When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, it promised an aggressive expansion of the Star Wars universe, reports Barry Hertz. With at least one film a year from 2015 on, the company is establishing a new model for the modern blockbuster
About halfway through the new film Star Wars: The Force Awakens, our heroes – the young scavenger Rey and turncoat Stormtrooper Finn, along with series stalwart Han Solo – visit the seedy lair of Maz Kanata, a sort of warmer, gentler, shorter version of Jabba the Hutt crossed with Yoda. In a quick 10-second sequence, director J. J. Abrams's camera scans through Kanata's hall, filled with various smugglers, bounty hunters and intergalactic troublemakers – there's a small green creature with a scruffy blue beard, a towering horse-faced alien in tattered robes and a droid that looks like it came straight out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
If this were any other movie, the extraterrestrial extras would be mere window-dressing, a cute bit of production design. But because this is a Star Wars movie, and most importantly the first Disney-produced Star Wars movie, each and every one of those riff-raff come equipped with names and back stories detailed in press conferences, toy lines and various ancillary material – all narratives to be exploited later on. And while it may seem silly to point out that it's the feared pirate Crimson Corsair who's hanging out just beside the sexy assassin Bazine, Disney would very much like you to start obsessing over those characters right now and mounting campaigns for a Bazine spinoff or even a standalone film taking place inside Kanata's underground. In fact, the company made a $4.1-billion bet counting on just that.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm for that staggering amount in October, 2012 – the Mouse House's fourth-largest deal ever – it didn't just buy the Star Wars brand: It bought the future of the modern blockbuster. A future where no character is too obscure to merit their own sub-franchise. Where a canonical universe can be carved up into bits and pieces and sold to the moviegoing public as prequels, sequels and parallel-perspective anthology series. Where audiences are so hungry for something, anything, to do with the Star Wars brand that the company can keep making films set in a galaxy far, far away for decades to come. A future where, simply put, inexhaustible brands are the Hollywood norm.
None of this is by accident. Disney knows full well the power of the franchise model from its animation division – witness the eternal lineup of direct-to-video sequels to The Lion King and Aladdin – but the company truly unlocked the power of the perpetual blockbuster machine when it purchased Marvel in 2009 (for just a shade under what it paid for Lucasfilm). Under the guidance of Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, Disney pioneered the "cinematic universe" – a carefully planned slate of films that are all connected with each other in some way, big or small. Everything that happens in, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier affects the films of Iron Man, Thor and the rest of the Avengers. Audiences become invested not just in super-teams, but in minor characters, too. The fear of missing out on one instalment girds you for a lifelong buy-in of all the other films and properties.
The Marvel strategy has worked so well – its 12 official "Marvel Cinematic Universe" (MCU) films have raked in more than $3.5-billion (U.S.) at the global box office alone, with 11 more currently in the pipeline – that the rest of Hollywood has had no choice but to try its own hand at interconnected filmmaking. That's why Universal is currently building a cinematic universe around its stable of classic monsters (Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman), Warner is exploiting its partnership with DC Comics to bring you Superman and his Justice League, and Paramount teamed up just this week with Hasbro to somehow create a compelling series of films based on the G.I. Joe, Micronauts, Visionaries, ROM and M.A.S.K. toy lines (yes, really).
But none of these attempts, even the MCU, can compare with what Disney is now attempting to do with Star Wars. Whereas Marvel and DC have a healthy roster of superheroes they can reboot and recast almost constantly, and enough third-stringers that even a talking tree can become a hit, Star Wars has a literal galaxy to play with, filled with characters that audiences across all demographics have been connecting with on an emotional level for almost four decades. What's more: Lucasfilm's "Holocron," a continuity database used internally by the company to track all of its fictional elements, lists 17,000 characters inhabiting several thousand planets across an official timeline of about 20,000 years. That's an enormous sandbox to play in, and Disney plans to exploit it for all its worth.
The Force Awakens (technically Episode VII of the Star Wars saga) and its two upcoming sequels focus on the later-life adventures of Luke, Leia and Han, while introducing a host of new, instantly compelling characters. But within the franchise, there's also room for, say, a prequel about the smugglers who stole plans for the original Death Star (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story comes to theatres Dec. 16, 2016). And a standalone film focusing on a young Han Solo (May 25, 2018). And let's throw in a look at the adventures of bounty hunter Boba Fett, Jedi master Yoda, and doomed warrior Mace Windu (all rumoured to be in various stages of development). You can go forward thousands of years past The Force Awakens, or go back in time to the beginnings of the Republic – the possibilities are literally endless. "Star Wars is its own genre," Force Awakens screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan recently told Wired. "Like all genre, it can hold a million different kinds of artists and stories. They say 'Buddha is what you do to it.' And that's Star Wars. It can be anything you want it to be."
Of course, none of this would work if audiences weren't invested in the Star Wars brand. Yet despite being burned by George Lucas's early 2000s trilogy (Jar Jar Binks, were you real or just something society collectively fever-dreamed?), there is a seemingly insatiable appetite for all things Star Wars. Audiences have devoured not only the films, seemingly indifferent to quality, but also comics, cartoons, books and board games. Disney wouldn't have bet on Lucasfilm if it was in a tailspin, but 38 years after the original film, Episode IV: A New Hope, was released, the brand shows no signs of flagging. Witness the advance ticket sales for The Force Awakens, which have crossed $100-million in North America, an unprecedented number. If estimates are correct, opening weekend alone could bring in $220-million.
…When Disney bought Lucasfilm, CEO Robert Iger said the plan was to release a new Star Wars feature "every two to three years." Since then, though, the studio came to realize just how desirable a product Star Wars can be, aggressively expanding its release calendar, with its stock increasing 143 per cent since the day it announced the deal. (Don't think the accelerated deadlines haven't troubled filmmakers, though – according to the Hollywood Reporter, producer Kathleen Kennedy initially wanted to push the release of The Force Awakens to 2016, and this only after Iger acquiesced to a December, 2015 opening, instead of the initial summer target.)
Of course, this is about more than just movies, too. It's estimated that Disney will sell $5-billion worth of Force Awakens merchandise within a year of the film's release, and this past August the company announced two Star Wars theme parks. But the industry that will feel the full effects of Disney's force (and, ahem, Force) will be Hollywood. It's not that hard to imagine a future where the marquees of the few remaining multiplexes will list nothing but Star Wars films. With the adult drama market in decline and already making subtle shifts to the world of video-on-demand, blockbuster franchise cinema will continue its creep from the summer season out to spring and fall. The tentpole – what a studio hopes will financially prop up the rest of its slate – will be a thing of the past, because everything will be a tentpole.
The Force, for better or worse, has awakened a company hell-bent on dominating the future of the film industry, forever.