Star Wars was a franchise too big to fail… until Solo came out, that is. The prequel, which was all about the backstory of fan favorite Han Solo, flopped financially. No Star Wars film has ever done this before, so what went wrong? The movie did gain largely positive reviews from critics, even if many thought the story was one which didn’t need telling. Yet that didn’t translate into box office gold. Recently, Lucasfilm C.E.O. Kathleen Kennedy spoke candidly about mistakes made during the process.
In 1977 a fairly unknown actor named Harrison Ford took the role of Han Solo in a movie called Star Wars. Little did he know that the movie would go on to spawn one of the biggest franchises of all time. And not only that, but Han Solo would end up becoming a truly beloved character as well.
Solo was a main character all the way to the end of the original Star Wars trilogy. In its final chapter, Return of the Jedi, Ford suggested Solo be killed off. However, Star Wars creator George Lucas thought differently, and Solo ended the movie alive, well and continuing his relationship with Princess Leia.
Solo didn’t appear in the 1999-2005 Star Wars prequel trilogy, although the idea a cameo was floated around. Apparently, Lucas briefly considered having a young Solo show up in Revenge of the Sith. In the movie, the character would appear on the planet Kashyyyk, obviously played by an actor other than Ford, but he changed his mind in the end.
In 2012 Lucas started work on a Han Solo prequel story alongside Lawrence Kasdan, who would be writing the script. However, that same year the director sold Lucasfilm ‒ for four billion dollars ‒ to Disney, and the project faltered. Kasdan instead began working on live-action Star Wars sequel The Force Awakens.
“I sat with George in April of 2012, and the company was sold in September of 2012. So it was a relatively short amount of time before. But one of the first conversations I had creatively with George was about doing other movies than the saga film,” Disney’s Kathleen Kennedy told Slashfilm in 2015. “And he had a few ideas he was kicking around. But he was very open to where this might go in the Star Wars universe.”
The Star Wars universe was always going to be different under Disney. For starters, the company planned to release one movie every year from 2015. That year saw the J.J. Abrams-directed The Force Awakens hit cinemas, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first spinoff, in 2016. In 2017 came The Last Jedi, which made millions but was controversial among Star Wars fans.
After writing the script for The Force Awakens, Kasdan teamed up with his son, Jon, to finish a script for the Han Solo prequel. The announcement finally came in February 2013 that the movie was going ahead. The new flick would be directed by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord. And a release date was also given: May 25, 2018.
Finding someone suitable to play a young Han Solo was the first port of call for Miller and Lord. In 2016 Variety magazine released a report of the actors who were apparently on the shortlist. They included, among others, Ansel Elgort, Dave Franco, Logan Lerman, Miles Teller and Scott Eastwood.
Variety had received some rumors about what Disney might be doing with the Solo character. “While insiders were unable to confirm, the new Solo could have a small cameo in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story before appearing in his own standalone pic,” the magazine reported.
News of who’d been cast came in May of 2016. Alden Ehrenreich, a star of the Coen Brothers movie Hail, Caesar! had landed the iconic role. Miller later tweeted out a picture of Solo’s blaster gun with the words “Can’t wait to get shooting!” However, as it turned out, Ehrenreich’s Solo didn’t show up in Rogue One after all.
By the end of 2016 the movie had become Solo: A Star Wars Story. In addition, a few more important people had also nabbed roles in the flick. Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones was cast as the female lead, while Donald Glover signed on to play the younger version of Lando Calrissian, another iconic character from the original Star Wars trilogy. And Joonas Suotamo would play Chewbacca.
Filming started in January 2017. And Solo quickly started to rack up a massive price tag, spending $54.5 million in less than a month. The production travelled all over the world to shoot, going to Italy and the Canary Islands. Everything seemed to be going just fine, but then all of a sudden, a bombshell hit.
The directors, Miller and Lord, had both been fired. The news hit in June 2017, shocking those following the movie’s development. According to Variety, they had worked through “months of conflict with producer Kathleen Kennedy.” In addition, the pair thought that they were “not being granted freedom to run the production in the manner that they were accustomed to.”
The Hollywood Reporter then shared more details. Neither Miller, Lord or Kennedy were saying anything to the media, but some anonymous sources had made worrying claims. Among the reasons for the rift, one of the sources told T.H.R., was that the directors had been given “zero creative freedom” and faced “extreme scheduling constraints.”
“[Miller and Lord] collaborate closely with their actors and give them creative freedom that, in their experience, brings out the actors’ best performances,” the source told T.H.R. “Kasdan would not allow this and demanded that every line was said word for word. To appease him and the studio, [the directors] would do several takes exactly as written and then shoot additional takes.”
Kasdan apparently disliked that Miller and Lord were encouraging the actors to try different lines than the ones he’d written. It seemed the differences between them had become too much. There was another problem, too. T.H.R. also mentioned that an acting coach had been hired for Ehrenreich, implying he wasn’t up to the job.
The Hollywood Reporter got a quote from someone they named only as “a top executive at a rival studio.” This person revealed that, “All of the [Star Wars] films have been ‘troubled.’” Indeed, according the source, “J.J. [Abrams] was powerful enough to push back on an unrealistic start date [for the first movie], but that was a tug of war.”
A new director for the movie was quickly found. Kasdan was considered for the role, but couldn’t take it. This is due to the Directors Guild of America guidelines stating that someone already involved in a movie can’t replace a fired director. Two days after the dismissal of Miller and Lord, George Lucas collaborator Ron Howard came on board.
Howard sent out a tweet about his involvement soon after. And it was seemingly crafted to reassure people that things weren’t as bad as they appeared. “I’m beyond grateful to add my voice to the Star Wars Universe after being a fan since 5/25/77,” he said, referring to when the first Star Wars came out. “I hope to honor the great work already done and help deliver on the promise of a Han Solo film.”
Lucas made a visit to the set on the day Howard began his new job. He ended up suggesting a small thing Ehrenreich could do. “The scene [involves] one of Lando’s cloaks. Alden was taking it and hanging it up. George is like, “You know what Han would do?” and he takes this cloak and throws it over his shoulder. For a minute he had the swagger of Han Solo,” Howard told Mashable in 2018.
In the same interview, Howard was asked about the firing of Miller and Lord. “I don’t think that’s ever an ideal circumstance. It was difficult for everyone involved and a shame,” he said. “But as a creative test, as a movie-making challenge, it was pretty remarkable and it did force me to rely more on instinct than probably any other project. I needed to rally a group of very talented people and quickly glean from them their ideas.”
In May 2018, Solo hit cinemas in America. In support, the cast and crew spoke to Variety about what had happened with Miller and Lord. They were, of course, diplomatic about it. “The issues we were having were much more in the bones and practical,” Jon Kasdan said. “[Miller and Lord] did everything they could to make it work, as did we. The questions became about how to make the movie most efficiently in the time we had to do it.”
“[Solo] is a movie that has an enormous amount of pressure on its shoulders. Therefore everybody making it feels some of that pressure,” Clarke told the magazine. “So when Ron came on, for me, it felt amazing to have a second set of eyes at this point in making the movie. How often do you get that chance to go back and try different things?”
Unfortunately, despite all the pressure and all the talent involved, Solo flopped. In order to break even, the movie had to take $500 million. However, it soon became obvious that wasn’t going to happen. “The numbers don’t lie. Solo earned a disappointing $103 million in North America over its opening weekend. And [it] stalled out with $68.2 million overseas,” Variety wrote. “At this rate, it will fall short of the billion-dollar mark that each Disney-released Star Wars adventure has managed.”
“At one point, Disney had entertained ideas of having the space opera series be another Marvel, with visions of producing at least one movie a year set in its mythical galaxy,” Variety continued. “Those lofty ambitions may have to become more grounded. At the very least, Disney is unlikely to release two Star Wars films in the span of five months as it did with Solo and The Last Jedi.”
However, critics did praise the film. On Rotten Tomatoes, Solo scored a 70 percent approval rating. That mark was lower than Revenge of the Sith but higher than Attack of the Clones. “Alden Ehrenreich ably apes Harrison Ford in this straightforwardly rollicking adventure, which betrays little trace of its troubled production,” wrote Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian.
But good reviews weren’t enough. Incredibly expensive to make, Solo’s budget was one of the costliest of all time, and it had flopped. And there were consequences for Disney and the franchise. Before the movie’s release there had been plans to make more spin-off movies, including an Obi-Wan Kenobi story and a Boba Fett one. They were now on hold.
So why had the film flopped so badly? Its release date might have had something to do with it, critics suggested. Solo had gone up against two big films that had massive followings, namely Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War. And it was also the first Star Wars movie since 2015 to be released in the summer – perhaps not the greatest idea.
Others suggested that perhaps the franchise had branched out too far. There were simply too many Star Wars movies, and fans were growing exhausted by them. There was, in fact, retail evidence to support this claim. Sales of Star Wars toys had started falling in 2017, and were still dropping in 2018.
In April 2019 Kennedy herself reportedly commented on the situation. During her remarks, she appeared to admit that oversaturation was the problem. Empire magazine writer James Dyer said on the publication’s podcast that he’d spoken to the C.E.O. about Solo’s dire performance. She was, he said, “quite candid.”
“[Kennedy] said [Disney] learned their lessons from Solo; that doing two films in less than a year wasn’t something the fans were prepared to accept,” Dyer reported. “And she’s hands up… ‘We made a mistake with that.’” That candor may be a good thing going forward, as it means the company recognizes those missteps.
The C.E.O. isn’t the only person who’s spoken about the apparent glut of Star Wars movies appearing all at once, either. Even before Solo came out, Luke Skywalker actor Mark Hamill voiced his concerns. Neither Hamill nor Skywalker actually appear in Solo, but his words carry a lot of weight within Star Wars fandom.
“I will say [the studio] should pace themselves, because you don’t want to over-saturate it,” Hamill told CinemaBlend in March 2018. “I said to Disney, ‘Really? Five months after [The Last Jedi] comes out comes? Can’t you at least wait until Christmas?’” But obviously, they did not.
Hamill said a similar thing to The Hollywood Reporter in April 2019. “I’m not gonna tell [Disney] how to run their business, but is there a possibility of Star Wars fatigue? Yeah, I think there is. I’ve experienced it, to a certain degree. But they never listen to my ideas anyway, so who needs ‘em?” he joked.
To many hardcore Star Wars fans, the failure of Solo is disappointing on another front as well. It means the film might not get a sequel, after being very much set up for one. At the end of the movie – spoiler alert – we discover that Darth Maul, the iconic villain from The Phantom Menace, is still alive and at large.
In fact many points of the whole story are left at loose ends. Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra, Han’s first love, is revealed to be working with Darth Maul at the end. She’s not a Sith herself, but perhaps she could become one. And her relationship with Han is still left without much closure, even though all Star Wars fans know his true love is Leia.
In September 2018 Jon Kasdan spoke on his Twitter account of the film’s failure. He also mentioned his desire to see a sequel. “To be honest, I think the challenge has much more to do with the foreign box office than the U.S. Personally, I think there are great Star Wars movies to be made that don’t need to cost quite so much,” he said.
“Hopefully that will be the trend in the years to come, and maybe, just maybe, that trend will allow us, one way or another, to tell more stories with Alden, Joonas, Emilia and Donald. With those actors and Ron Howard, I would jump at the opportunity,” Kasdan finished. And there are many fans still hoping that might happen.
In the meantime, though, the wider Star Wars universe is still alive and kicking. The teaser trailer for the next episodic instalment, The Rise of Skywalker, dropped in April 2019 and immediately racked up millions of views, even more than the trailers for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The movie will be out on December 20, 2019 – and this one is certain to make a lot of money.