The film Solo: A Star Wars Story failed at the box office and looks to be the lowest-grossing film in the franchise’s long and stellar (pun intended) history. Numerous critics have faulted various aspects of the film including: switching midstream from directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller to Ron Howard, an unknown leading man taking over as the teenage version of an iconic character, or the release date between Avengers: Infinity War and Incredibles 2.
Monday Morning Quarterback
The Star Wars franchise is one of the most remarkable success stories in the history of film. The inadequacies of Solo’s marketing, to match its predecessor’s accomplishments, is relevant to all of us. One set of lessons comes from examining the trailer. We think it contributed significantly to the film’s failure. In short, it did not give fans what they wanted.
It is far easier to criticize a movie trailer with the benefit of hindsight than to correctly predict whether a trailer will succeed. We have no claim on prescience here. Instead, we examine the artistic decisions made in creating the Solo trailer to learn as much as possible about advertising and how we might avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
The first five months of 2018 had three feature film releases targeting the science fiction fan: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity Wars and Solo. A summary of release dates, social uptake and box office is provided below.
The three movies experienced a wide range of success. The domestic box office gross for Black Panther and Avengers is now near $700 million, while Solo is under $200 million. Including domestic and international receipts, Avengers is likely to exceed $2 billion. YouTube trailer views and Facebook likes align well with box office results. This confirms conventional wisdom that social media uptake for a trailer can be a strong indicator of future success.
Trailers are a critical part of the movie marketing mix. They must connect with the fanbase and compel them to give positive trailer reviews on social media and then head to a movie theater. We wonder: Did the Solo trailer meet customer expectations? How does it compare to other recent trailers in the same genre?
Target Market Expectations
The two Marvel movies have a different audience profile from Solo. Black Panther dates back to 1966, and the Avengers comic books started in 1963. Marvel fans expect movies with these characters to honor the basic personality traits and themes established in the comic books. They establish something of a cannon, and this foundation must be upheld. While fans expect and eagerly anticipate innovations and enhancements, they also expect a level of continuity from the comic books to the movies.
Star Wars fandom dates back to 1977 with Episode IV – A New Hope. Since then, expectations for franchise additions have been high, and largely satisfied. The fans expect continuity with the past and for new releases to uphold the basic components that made prior Star Wars movies so wildly successful.
In particular, a new movie centering on Han Solo would automatically be judged relative to one of the most iconic of all Star Wars performers: Harrison Ford. While fans would expect story line innovations for a heretofore untold story about the young Solo, they would expect to see hints and glimmers of the older Solo in the new one. This would be perhaps the most difficult artistic challenge for the Solo trailer.
Replacing one icon with another is not impossible. The James Bond franchise has done it over and over again in their trailers. The key question with the Solo trailer was: Does the new, younger Solo read as the precursor to the previous, mature Solo? How do we help Alden Ehrenreich seem like a younger version of Harrison Ford? How do we pull off what was accomplished by trailers featuring the likes of Daniel Craig, Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan?
Superfans play a major role in influencing the direction social media takes in reviewing films. These influencers quickly reach verdicts about movies based on trailers well before the release date. So, the key question is: Will fans see the Ehrenreich Solo as a younger version of the Ford Solo?
Assessing the First 30 Seconds
The first 30 seconds of a trailer are critical. They must create a positive first impression and entice the viewer to continue watching the trailer. During the first 30 seconds of the official Black Panther trailer, we see a futuristic fighter jet maneuvering through double-sided waterfalls. We hear a simple, distorted base guitar rock riff that eventually layers in a few hints of rap (uh-huh, yeah, ho-yeah). The voiceover is by Black Panther, but we do not see him. The shot cuts to a silhouette of M’Baku on his throne flanked by two warriors. We cut to fighter jets hoovering outside a mountainside Black Panther entryway. The voiceover reaches a crescendo with “I’ve never seen anything like this” and we cut to Everette Ross, a diminutive, non-threatening white guy, who asks Killmonger: “How much more are you hiding?”
After the first 30 seconds of the Black Panther trailer, the fan knows to expect futuristic action and humor. But he or she is still in the dark. What about Wakanda and how this alternative world operates? What about the central villain and the struggles Black Panther will encounter and must overcome? Overall, the first 30 seconds are weak relative to meeting a Black Panther fan’s expectation.
The first 30 seconds of the Avenger trailer is exceptionally strong. We see six cuts of seven Avengers, all of which confirm well-known character personality traits. The voiceover features five Avengers summarizing the Avengers’ mission. From the shots we see multiple Avengers who are worried and facing something dreadful. In the first 30 seconds there is more than enough for the fan to shout “Yes!” They will definitely view the rest of the trailer and then go see the movie when it is released.
During the first 30 seconds of the Solo trailer, we mostly see Solo. This makes sense since the movie is about Solo, but the fan needs franchise context. We see the new Lando, and it is conceivable that Donald Glover could be a younger Billy Dee Williams. We see the Millennium Falcon and Chewy, but we are left wondering: Is it theirs yet? If not, how will they get it? We have no idea why there is a standoff in the desert or why it matters. Since we know Solo and Chewy live no matter what happens, there is nothing for the fan to worry about. The spectacular John Williams music theme is replaced with country rock, and the reconstitution of Star Wars into a sci-fi western seems all wrong. Perhaps most disturbing, the fan is not convinced that this new Solo is a younger version of the prior Solo established by Harrison Ford. The two personalities just do not seem consistent or related to one another.
The Next 30 Seconds
Are the problems in the Black Panther trailer resolved in the next 30 seconds? The music shifts up-tempo. Now we see the glory of Wakanda and the magnificent female commander Nakia. We see the Black Panther’s royal family and a dangerous one-on-one battle between the Black Panther and M’Baku. Now the trailer is powerful. It is connecting with the fans, and they are now moved to say “Ho-yeah!”
In contrast, the problems get even worse in the next 30 seconds of the Solo trailer. The fan sees Qi’ra and can’t help but think of Game of Thrones, Daenerys and Emilia Clarke. Then the trailer cuts to Beckett and we are confronted with yet another distraction: Woody Harrelson. What is he doing in a sci-fi flick, let alone a franchise Star Wars movie? The trailer features these well-established stars, but in doing so makes the casting decisions seem like mistakes. Qi’ra and Beckett, in combination with the new Solo and the country rock music, combine to create far more discontinuity than the fan can process. Their only recourse is to race to social media and trash the film before they even see it.
Evidence from Google Trends
While we can’t pinpoint the exact cause of poor social media up-take in the two weeks before Solo’s release, we can produce evidence that the trailer was a major contributor to its failure. Using Google Trends, we can see how Solo’s marketing efforts in the critical two-week period preceding Black Panther were far more effective in generating interest than for Solo. One of the most important tools in these two weeks is the trailer. Since this timeframe was terrible for Solo, we need to assign significant blame to the trailer.
Our analysis indicates the Solo trailer did not sufficiently meet the expectations of the Star Wars fan and was consequently trounced in social media before its release. One general marketing lesson provided by the Solo trailer is to put the audience at the heart of all marketing communications. In other words, give the fans what they want!
The Marvel trailers carefully considered and found the right combinations of film elements—or marketing content—that would build anticipation with their fans. Fantasy, majesty and action were featured prominently, and that was more than enough to sell tickets.
In stark contrast, the Solo trailer highlighted rather than minimized the film’s core problems. If brief glimpses of Ehrenreich’s portrayal of Solo’s personality were going to be problematic for the fan, then artistic direction could have focused on Solo in danger or Solo action cuts instead. As David Droga recently proclaimed at Cannes, “I used to say that great (creative) work covers the cracks… but it doesn't cover all of them!”