Star Wars, Box Office Drops, and Mary Poppins

Could Mary Poppins be a bigger deal to Disney than a Star Wars spin-off?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

It’s a fascinating era of blockbuster cinema that we live in. Solo: A Star Wars Story, the fourth Star Wars movie released since Disney acquired Lucasfilm, grossed just north of $100 million in the US over the opening holiday weekend. By most measures, that’s a heavy amount of money, and the film should comfortably pass $500 million by the time it’s completed its theatrical run, most likely more than that.

And yet alarm bells are blaring. For the problem is that while Solo’s takings are solid, they point to a decline. And that, in turn, is raising concerns that some degree of Star Wars fatigue is coming in. While the appetite for two to three Marvel movies a year shows no sign of abating, Star Wars is a big screen franchise experiencing a degree of box office slowdown.

Box office is far from everything, of course, although the operators of Disney’s Excel spreadsheets may be inclined to disagree. The problem they’re looking at is however you look at it, numbers are down. If you like Episodes VII and VIII as the main thrust of Star Wars movies, not unreasonably, then the takings for The Last Jedi were down to a mere $1.3 billion, against the $2 billion The Force Awakens helped itself to. A key mitigating factor there may be that The Force Awakens was the first new Star Wars film in a decade.

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In terms of the spin-offs, Rogue One earned $1 billion at the global box office, a number that Solo will struggle to topple. But also, let’s not forget that the previous three Star Wars movies have had Christmas releases. For Solo – for reasons I’m coming to – the decision was made to test out a summer release, and not for the first time. The Force Awakens, remember, was originally a summer movie. Episode IX, separately, has moved from May 2019 to December 2019, thanks to the directorial shuffle behind the scenes (JJ Abrams taking the controls from Colin Trevorrow in that case). But Solo was the first time a Star Wars film had been released into the usually more crowded summer market since 2008’s animated adventure, Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

Much has nonetheless been read into the film’s comparably disappointing box office take. Granted, its numbers were expected to be softer than the recent films already. The eyebrow raising is that those numbers have fallen below those tempered expectations, too.

It’s still worth recognizing that Solo has been a troubled production, and about the most softly received of the recent films. Reviews have been fine, but the film hasn’t incited the passionate arguments on both side of the fence that, for instance, The Last Jedi had. Instead, there’s more a feeling that it’s hardly a vital film, but a fun one.

There have been concerns too over Disney and Lucasfilm’s approach to spin-off movies. Does Solo, exploring the origin of the character, answer questions that few fans were asking? Remember the backlash when news of a Die Hard: Year One movie came up. The response: why do we need to know how John McClane became a cop, and met Holly in the first place? Isn’t it okay that key parts of character development are kept off screen? Do we need to know everything?

A few of those arguments apply to Solo, certainly. But then also, Rogue One was filling in gaps, but had a bit more identity of its own. It was also released in a less competitive environment (even The Last Jedi unexpectedly found itself up against a surprise box office juggernaut in Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle too, as well as the endurance of The Greatest Showman).

For what it’s worth, though, I can’t help but wonder if Disney had expected most of this. I doubt it saw Solo as spearheading the future of Star Wars and breaking new ground, but also, I don’t think it even expected it to be in its top three grossing films of the year. It would’ve been sure that Avengers: Infinity War was its top bet for the year, but I’d wager too it had suspicions that Black Panther was tracking well.

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And then there’s the Mary Poppins factor. Mary Poppins Returns, starring Emily Blunt in the title role, has had December 2018 earmarked for some time now. I think it’s a more important blockbuster to Disney’s ongoing strategy than Solo, and I believe the studio is treating it as such. With a prime Christmas slot, at a point where family movies tend to earn the most, I think Disney may be looking at a comfortable $1 billion gross at least for Mary Poppins Returns, assuming the movie turns out okay. As such, it’s directing its considerable marketing machine and infrastructure to that film, rather than mixing in another Star Wars movie. Consider that both the live action Alice In Wonderland and Beauty And The Beast movies have grossed north of $1 billion worldwide, and that The Jungle Book only narrowly missed that number, and for the Mouse, the bigger money longer term may be in those movies, over individual Star Wars spin-offs.

Mary Poppins Returns is a huge deal to Disney, arguably at least – in film terms – as crucial as Star Wars. PL Travers, after all, wrote several Poppins books before her death, and Disney has ceiling room to explore those adventures in subsequent films. As franchises such as Pirates Of The Caribbean and Alice have deflated in recent years, Poppins may yet be the toast of Disney’s Christmas party this year.

At the very least, it seemed a more important bet than a Han Solo film, that, as fun as it is, feels more like treading water and a schedule filler.

Where does Solo’s box office so far leave Star Wars? Pretty much where it was, I’d argue. Solo is something of a free hit, given the hugely tumultuous behind the scenes story of the film, and I’d imagine Disney will be happy to get out pretty much unscathed, with another well-received film in the boxset. It does add a little extra pressure to Episode IX, though, but that’ll have the benefit of 18 months between movies. Solo, following The Last Jedi by just six months, hasn’t had that luxury. It’s not the gap alone that’s caused concerns – Avengers: Infinity War followed Black Panther by a couple of months, and I didn’t hear anyone complaining – rather that a bit more identity wouldn’t hurt.

For now, I’d suggest enjoying Solo for what it is: a breezy night out at the movies. Let the Excel jockeys at Disney worry about the movie. But also, if Disney and Lucasfilm get the message that Star Wars can be much more than this on the big screen, and still explore different areas of the story, that can’t be too bad a thing.

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