Saturday, April 18, 2015

Disney's Risky Star Wars Plan

In the last couple of days, Disney and Lucasfilms released the second teaser for this Christmas's upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Not only is it a better teaser than the one released last winter, but it also gives a much better look at the film. I personally am impressed and happy to see that The Force Awakens (Episode 7) seems to be much closer in tone and style to the original trilogy. The effects seem far less cartoony than those of the prequels which is most welcome. Also welcome is the return of original cast members Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. What kind of film we get this Christmas remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: it's likely to be a huge hit.

While there's nothing wrong with Disney moving forward with a sequel trilogy (episodes 7, 8 and 9) I do have serious doubts about their other plans. While these sequels will be released in 2015, 2017 and 2019, it's those years in between that pose a huge risk for Disney and Star Wars itself. In those "off years", Disney plans on releasing a spin-off film. Star Wars: Rogue One is already slated for release in December 2016. However, this film will not be part of the sequel trilogy. Thus poses one of several risks Disney is taking. But first, let's look at their reasoning for this strategy.

Marvel Studios (which is currently owned by Disney, by the way) releases one or two of their movies every year. This has proven to be quite a success as the movies that fall into the "Marvel Cinematix Universe" are the biggest hits of recent years. I'm taking about the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and of course The Avengers movies which all play in the same universe and are interconnected. Despite these relations, each film still follows their own characters in their own settings with some minor and major characters moving from film to film. Their strategy works because each lead character and each setting is different enough that there's little risk of confusing one movie from the next.

This has worked out both creatively and financially for Marvel and it's this formula that Disney seeks to duplicate with Star WarsBut Star Wars presents plenty of risks when tackling this strategy.

Risk #1: It's All Star Wars
One notable thing about the title of The Force Awakens (aside from having a cooler title than any of the prequels) is that it abandons the use of Episode VII. While personally don't have a problem with this and actually prefer it, the spin-offs will all subsequently follow the same practice. Thus increases the risk that casual moviegoers will go to the theater in December 2016 and expect to see the sequel to The Force Awakens. Instead, they'll find narratively unrelated Star Wars film. As a result, casual moviegoers may be turned off from going to see Episode 8 in 2017 because they won't know if they're getting a sequel to The Force Awakens, Rogue One or just another spin-off. With the Marvel movies, each standalone movie falls under their own character's name thus removing the risk of any confusion.

The easiest solution to this problem would be for Disney to just release the sequel trilogy every other year first and then launch into their spin-off movies. That way moviegoers won't risk getting confused between now and 2019 when the last of the sequel trilogy films is released.

Risk #2: The Characters
The biggest appeal of The Force Awakens is being able to see Luke, Han and Leia again. It's one of the film's big selling points and why the new teaser both includes a VoiceOver by Mark Hamill and the last shot being Han and Chewie. The sequels will primarily feature new characters but including familiar characters will bring a sense of familiarity to The Force Awakens so that those who are hesitant after the prequels will get a chance to see old faces while gettin to know new faces.

With the spin-offs, this familiarity is quite unlikely. While there's the potential to see a Han Solo origin story or a film featuring a young Princess Leia in the early days of the rebellion, they won't be played by Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher. Moviegoers may not be as willing to accept younger actors in the roles especially if they still get to see the original actors every other year.

But the greater risk is that these will be new characters or ones featured only in novels or comics. If so, only the most die hard of fans will be excited to go to see characters who they alone are familiar with. While most moviegoers aren't very familiar with all of the Marvel superheroes, they at least have an idea of who Captain America and Iron Man are. The same cannot be set for Mara Jade.

Risk #3: The Setting
By the time Marvel released Guardians of the Galaxy, considered to be their B-level comic line, they had established their universe with almost ten movies before expanding it further. While there will have been seven Star Wars movies by the time Rogue One is released, the Star Wars universe is much more vast and covers a much larger period of time. All of Marvel's movies fall into the same time period, thus the dynamics of the universe are pretty much the same.

With Star Wars, if you tell a Han Solo or even a Yoda origin story, you're taking the franchise into different eras with each film. In a Yoda origin story, the Empire will have yet to exist. If you follow another character during a time between Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars (I will never refer to it as A New Hope), the Empire is in power under the Emperor. By jumping from one era to the next, you risk losing your casual audience. You can't have the Empire in power in one movie and then not in the next Star Wars movie. Those who don't follow movie news on the web will become lost and not know where they're at in the big picture story. If they get lost, they'll stop going to the theater.

Not to mention, you run the risk of space battles, blaster shoot-outs and lightsaber battles looking alike. People may start to feel one film isn't very different from the last one they saw.

Risk #4: Oversaturation
This is a risk that even Marvel runs especially with DC planning to release their own cinematic universe derived from Man of Steel. People will only be able to take so many superhero movies for so long.

The same can be said for Star Wars. The great thing about Star Wars for so long was that it was unique and rare. There were only so many stories to be seen. Now, though, there have been two animated series about the Clone Wars and now a third series is on the air about the early days of the rebellion. It's becoming not so rare anymore and now with the introduction of spin-offs in addition to the sequel trilogy, Star Wars movies and TV series will be all over the place. People might feel enough is enough, especially if the quality doesn't hold up. For a perfect example, look at the diminishing success of Star Trek in the late-90s into the earl-2000s when quality dropped because there were almost 800 TV episode. Only so many stories can be told that feel fresh. As I mentioned above, lightsaber duels and space battles can only be done so many ways so many times before they start to feel stale and old.

Risk #5: Even Regular Fans May Not Be Interested
You better believe that when Han Solo and Luke Skywalker return to theaters, I plan on being there to watch. But I personally have little interested in seeing Rogue One or even any potential Yoda or Han Solo origin stories. I'll go see the sequels but I'm gonna need to be sold on any of the spin-offs for me to not wait for them to hit DVD.

Thus presents the biggest risk: even big fans may cherry pick which films they go to see. The most die hard fans will likely go see anything Star Wars, but there are going to be those who decide to skip the spin-offs and just see the sequel trilogy, like myself.

I guess only time will tell how successful Disney's strategy will be. While I'm sure it may start off quite profitable for them, eventually that profitability will likely drop off. I, for one, only hope that the quality stays high especially with the sequel trilogy.

Time will tell.

Of course, I can't help but post the trailer!

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