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Wednesday
Oct312012

Star Wars: modern myth or global franchise? 

Yesterday's announcement that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm and was preparing at least three more Star Wars films (episodes 7, 8 and 9) surprised me only for one reason: it was so soon. Let me explain. 

I started writing my Star Wars memoir, A Long TIme Ago, about two years ago. Before that time, Star Wars was not something I spent much time thinking about anymore. I had fond memories of the old Star Wars and bitter recollections of the prequels, but by 2010 the last prequel was five years back and my Star Wars days were well behind me. Then, in July of last year, I started this blog, partly as a way to gather my thoughts for the book and partly as a means of building an audience for it. 

If writing immersed me in the Star Wars of my childhood, blogging flooded me with the Star Wars of today--the Star Wars of the prequels, the Clone Wars, the video games I don't play, the Expanded Universe I don't follow--a kind of Star Wars I was largely unfamiliar with and totally unimpressed by. The sheer volume of this new sort of Star Wars was a revelation to me. Every day, or at least every weekday, there seemed to be some new book published or game released or toy launched or licensing agreement inked. Most of these announcements left me cold, for this is mainly a blog about Star Wars's youth (and my own). But though Star Wars was a nostalgic indulgence for me, it became starkly obvious that for a large--and increasing?--number of fans, Star Wars was not three movies that came out 30 years ago. It was the prequels, the Clone Wars TV show, the Dark Horse comics, the dozens of video games, the Expanded Universe novels, the tasteless merchandising and more. 

This discovery was not a happy one for me. The fantasy world I felt so at home in as a ten-year-old felt foreign today. But as I got over the initial shock, I had a realization: Star Wars was far from over. It would likely go on for that part of forever that I can hope to pay any attention to, say until about 2060, and quite possibly beyond. In particular, I realized that more Star Wars films were inevitable.

What surprised me about yesterday's announcement, then, was not that more Star Wars films are coming. I felt certain of that already. What surprised me was how soon the new films were coming. I had not expected any more films in George Lucas's lifetime. But here comes the next one, only three short years away.

Does that sound familiar? Of course it does. But there is a world of difference between today and 1977 or 1980. This time around, we cannot expect an Empire Strikes Back or even a Return of the Jedi, because Star Wars is no longer a single story told in three parts by a single (if heavily supported) storyteller. Star Wars is no longer a story at all, but a $4 billion asset of a publicly traded company. Star Wars today is not a story but a brand, and new on-brand content will be generated as predictably as Coca-Cola is bottled or Olympic games are held or Nike shoes are manufactured. Yesterday's announcement was very clear that Episodes 7-9 are only the beginning of this latest Star Wars relaunch:

Backed by the global reach and brand stewardship strengths of Disney, the future of Star Wars is now under the direction of acclaimed film producer and studio executive Kathleen Kennedy, co-chairman of Lucasfilm. Kennedy and Disney plan a slate of new Star Wars feature films, beginning with the long-awaited Star Wars: Episode VII, targeted for release in 2015, followed by Episodes VIII and IX. Additional feature films are expected to continue the saga and grow the franchise well into the future.

..

The acquisition combines two highly compatible family entertainment brands, and strengthens the long-standing beneficial relationship between them that includes successful integration of Star Wars content into Disney theme parks in Anaheim, Orlando, Paris and Tokyo.

Does this mean there will never be another good Star Wars film? Not necessarily. There are a lot of talented filmmakers in the world today who grew up as mad about Star Wars as I did. (Joss Whedon Joss Whedon oh please Joss Whedon.) And there is a lot of room in the original Star Wars story for further development. Lando Calrissian, Han Solo and Grand Moff Tarkin all come to mind as characters--real characters, not extras in costumes like Boba Fett--about whom more could be told. If Star Wars's new owners are brave enough to ignore the prequels, the Expanded Universe and all the canonicity nonsense of Lucasfilm nerds, some wonderful creations could be on the horizon. 

But there are bound to be missteps along the way. Probably even complete flops. And even if Disney produces nothing but brilliant Star Wars films for the rest of my days, something will have been lost. If, before yesterday, there was any doubt that Star Wars was now merely a content reservoir from which to dip when marketing new products, that doubt has been removed. For all his frailties, George Lucas was the creative genius behind the modern myth that was the original Star Wars trilogy. Starting now, Disney's Lucasfilm division is headed not by a creative genius but by a "brand manager" who (to quote again from the press release) will work "directly with Disney's global lines of business to build, further integrate, and maximize the value of this global franchise." 

People don't write loving memoirs about global franchises, do they?

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