail. And not even when you still make money, but just miss expectations. Given the hype of Star Wars, this under-performance begged to be explained (and entice all those Star Wars fans and haters to click). And critics, columnists and Hollywood watchers jumped into the fray.

Here are the reasons I saw for why Solo failed:

– Fans didn’t want a Solo movie in the first place.

– Star Wars fatigue

– Blockbuster fatigue

Solo was released in the crowded summer months

Solo had a troubled production

Solo wasn’t very good

– Solo had a weak marketing campaign

Star Wars fans were still angry about The Last Jedi

Star Wars fans boycotted Solo because of racism

Star Wars fans don’t want movies featuring white men

So which one was it Entertainment Strategy Guy? You’re so good at analyzing things, why don’t you tell us?

Well, it’s some of them. But I can’t prove any of them.

The biggest thing to remember when doing a “post mortem” (or WWW-TALA: what went well-take a look at; or what HBR calls “After Action Review”), is to acknowledge we only have a single data point. Solo came out and did poorly; if it had come out and done well, then we’d be looking for explanations to explain Star Wars’ continued dominance. In truth, one film shouldn’t adjust our priors that much.

Take the explanation above “releasing in the summer time” frame. I’ve seen that mentioned as a reason that Solo is different from The Last Jedi or The Force Awakens. But every single Star Wars film before The Force Awakens opened in the summer and annihilated the box office. Not to mention, two films were just released in “the summer” and had great box office, so blaming Solo’s demise on its summer release date seems like fitting data points into the narrative.

Which is really what I see in most Solo post-mortems: a desire to craft a narrative that probably won’t really hold up to analytic scrutiny. It will read well and tell a good story (and again subtly inform studio execs as they make decisions) but it won’t necessarily be right and it will be delivered too confidently.

Especially when the goal is to distill a failure like Solo into a single cause and say, “This is why it did well.”

The idea that you can distill success or failure down to a single reason is, frankly, lazy writing. It’s also almost never the case. So what I’m going to do with Solo is figure out my best guess for why it tanked at the box office. I’ll do it in two parts: first, figure out what is true, from a data perspective, if I can. Then, I’ll weigh the strength of each explanation. It won’t be as fun narratively, but it will be more accurate/honest.

Bad Explanations

Let’s go through the list above discard the explanations that don’t hold water. With data if we can.

Releasing in the crowded summer months

I started on this two paragraphs above, but just really think about what this explanation is saying: releasing movies in the summertime is bad? What? If anything, the strength of the Star Wars juggernaut is such that it can take a normally crowded and blockbuster-averse time period such as December and release mega-blockbusters.

There may be something to the fact that Memorial Day hasn’t launched a hit movie in a few years. They do well but miss expectations, but I’m not ready to say releasing Star Wars movies in the summer is a bad idea.

Blockbuster fatigue

Imagine a world where people can’t stop talking about how good Solo looks. Maybe a world where Lord and Miller successfully made a film that was as funny and charming as Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok or their own The Lego Movie. Like an Ocean’s 8 in space. And everyone heard Alden Ehrenreich crushes it as Han Solo. In that world, if the film came out and annihilated box office records, would either of the two reasons above hold water?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

We’re going to see a lot of blockbusters this summer; some will do well and some will flop. Trying to attribute it to fatigue doesn’t make sense to me. This market has elasticity for hits.

Star Wars has become too politically correct

I’m going to throw out all discussions of identity politics here. I’m ignoring any of the fans who brought that up because frankly that’s an angry sub-culture that really isn’t that big.

Star Wars fans don’t want movies featuring white men

Not even engaging with this for the same reasons as above.

Good Explanations

So we’ve discarded the ideas that don’t hold up to scrutiny. And some that just honestly shouldn’t have been mentioned. Let’s get to some ideas that make sense.

Fans didn’t want a Solo movie in the first place.

My favorite podcast on comic books—iFanboy—has always had a special episode on each Star Wars film, starting with The Force Awakens. My opinions track their opinions pretty closely. To paraphrase them, they weren’t excited for this film. Their complaint, which I share, was “Don’t mess with my iconic characters.” So, like them, I saw Solo, but I wasn’t enthusiastic about it. I saw a couple of articles touch on this idea.

How can I prove or disprove this idea? It’s tough. Ideally, and if I were Lucasfilm executive what I would do, you test story pitches with potential audience members ahead of time. Maybe they did this and I’d be surprised to hear that Solo actually tested really well. But I doubt it. Ultimately, I can’t quantitatively prove this idea, but there are enough articles and podcasts by enough different fans that I buy this idea. In essence, the bad subject matter made the quality bar that much higher for fans to go see it.

(I would add a variation on this is attributing the failure to Alden Ehrenreich. That’s too tough to pull out as its own category, so I’d lump that in with “Han Solo” expectations in general.)

Star Wars fatigue

The thesis of this explanation is that a new Star Wars film just came out, so fans weren’t as exuberant as they had been for The Force Awakens as they were for this film. A Star Wars film had just come out five months ago.

This is a great example where you can cherry pick your data to support your narrative. As some writers pointed out, uh, there isn’t Marvel fatigue. This is true: Marvel went from averaging 1 film per year to releasing 2 or 3 per year. Except, as the blockbuster database I created for my multipart series analyzing the Disney-Lucasfilm acquisition shows, most franchises can’t support more than one film per year. The only other one that tried before this was the DC Cinematic Universe and, well, we know how that ended. (I mean it’s still going but that patient is definitely in cardiac arrest.) Even Pixar has had trouble sustaining two great films a year after it accelerated its production.

Marvel is the outlier here. Using our feature film database, it’s much easier to name franchises that release a new film every two or three years (Fast and Furious, Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, Star Trek, James Bond, Transformers, Pirates) or once a year (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings) than more frequently, which is pretty much just Marvel. The only example besides Marvel that seems successful was Harry Potter’s Deathly Hallows, which was split into two and released two years apart. But given that the Harry Potter franchise had been building up to that conclusion for a decade, it doesn’t seem applicable here.

My conclusion is that Star Wars fatigue contributed to the soft opening, but only as an complicating factor. If Solo had been good (which we’ll get to) it likely still would have done Rogue One numbers. More than anything, Star Wars fatigue probably decreased the floor and ceiling of this film, but its success or failure had much more to do with other factors.

Solo had a late marketing campaign

This idea resonates with me, and mainly comes from one stock analyst Doug Creutz. However, even  he crafts a narrative that this is the sole explanation for the flop, which I obviously disagree with. (He “debunks” the other explanations without really using data.) He also had qualitative points to make about Solo’s marketing campaign, such as not featuring enough Ehrenreich to sell him as Has Solo. Unfortunately, quantitatively, it’s really hard to judge marketing campaigns.

What I think he got right is that Solo had a late opening, which something we can prove. Unlike Avengers: Infinty War which had been building for months or past Star Wars movies which had nearly year long campaigns, Solo waited until about two months before it premiered to drop its trailer, and still most Disney marketing was focused on Avengers: Infinity War. So I rate this as a good point I hadn’t initially thought of.

Solo had a troubled production and/or Solo wasn’t very good

In the current media age, fans hear about productions that aren’t going well. Especially if it is Marvel, Star Wars or DC. The fans are so passionate they hear about it. (Same with Harry Potter as I contemplate on it.) Solo had a notoriously troubled production, even compared to other troubled productions like Rogue One, Justice League and scattered Marvel films like Thor 2 and Ant-Man which each had directors leave the productions and/or had another director come in mid-way to do serious reshoots.

But those examples sort of prove the point don’t they? When directors leave projects mid-way through, or other directors come in to clean up the messes, it sure seems like the hit rate goes way down.

Fans know this so they respond accordingly. Especially if the initial word on the film via either critics or word of mouth (or both) is negative. Solo’s critical reviews were roughly, “Meh, it was good but derivative” and the user reviews were low too. I happened to hear positive word of mouth from my friends (which wasn’t the case on The Last Jedi) but the aggregated reviews were low.

My conclusion here is that a troubled production warns the hardcore fans. If the initial reviews are soft or weak, then it cements in their mind that they shouldn’t go. So I would rate these as both true, but the perceived quality is more important.

Star Wars fans were still angry about The Last Jedi

Here’s how I’d pitch this theory: if a new film in a franchise is really bad, you may not necessarily see the results in that film’s box office debut, but the next one. Essentially, a film can have a huge opening weekend because fans are excited by the franchise. But when they see it, it can leave them disappointed and as a result they don’t go to see the next film.

I like this idea because I’m trying to take the intense fan reaction to The Last Jedi and Solo and see if it resembles an actual phenomenon that could effect Hollywood blockbuster franchises. The trouble is trying to prove it. Let’s start by seeing if it even applies.

First, was The Last Jedi received negatively by fans on the whole? Most likely, yes. Now, I’m not going to base this on my opinions or critics opinions or even the Twitter/Reddit conversations raging on the internet. I want data, and for that I turn to customer reviews. Except, we have an issue there. The issue is the best source of qualitative fan ratings is Rotten Tomatoes, and its data for The Last Jedi was allegedly corrupted by a politically-motivated campaign to lower its score. But even with that campaign, the reviews could still be, mostly, directionally accurate. Using four other qualitative measures of fan opinion (iMDB, Metacritic and Amazon) and it still had the lowest ratings of the new Star Wars films, in some cases lower than some prequels.

Second, was the Last Jedi well received? Well, not really. So it wouldn’t matter that The Last Jedi had poor fan reaction since customer ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, iMDB, Metacritic and Amazon were low for it too. I mean the section above was “Solo wasn’t very good”. So the “meh” ratings of Solo likely mean The Last Jedi’s performance didn’t really matter either way.

Third, I have to ask, do we have any evidence from franchises that this even happens? I mean, not really. I could try to make this case for the the DCU: Batman vs Superman disappointed fans, so did Suicide Squad, so even though Wonder Woman was good, by the time Justice League came out fans were ready not to go see it. But look at that gymnastics to ignore the best performing film in order.

To put the nail in the coffin on this idea, could we reverse our situation and imagine a world where Solo was successful? Sure, and this explanation wouldn’t matter. Or a world where fans loved The Last Jedi and Solo flopped. Absolutely.

So it’s a fine narrative. If I wanted to write a hot-take report on Solo, this is what I would write. But I couldn’t prove much of it.

My Rankings (and their impact)

Now our process is fairly simple. We use my psuedo-scientific analysis above, and take the explanations that are left. Then I put them in order, and weight them according to my gut.

Solo wasn’t very good: 48%

– Fans didn’t want a Solo movie in the first place: 18%

Solo had a troubled production: 16%

Star Wars fatigue: 4%

Solo had a late marketing campaign: 4%

Star Wars fans angered about The Last Jedi. 2%

– Unexplained: 8%

When I began this article, I would have put Last Jedi blowback first. I just knew too many friends (including myself) who didn’t love Solo. But ultimately, it didn’t stop them from seeing Solo or stop me from seeing it.

The thing that stopped me–and stops most moviegoers–is when they think a movie isn’t very good. We don’t need a ton of fancy explanations for a film like this: if a movie has a troubled production of a concept fans didn’t want in the first place and it has weak initial reviews, well it won’t do well at the box office.

The name Star Wars won’t change that.

(Unexplained? Yeah, let’s not pretend like we know everything. A lot this is guesswork so let’s leave 8% for all the things we didn’t consider.)

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