‘Solo’ Sputters at Box Office, Raising Worries of ‘Star Wars’ Fatigue

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LOS ANGELES — “Star Wars” just fell to earth.

In the first big box office test of Hollywood’s high-stakes summer season, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” collected about $83.3 million between Friday and Sunday, a huge total for any franchise film — unless that franchise is “Star Wars,” which has always performed at stratospheric levels. “Solo” also sputtered overseas, where initial ticket sales stood at about $65 million.

“Solo,” which cost Disney and its Lucasfilm division at least $400 million to make and market worldwide, will collect roughly $101 million over the entire Memorial Day weekend in North America, according to comScore. Disney had been hoping that the movie, focused on a young Han Solo and directed by Ron Howard, would take in closer to $140 million.

To compare, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” generated $155 million over its first three days in theaters in 2016. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” arrived to $220 million in December.

What happened?

Multiplex gridlock, for a start. “Solo” arrived in the shadow of the Death Star — “Avengers: Infinity War” — and hot on the heels of “Deadpool 2” (20th Century Fox). “Deadpool 2” placed second over the weekend, taking in $42.7 million between Friday and Sunday, for a two-week domestic total of about $207.4 million. “Infinity War” (Disney) was third, collecting $16.5 million, for a five-week total of $622 million.

Weekend ticket sales totaled $176 million, a 23 percent increase over the same period last year, comScore said.

“Solo” also received less-than-euphoric reviews and faced skepticism from die-hard “Star Wars” fans, some of whom had a meltdown over creative decisions made on “The Last Jedi.” Disney is attempting to pull off a complicated generational handoff — trying to please older fans while paying keen attention to millennials and children in a bid to keep the property healthy over the long term.

“Solo” may also have encountered franchise fatigue. “The Last Jedi” arrived just five months ago, and “Star Wars” movies have always been spaced at least a year apart in the past.

“‘Star Wars’ fans have an enormous sense of ownership, which works to the benefit of the movie company and to the detriment,” said Steve Sansweet, the president of Rancho Obi-Wan, a nonprofit “Star Wars” memorabilia museum, and the former head of fan relations for Lucasfilm. “There is a growing feeling among fans that the movies are starting to come out a little too frequently.”

As with the James Bond series, perhaps less is more?

Disney disagrees, noting that Marvel movies come out at even shorter intervals — “Thor: Ragnarok” in November, “Black Panther” in February, “Infinity War” in April.

“We’re going to judge ‘Solo’ by where we finish rather than where we start,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s president of theatrical distribution. “The base is a little smaller than we had hoped for, but it’s very respectable, and there is no substantial competition for the next couple weekends.” Moviegoers gave “Solo” an A-minus grade in CinemaScore exit polls.

Some box office analysts said it was unfair to expect every “Star Wars” movie to be a juggernaut, especially now that pent-up demand has worn off: Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, and when it restarted the franchise with “The Force Awakens” in 2015, it was the first new live-action installment in a decade.

“Using the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an example, there will be films with box office returns like ‘Avengers: Infinity War,’ but there will also be films with returns like ‘Ant-Man,’” said Wade Holden, an analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence. “Ant-Man” arrived to $57.2 million in initial ticket sales in 2015.

Lucasfilm has at least nine more “Star Wars” films in the works. The untitled follow-up to “The Last Jedi” is scheduled for December 2019. The director Rian Johnson is working on a trilogy focused on new characters. Another expected trilogy is moving ahead under the leadership of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the duo behind “Game of Thrones.”

At the same time, the director James Mangold (“Logan”) is pushing ahead with a stand-alone movie focused on Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who made his movie debut in “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980. An Obi-Wan Kenobi movie has also been in development.

Disney is also spending billions to build “Star Wars” areas at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. The filmmaker Jon Favreau is working on a live-action “Star Wars” television series for Disney’s planned streaming service. Disney Channel, which has suffered ratings declines, has high hopes for “Star Wars Resistance,” an anime-inspired series that will arrive in the fall.

Despite the lower-than-expected debut of “Solo,” box office analysts predict that summer 2018 will generate roughly $4.3 billion in ticket sales, a 14 percent increase over last year.

Summer 2017 was terrible: Domestic ticket sales fell 16 percent, to $3.78 billion, compared to a year earlier, the result of a string of sputtering sequels — the fifth “Transformers,” the fifth “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the eighth “Alien” — and poorly made reboots like “The Mummy” and “Baywatch.”

It was the slowest summer since 1995, when “Pocahontas” was a top draw. After adjusting for inflation, the summer of 1995 had about $3.76 billion in ticket sales. Hollywood’s summer stretches from the first weekend in May to Labor Day and typically accounts for 40 percent of annual ticket sales.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is expected to lead this year’s comeback. “Fallen Kingdom” finds workers racing to save disobliging dinosaurs from an erupting volcano. (Some people in Hollywood have joked that the recent eruption of Kilauea on Hawaii was the handiwork of Michael Moses, Universal’s marketing chief.) “Jurassic World” took in about $652 million at domestic theaters in summer 2015.

Disney is expected to have two more blockbusters by the season’s end, with Pixar’s “Incredibles 2” and Marvel’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp” both generating strong advance interest. “The other major studios appear to have mostly ceded the summer to Disney,” Doug Creutz, a media analyst at Cowen and Company, wrote in an April report.

For the first time in years, Warner Bros. has a superhero-free summer. (Unless you count the animated “Teen Titans Go! To the Movies.”) Instead, Warner will rely on “Ocean’s 8,” which seeks to revive the “Ocean’s Eleven” heist series with an all-female leading cast. Warner has also teamed with a Chinese company on “The Meg,” a cheese-tastic monster shark movie scheduled for an Aug. 10 release.

“This may be short-term smart as it avoids having an expensive film crushed by Disney’s juggernauts,” Mr. Creutz added. “On the other hand, you can’t win if you don’t play.”

Sony Pictures appears to have three hit sequels on its schedule (“Hotel Transylvania 3,” “The Equalizer 2” and “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”), but there are questions about the viability of Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” the sixth chapter in that 22-year-old Tom Cruise franchise.

As superhero movies have become more comedic, traditional comedies have had a harder time breaking through at the box office. That trend could continue. “Tag,” an R-rated guys-who-refuse-to-grow-up movie, is likely to get trampled by “Incredibles 2.” Both arrive on June 15.

Analysts have higher hopes for “Crazy Rich Asians,” an effort to breathe new life into the romantic-comedy genre by aiming at an underserved audience. The Warner film has an all-Asian leading cast.

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