Send in the porgs … oh wait, they're already here
Disney's marketing of The Last Jedi portends a troubling future for moviegoing
"No porgs were available for comment." That's the kicker of a press release issued by Lucasfilm last month, announcing that director Rian Johnson would create an "all-new" Star Wars trilogy once he'd finished duties on Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
The line was a cute lil' wink at the astounding popularity of porgs, CGI-crafted critters that are featured in The Last Jedi, Ewok-style. Although the film only opens this Friday, the public has been drowning in porgs for months, with the cuddly widdle whatchamacallits adorning Uniqlo T-shirts, populating plush-toy aisles, and popping up all over your social media feeds like a Mos Eisley version of whack-a-mole. It's a promotional porgsasborg not seen since … well, since Star Wars: The Force Awakens introduced moviegoers, a.k.a. Christmas shoppers, to a sasssy droid named BB-8 back in 2015.
But the press-release gag could also be cynically interpreted as a smarmy nod to Disney's recently concluded detente with the media – a punchline to a battle that has been forgotten mere weeks after it was fought. Yet, as Star Wars prepares to dominate the box office and cultural conversation this holiday season and beyond, it is a fight most would do well to remember.
A bit of background: In early November, just before that porg-y press release was issued, the Los Angeles Times ran a note to readers informing them that Disney, which owns Lucasfilm, had barred its reporters from press screenings. This was blowback for the newspaper's investigation into Disney's influence on the city of Anaheim, home to its California theme park. The uproar was immediate, with film-critic guilds in the United States and Canada refusing to consider any Disney film – including The Last Jedi – from year-end awards consideration until the ban was lifted. And lifted it was, just a few days after the scandal began.
For a brief moment, it seemed that every film journalist in North America was ready to fight a studio seemingly intent on setting a dangerous precedent against the public interest. The dispiriting reality, though, is that only a few weeks later, the incident has been lost in a haze of porg-sanity. As it turns out, most of the media will cover every single nugget of Star Wars news that is offered up, regardless of whether Disney opens its doors or not.
Case in point: Two weeks ago, Disney held a media junket for The Last Jedi in Los Angeles, offering interviews with such stars as Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, and Mark Hamill. But attending journalists didn't get to see the film beforehand. They didn't even watch what's known as a sizzle reel of Last Jedi highlights. Instead, reporters walked blind into the proceedings because they were simply eager for access, or the illusion of access. Just a month after the media cried bloody murder against a corporate behemoth for a lack of co-operation, members of the press became de facto spokespeople for the studio that has demonstrated open disdain for them. (When contacted by The Globe and Mail this week, a representative for Disney declined to comment on the company's marketing strategy for its films.)
Even those threats from film-critic guilds turned out to be empty ones – most major critic organizations, from New York to Los Angeles to Toronto, announced their year-end awards without waiting for The Last Jedi to hold its all-media screenings on Monday.
This griping might all seem like inside baseball, or how the porg sausage gets made, and most everyone knows junkets are not beacons of journalistic integrity. But, taken together, the events of the past few weeks reveal a distinct and troubling path forward, not only for studio-media relations but the future of moviegoing as we know it.
Disney has realized that if a topic, such as Star Wars, is so high on the public's radar, everyone can simply skip the annoying part of having to screen the actual film before members of the media produce that highly sought-after content. The brand-awareness tactic worked on The Force Awakens, it worked last year for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and it will work for The Last Jedi. It might be the final step of turning the film press into a mere megaphone for Hollywood product.
As Disney plans to release more Star Wars adventures at a remarkable clip – Solo: A Star Wars Story opens next May, Star Wars: Episode IX arrives in 2019, and Rian Johnson's new trilogy and a rumoured Boba Fett spinoff will likely take us into 2025 – it is not unreasonable to ask how much both the media and audiences should be expected to prop up franchises that are too big to fail.
In 2012, Disney spent $4.1-billion (all figures U.S.) on securing Lucasfilm, and already that seems like the deal of the century. The two Star Wars films released since then have earned the Mouse House $1.4-billion, and that doesn't count streaming rights, home entertainment, and merchandise (ie., all those porg tees). As Disney inches closer to gobbling up such intellectual-property powerhouses as 20th Century Fox, with its stable of X-Men characters to add to its Marvel brand, it is worth contemplating how close we're getting to a critic-proof monoculture.
If one studio has such a large footprint in the entertainment landscape, it won't matter if there is any critical analysis available for readers to consume in advance of forking over their money, let alone whether studios make their wares accessible to the media.
When you see The Last Jedi this weekend – and according to a new report from Fandango, you already have your ticket – enjoy the antics of Rey, Poe, Finn, Luke, Leia, Chewie, and, of course, the porgs. But when Star Wars: The Porgs Strike Back opens in 2029 and everyone walks into it en masse without question, remember: This is what we asked for.