Features and Columns · Movies

‘Solo’ Had the All-Time Worst Opening for a Live-Action ‘Star Wars’ Movie

Apparently not every ‘Star Wars’ story is an event.
Solo Chewie
By  · Published on May 28th, 2018

Apparently not every ‘Star Wars’ story is an event.

How could a Star Wars movie bomb at the box office? That’s the question being answered all over the internet after Solo: A Star Wars Story underperformed in its opening weekend. But only Disney and Lucasfilm need to figure out the why and the how. Was it franchise fatigue? The release date? The production problems? The casting? The poor reviews? Poor word of mouth? The late marketing? The Last Jedi backlash? The boycott? The material?

This was the first Star Wars movie not to have any lightsaber action or mention of the Force…

There could be a combination of factors, but in the end it’s just a matter of fewer people being interested in a spinoff prequel. Solo didn’t seem as essential to the more casual Star Wars fan as seeing what happens next in the main “Skywalker Saga” series of movies. It’s basically an offshoot primarily for the completists, like the animated feature The Clone Wars, which is the only Star Wars theatrical release to draw a smaller debut audience than Solo did.

In its first three days of release, Solo had an attendance of just 9.1 million people in North America, despite projections for the movie being more in range of 11 million (recent tracking) to 16 million (long-range forecast). Here’s how that compares to the number of tickets sold for every other Star Wars movie:

Star Wars (1977): 0.7 million*
The Empire Strikes Back (1980): 1.8 million
Return of the Jedi (1983): 7.3 million
The Phantom Menace (1999): 12.8 million
Attack of the Clones (2002): 13.8 million
Revenge of the Sith (2005): 16.9 million
The Clone Wars (2008): 2 million
The Force Awakens (2015): 28.5 million
Rogue One (2016): 17.6 million
The Last Jedi (2017): 24 million
Solo (2018): 9.1 million

(*the first movie only has a four-day holiday weekend total on record)

Technically, Solo also had higher attendance than the three episodes of the original trilogy. Except when you consider the number of screens those movies opened on. Star Wars debuted on just 43 screens, Empire increased to 126 screens, and Return of the Jedi was up to 1,002 screens. The average tickets sold per theater was, respectively: 16,200; 14,500; and 7,300. Sold out crowds. People were being turned away that first weekend.

The per-screen average attendance for every other live-action Star Wars movie since has been above 4,000 people, with The Force Awakens peaking for post-OT installments with 6,900. Solo, which had the widest opening for a Star Wars movie yet, had a per-screen average attendance of only 2,100. Again, that’s still better than The Clone Wars‘ average of 600. Of course, that movie’s budget was $8.5 million. Solo may have cost up to $300 million.

Also if we want to be technical about the original trilogy, Solo didn’t even sell that many more tickets than the most significant of Star Wars re-releases. Here are the opening weekend attendance numbers for the Special Editions:

Star Wars (1997): 7.8 million (3,700 avg.)
The Empire Strikes Back (1997): 4.8 million (2,300 average)
Return of the Jedi (1997): 3.5 million (1,700 average)

Two of those re-worked movies still had greater per-screen averages than Solo, too. Other than the how and why questions, we should be asking if Solo deserves to be such a financial disappointment for the franchise and the studios.

It’s not the worst-reviewed Star Wars movie, not even for the live-action efforts. With a positive Rotten Tomatoes score of 70%, Solo had a better critical reception than The Phantom Menace (55%), Attack of the Clones (66%), and yes The Clone Wars (18%). The movie falls in the same spot for Metacritic scores, though Rogue One places just slightly above Solo there.

Solo‘s CinemaScore grade, the result of polling first-night moviegoers, was the first of the franchise since Disney’s acquisition to earn only an ‘A-‘ as opposed to an ‘A.’ That puts its audience reaction on the level of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, all episodes of which also received an ‘A-.’ At least it’s better than the ‘B+’ received by The Clone Wars.

But the fact that so few people turned out for Solo means its pre-judged reaction was also notably poor. Attendance wasn’t even that front-loaded compared to the other movies. Thursday night previews of Solo only brought in 1.5 million people. The Force Awakens was about 6.8 million, The Last Jedi was about 5 million, and even Rogue One was drawing those immediate moviegoers to the tune of about 3.4 million.

Maybe it’s just that Solo‘s ticket sales were down from the start, but its stamina for the weekend is rather steady, with the three-day total only being 2.33-times the Friday attendance. Compare that to The Last Jedi‘s multiplier being 2.1, Rogue One‘s being 2.18, and The Force Awakens being 2.08. Solo may not be something every Star Wars fan wants to see, but it also could just be a movie many Star Wars fans aren’t rushing out to see but want to see eventually.

Anyway, at least there’s the foreign box office, right? Even fatigued franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers that bombed domestically last year made up for low turnout at home with big numbers overseas. Well, Solo isn’t even doing the kind of business Star Wars normally does internationally. The movie just isn’t seen anywhere as an essential (at least immediately so) moviegoing experience.

This won’t be the end of Star Wars, of course. Not just because Lucasfilm has another “Skywalker Saga” episode to go plus a few more Star Wars Story anthology efforts in the wings and original efforts in development. But also because one movie losing some money isn’t that bad considering how profitable other installments have been. Lucasfilm might want to question what the fans want, however. And when, how often, what quality, etc. Normal inquiries.

And there’s enough positive spin to work on Solo to make its performance look better to the masses, if not Disney’s shareholders and anyone paying attention to the tracking promising a lot higher grosses. The movie did top the holiday weekend with about 11 million tickets sold for the four days. That’s something, even if attendance-wise, Solo had only the 14th best Memorial Day weekend opening, behind even the mostly despised 1998 Godzilla remake.

Meanwhile, Disney is still doing very well with its Marvel movies, especially Avengers: Infinity War, and its future with the Fox acquisition still looks promising with the continued success of Deadpool 2. And as for origin stories, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG remains one of the most notable hits right now, holding onto 10th place the box office for the third weekend in a row.

Here are the weekend’s top 10 titles by number of tickets sold with new titles in bold and totals in parentheses:

1. Solo: A Star Wars Story – 9.1 million (9.1 million)
2. Deadpool 2 – 4.7 million (22.6 million)
3. Avengers: Infinity War – 1.8 million (67.9 million)
4. Book Club – 1 million (3.5 million)
5. Life of the Party – 0.6 million (4.3 million)
6. Breaking In – 0.4 million (3.9 million)
7. Show Dogs – 0.34 million (1.2 million)
8. Overboard – 0.33 million (4.5 million)
9. A Quiet Place – 0.2 million (19.7 million)
10. RBG – 0.1 million (0.6 million)

All non-forecast box office data via Box Office Mojo.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.