Solo: A Star Wars Story is probably going to bomb. In its second weekend domestic release, its gross fell to a somewhat embarrassing $30m. Its 8 day total is close to half of that of Rogue One. We could be here all day talking about the issues surrounding these numbers, and I could also be here all day telling you all to go see Solo because I freaking loved it, but alas, it seems that the writing is already on the wall for this movie. The thing is, people have been talking about this film as a flop in waiting almost since its announcement. So many of the surrounding conversations, even those who were excited for it, seemed rooted in the notion that the project was unnecessary and wouldn’t appeal to the same fans who love the Skywalker Saga. It became near impossible to talk about the film without at least mentioning these caveats. Yet when the film did under-perform, there were still surprised voices in the crowds.
Sometimes, you can see a flop coming a mile away. I remember when they announced the reboot of the Universal Monsters series with a new version of The Mummy and thinking, ‘There’s no way that’ll make money.’ Every following teaser, trailer, set image and interview just confirmed that sensation. Hell, I still paid to see it, if only out of morbid curiosity, but that clearly wasn’t enough of a driving force to get the masses into the cinema. The same thing happened with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a movie this Guy Ritchie apologist didn’t mind all that much but knew there wasn’t a chance in hell it would be anything less than a major disappointment.
We are in a curious age of blockbuster film-making. Once upon a time, the idea of a movie grossing over $1billion was a flight of fantasy; now, it’s a common expectation. A $100m budget used to inspire the most scandalous of headlines in the trade publications, but oddly it’s become a ‘low budget’ for a Summer franchise addition. Marvel films usually cost between $150 - 200m to make, with Avengers: Infinity War seeing its budget somewhere in-between $316 - 400m. Justice League was mired in suspicion over its budget, which was officially discussed as being ‘only’ $300m, a number nobody believes for a second. Solo, thanks to extensive reshoots, a director change and the need to keep up with an unchanging release date, cost around $250m. Hollywood, if you’ll forgive the term, has become too big to fail.
The profit margins are shrinking, but so are domestic audiences. Last year, the North American Summer box office saw its attendance numbers drop to new lows that hadn’t been seen in close to 20 years. Even supposed sure-fire hits like Transformers: The Last Knight and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales couldn’t buck the trend. Every studio wants to recreate the model that worked for the most successful brand - in this case, Marvel’s cinematic universe - but they never stop long enough to wonder if it’s what people actually want.
The importance of the domestic box office has been greatly diminished over the past five years or so. As has been much discussed by myself and others, the audience that American studios really want is in China: A captive $6-7bn a year audience who command immense loyalty and can save even the most disastrous film from ruin. The reason Warcraft isn’t technically a flop is because Chinese audiences loved it. The nation loves Marvel but doesn’t care about Star Wars. They love the Pirates franchise but even they got sick of Transformers, with their disinterest partly why there’s a $400m or so difference in gross between the fourth and fifth film. The problem with being so reliant on this market is that we’ve no idea how consistent it is or how genuine the numbers are, with many theatres being examined for cooking the books. Chinese audiences are also more interested in seeing their own stories and ideas on the big screen, and American cinema’s weak habit of putting one familiar Chinese actor in the background on a major blockbuster to entice those crowds has worn thin. if you can’t get Americans or Chinese film lovers to buoy your $250m sinking ship then it shouldn’t surprise anyone that you’ve got a flop on your hands.
The gap for success has narrowed further as well. Nowadays, it’s all about the opening weekend. This can have its downsides and lead to some writing off a film before it truly finds its audience. Last Christmas, both The Greatest Showman and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle had soft opening weekends that led to flop talk, but they ran for a very long time and built up an audience to the point where each film was a massive hit. Those films did great through word-of-mouth but that’s not always the case. Now that we can get reviews and industry buzz quicker than ever, it doesn’t take long for negativity to dissipate online and discourage audiences. That seems to be partly what’s killed Solo, because apparently not enough people follow me on Twitter exclusively.
The thing about hype is that it’s incredibly hard to fake. You can spend all the money you want on flashy advertising, you can make your leading man do Lip-Sync Battles and be the ultimate charmer on every talk-show, you can saturate every ad-break with your trailers: If there isn’t some genuine excitement for the product then none of it is going to work. Nobody asked for Mars Needs Moms, and they certainly didn’t ask for it to come with a $150m price-tag (it made $39m worldwide).
Some movies are such flops that they kill more than the profit margins. When Heaven’s Gate, the infamous Michael Cimino epic that’s since gained critical re-revaluation, flopped, it basically killed United Artists. Cutthroat Island made back about a tenth of its budget and sent Carlco into bankruptcy. Mars Needs Moms put the nail in the coffin for Robert Zemeckis’s fantasies of a motion-capture dominated film industry. Disney took a $74m write-off on Treasure Planet before it even opened and kick-started the decline of 2D animation at the studio.
There will always be outside circumstances and problems no studio can fix or prepare for. Sometimes, the timing is just wrong. Bad weather and national disasters happen, or there’s another school shooting and suddenly audiences don’t care to see a film chock full of guns. Fans don’t want to give their money to a movie starring someone who did monstrous things.
But all hope is not lost. Critical and commercial reappraisals do happen. Believe it or not, The Wizard of Oz under-performed when it opened in 1939 and only started making its money when it was re-released into cinemas. The Shawshank Redemption became a cable TV favourite after a disappointing theatrical run. The Iron Giant has finally been given the acclaim it deserves following a major flop of a cinema release. It has been said that sooner or later, every deserving film finds its audience. It’s just a shame that so many have more riding on them than mere enjoyment.