A New Hope?

Disney has gambled a great deal of money on the success of its Star Wars franchise, but could their confidence be misplaced?

At what point can you consider a franchise a guaranteed money-maker? For Disney, the moment came in October 2012, when it threw down $4.05 billion to buy Lucasfilm from George Lucas, immediately announcing a brand new trilogy of Star Wars films, with releases due every year from 2015 to 2018. Perhaps realising that spending the GDP of Fiji on the rights to make three movies is a bit of a waste, the company slipped another two onto the slate, bringing the total to five. That’s right, over the next two years there are going to be five different Star Wars films, with plenty more planned after 2018.

And just in case we miss Star Wars at the multiplex, Disney has helpfully released a cartoon series, is considering a live-action television show, and is building two Star Wars-themed lands at Disneyland park in California and Walt Disney World in Orlando. Merchandising has been commissioned, videogame licences handed out, and global celebrations planned. That’s a lot of Star Wars coming our way, but not everybody’s convinced Disney’s gamble is going to pay off.

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“I question the wisdom of this move,” former Columbia Pictures marketing executive Peter Sealey told USA Today. “At the price they [Disney] paid, what’s left to drain from this franchise? I don’t think Star Wars is another Bond-like franchise. It’s been eclipsed by movies like Avatar. It seems to me that Disney is bankrupt of new ideas so they’ve just gone out and made another big buy. Sure they’ll have a Star Wars theme park ride, and probably an ice show and Broadway show, but I’m not convinced it has the cultural force it once did.”

His concerns are falling on deaf ears, with Disney cranking up the merchandising machine months ahead of release, even holding a Force Friday event to show off the new toys. Reach a hand out over the next few years and you’ll likely end up touching something Star Wars-related, sparking what can only be described as a wave of global giddiness. With the first film in the new trilogy, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, set for release on December 18, The Guardian wondered if it might become the first movie to break $3 billion at the worldwide box office, while analysts started digging up convenient historical records for it to shatter. A $100 million opening weekend in December? Sure, why not? Biggest-ever overseas gross? Easy.

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Never before has a film arrived with so much unguarded adulation as The Force Awakens, but the bunting might be a little premature. Thus far 2015 has been a graveyard for franchises, dreadful box office performance putting an end to a new series of Terminator and Fantastic Four movies, not to mention the concluding part of Sony’s planned trilogy of Spider-Man films, along with three announced spin offs. This failure so flummoxed Sony it promptly handed the entire thing over to Marvel to see if they could make some sense of the mess. Funnily enough, one industry watcher had already predicted what was going to happen.

“Last summer [2014] was by some measure the worst summer the industry had since the original Star Wars came out in 1977, despite the fact that it saw launches in the Spider-Man, X-Men, Planet Of The Apes, How To Train Your Dragon and Transformers franchises, several of which were very well-reviewed,” said Cowen analyst Doug Creutz in a note to investors dubbed Memo To Hollywood: You Can’t All Be Successful Doing The Same Thing. “We think this narrative is looking increasingly flawed. Moreover, we think there is cause for increasing concern that the major studios are all moving towards increasingly indistinguishable strategies, as they all put more and more eggs in the franchise picture basket.”

That sound you can hear is a klaxon going off in the Magic Kingdom. Disney’s “franchise picture basket” is more of a landfill site at this point, overflowing with superheroes, supervillains, and some of the most recognisable actors on the planet. Not only does Disney own LucasArts, it’s also thrown a leash around Marvel, which has 14 movies coming out over the next three years, accompanying eight television series. It’s a distribution model Star Wars will almost certainly be aping, with production ready to ramp up on a dozen different properties just as soon as Episode VII unwraps Disney’s new universe and the characters inhabiting it. As a strategy, it’s basically an all-you-can-eat buffet of science-fiction goodness, the chefs content to keep feeding people as much as they want for as long as they want it. Surely, sooner or later we’re going to be full?

“It will inevitably fail,” says Professor Peter Stanfield, a lecturer in film at University Of Kent. “Time damages franchises and stars, and we’ve already seen it happen to plenty of other genres and pulp franchises. Westerns used to be massive – huge, huge, huge – but society changes and places new demands on the types of narratives it wants to deal with. Things like Fu Manchu were common currency at one point in time yet nobody knows what that is now. I don’t think there’s any set pattern to it, but there’s one common thing: they suddenly stop being seen as relevant, and that lack of relevance does for them.”

Star Wars benefitted from the rise of multiplexes and cinemas in shopping malls

Relevance, in Star Wars’ case, is actually synonymous with nostalgia. Professor Stanfield talks about how parents took their children to see Star Wars when it first arrived on cinema screens in 1977, immediately wrapping the movie in a warmth and joy quite separate from the film on screen. When those children grew up, they took their children to see the new trilogy, sharing and reinforcing those same feelings. To a large extent, he believes Disney’s long-term success when it comes to the new trilogy will be tied up with replicating that nostalgia, perhaps explaining why the trailer for the new film shared so much of its iconography with the original films, right down to a returning Harrison Ford and cute droids rolling across a desert.

“The question is, what happens if a couple of the movies aren’t very good, could that damage the nostalgia and people’s memories of it, their sense of childhood wonder and love for film-going?” says Professor Stanfield. “Batman and Superman survive because they’re iconic characters, but they can be reinvented for different audiences. I’m not sure you can do that with Star Wars. The visual feel of the original trilogy was defined by the technology of the day – it played on pre-existing ideas of what a fighter pilot looked like in the Second World War – but now the movies are tied to that feel, because nobody wants to dent the nostalgia.”

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Within that idea, he also perceives another threat to the longevity of the franchise, one that, somewhat ironically, used to be considered a significant strength. “Star Wars benefitted from the rise of multiplexes and cinemas in shopping malls,” he says. “There’s an often a much larger correlation between the types of films we get and the technology behind them than we might be aware of at the time. What’s interesting is where we’ll be with cinema in ten years’ time, towards the end of this new series [of Star Wars films]. Will people still be going to the cinema in the numbers they do now, or will they be consuming content in all sorts of interesting ways I’d never have predicted 20 years ago? Yes, Star Wars is part of people’s identity, and, yes, they feel it very strongly, but that ability to pass on their love for it through the cinema may be dispersed just by the variety of different ways people are now consuming movies.”

Disney may have a lot riding on the success of Star Wars, but it isn’t quite as much as their accountants might fear. Of the $4.05 billion it paid to George Lucas to take Lucasfilm from a Galaxy Far Far Away to its own back garden, it gave him half of the money in Disney shares – making Lucas the second biggest Disney shareholder after Steve Jobs’ widow. And it didn’t just get the rights to Star Wars in return. Alongside light sabers and wookies, Disney is now the proud owner of Industrial Light & Magic, considered Hollywood’s premier special-effects studio, and Skywalker Sound, which quietly goes about the business of making most movies sound awesome.

Besides, while $4.05 billion sounds like a lot to most folk, Disney had it lying around in cash. Probably in a drawer somewhere. To put it bluntly, Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm was a relatively risk-free deal, probably done while it nipped out for a sandwich and a cup of coffee. After all, even if all of the new Star Wars films bomb, Lucasfilm made roughly $35 billion from Star Wars over the last 35 years, a figure Disney can confidently take as a baseline for future profits.

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And besides, the sky would have to fall in for the first film to bomb. The 88-second teaser released last December swiftly became the most viewed trailer in history, smacking the highly anticipated Avengers: Age Of Ultron trailer into a distant second place. If people could start queuing for this film now, they probably would. The concern, of course, isn’t the first film, or the second, it’s the fifth and sixth, when Disney has earned back its $4.05 billion and is busy trying to fill a Mickey Mouse-shaped swimming pool with cash so its investors can go swimming.

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“Even if they have a couple of stinkers, or have a couple of annual releases, two or maybe three Star Wars films in a row that really aren’t sticking with the audience I don’t think it raises alarms,” says Daniel Loria, managing editor of BoxOffice Media, a movie revenue analytics firm. “I think Disney has the possibility of finding its ways and redirecting course the same way United Artists had it with James Bond and now Sony has it with James Bond. We’re looking at Daniel Craig leaving the franchise and, you know, I don’t think anybody’s worried there won’t be another one of those movies or that Sony’s going to give up on James Bond. When we’re talking about Star Wars, we really have to look at it, not in terms of say Harry Potter that’s a sustained cast, seven to eight films back-to-back-to-back, we have to look at in terms of Bond. It creates a universe, it creates characters, Disney’s going to build something that can endure for decades.”

With only weeks to go until the release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, we won’t have to wait too long to see what director JJ Abrams has in store. Disney, on the other hand, might have to wait a whole lot longer to work out whether it was all worth the price of admission.

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What are you earliest Star Wars memories?

I have been asked that a lot, I think everybody kind of expects you to say, “Luke, I am you Father” or something iconic like that, but I will always remember the subtle brilliances of the earlier movies. I always think about those more tranquil moments where Luke is out in A New Hope, and there are the two suns setting, and it’s just such a quiet moment. It is the equivalent, basically, of a farm boy dying to get out of his small town and do something bigger. It’s those kinds of universal themes that ground this whole thing in space.

 

You’re known for your work on indie movies. What motivated you to go for such a high-profile role?

Star Wars obviously has some great scenes with some great special effects, but what makes it really special is the balance it has. There is so much humanity in the movies. The themes they have address things such as parent sibling relationships, betrayal, and the lack of being loved. They sound such simple themes, but to get the balance right in a movie with so much action is really hard, and it’s what Star Wars has always
done brilliantly.

 

Did you audition for the role, and if so, how nerve-wracking was the experience?

From the start of everything you want to make everything you do is as good as it can possibly be. I am not sure I would call it
pressure, but when you are talking about a franchise as popular and big as Star War – you
certainly feel a responsibility.

 

How much research did you put into the character prior to the audition?

JJ has come out and said that Kylo Ren is aware of everything that has happened before him, and there is a nod to Darth Vader in the choice of mask that Kylo has. I knew that, but I didn’t know a lot more, but things will be revealed in the movie.

 

On the subject of not knowing a lot, the plot for this Star Wars is very closely guarded. Were you advised on how to keep it all secret?

Not really, we were never really told this is how journalists are going to try and get plot lines out of you, we were just pretty much trusted to keep everything to ourselves. I don’t like knowing anything about a movie before I see it, so it was pretty easy for me.

 

The image of the table read went viral – what was it like meeting the original cast?

The word I constantly use when asked about anything regarding being part of Star Wars is surreal, and that absolutely is the case for the table read in London.

 

Did it feel like you were involved in a seminal movie moment?

I think the second you are asked, and commit to being part of a Star Wars movie, everything is a bit seminal. Maybe I will look back when it’s all over and think on specific moments, but at the moment it’s very difficult to do that.

 

Speaking of which – first time you used the light sabre: how was that?

It is one of those iconic things associated with Star Wars, so obviously it was pretty cool.


How much pressure is there on an actor with a prominent role in a movie franchise that so many people care passionately about?

It’s no secret how much fans care about Star Wars; everybody knew that before they committed to it. It’s exciting to be part of Star Wars, and nobody on set took it lightly. Not just the actors, but the crew as well, everybody was totally committed to making the end product as something as good as they possibly could. Absolutely nobody took the responsibility of making a Star Wars movie lightly.

 

How did you prepare to play such a villainous character – and what’s the most villainous thing you’ve done in real life?

The interesting thing about Star Wars is the villain doesn’t think he is the villain. If you were to ask him he would tell you he was fighting for the right side.

 

How do you think you character ranks against Darth Vader?

When you talk about Darth Vader you are talking about what is probably the most iconic villain in movie history, so I wouldn’t want to do a comparison. I think like a lot of Star Wars characters though there is a sense of betrayal in him.

 

For an actor that clearly avoids the limelight, how do you think that a role such as this will affect your day-to-day life?

I just put everything I had into the role. I was never going to be the guy who felt comfortable having a Star Wars action figure, for me it was about doing justice to the incredible role I had been given.

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