Why Hollywood needs the world to go Rogue
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is saddled with great expectations – if it doesn't perform well, it will cast a Death Star-sized shadow over not only Disney's ancillary products, but the rest of the industry, too
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens with a familiar sight: a simple black screen along with the words, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …" But from that moment on, nothing is quite what you would expect. There is no "episode" title, no yellow-lettered opening crawl explaining the state of the galaxy, no bombastic John Williams score.
Instead, Rogue One immediately smash-cuts to the action on a deserted farming planet – a dark set piece introducing this film's hero, and her tragic back story. It's a jarring and thrilling shift in style, courtesy director Gareth Edwards, that instantly throws you into a world that's both unknown and pointedly familiar – the rush of the new mixed with the grip of the old.
But in Rogue One's bold decision to abandon Star Wars tradition, the film also announces itself as a gigantic corporate gamble for Disney, the brand's current owner. For the first time in the franchise's 39-year history, Star Wars is getting stretched, spun off and sequelized in ways that would have once been considered sacrilege.
And if Disney wants its multibillion-dollar bet on the brand to pay off, Rogue One is going to have to do much more than impress – it is going to have to be the most successful film of the year, by a wide margin.
When Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4.1-billion (U.S.) in 2012 – the company's fourth-largest deal ever – it didn't just purchase the venerable Star Wars brand: It bought the very future of the blockbuster. It is a future where no corner of intellectual property is too obscure to exploit. Where a canonical universe that's been studied with almost Talmudic fury can be carved up and sold as prequels, sequels, TV series and virtual-reality experiences. Where audiences are so starved for something, anything, to do with a trusted brand like Star Wars that Disney can keep making films set in that universe for decades to come. It's the never-ending franchise, Hollywood's God dream.
As Rogue One hits theatres, Disney's film-production arm is already busy developing the next decade's worth of Star Wars products. There are the follow-ups to last year's Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which follow the series' traditional title format and linear timeline: Episode VIII (release date Dec. 15, 2017) and Episode IX (May 23, 2019). Then there are the spinoffs and prequels, including an untitled Han Solo movie (May 25, 2018), and Boba Fett, Yoda, Mace Windu and Jabba-knows-what-else stand-alone projects rumoured to be making their way through Disney's development pipeline.
When Disney initially made the Lucasfilm deal, CEO Robert Iger hailed a strategy of releasing a new Star Wars feature "every two to three years." Since then, the plan has seemingly accelerated to turn Star Wars into an annualized product, similar to the constantly replenishing slate of superhero films courtesy of Marvel Studios (which is also owned by Disney).
Yet, this master plan all depends on how Rogue One will perform at the box office. Current projections place Edwards's film as opening to $130-million in North America this weekend, which would cement the film as the second-biggest December opening ever – right behind The Force Awakens. But the movie is also saddled with a mixed jumble of expectations.
Not quite a sequel or a prequel, but not a reboot either, Rogue One takes place between the events of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope, detailing the efforts of rebel spies tasked with stealing the Empire's plans for the first Death Star. As it's not being positioned in the traditional "episode" line of films, financial hopes are slightly muted – no one believes this will be as gangbusters as The Force Awakens' $2.06-billion gross. Yet at the same time, as the first "stand-alone" Star Wars film, if it doesn't perform exceedingly well (its budget is north of $200-million, not counting marketing costs), then it casts a Death Star-sized shadow on all of Disney's ancillary products to come.
Underlining this concern is the fact that audiences might not quite know what to make of Rogue One. Devoted fans are well aware that it's a pseudo-prequel, but throughout most of the film, Edwards and his team take few efforts to remind you that you're watching action taking place before Luke Skywalker ever picks up a lightsaber, and decades before anyone named Rey or Kylo Ren join the action. There is a good chance that moviegoers will walk into Rogue One expecting a direct sequel to last year's The Force Awakens and exit confused and disappointed.
Still, Disney's brain trust cannot be underestimated – they know just how much is riding on Rogue One's back. Hence the film's much-fretted-over reshoots earlier this year, rumoured to ensure the film felt more familiar to the Star Wars universe fans know and love. (The exact nature of the reshoots, which took four to five weeks, has not been divulged, though industry reports cast The Bourne Identity screenwriter Tony Gilroy as the man who helped sew up the production, pocketing $5-million for the effort.)
It's also the reason why Rogue One's marketing has so far highlighted as many familiar sights as possible – but those that definitively exist in the pre-Force Awakens timeline (the Death Star, rebel leader Mon Mothma and, especially, an alive-and-well Darth Vader).
The rest of the industry is keeping an anxious eye on all this – they have to, if they hope to ever keep up with the Star Wars behemoth. It's the reason why Warner Bros. is still pushing its DC Comics adaptations, despite Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman stinking up multiplexes, and why Universal is building a line of "classic monster" films (there's a good reason why Russell Crowe shows up in that new trailer for Tom Cruise's reboot of The Mummy – he's playing Dr. Jekyll, in the hopes audiences will demand an eventual spinoff). If Rogue One crashes and burns, expect a development upheaval across Hollywood.
If the film does succeed, though, then Disney has earned itself the licence to print money for the foreseeable future. Consider, even, the origins of Rogue One itself: Its narrative only exists because of a single line in the opening crawl of A New Hope ("During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the Death Star") – the very kind of crawl Rogue One neglected to include.
A cursory glance at other crawls in the franchise reveals reams of additional spinoff material, from Episode II: Attack of the Clones ("There is unrest in the Galactic Senate …"; here's the chance for a Star Wars political thriller!) to Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back ("Imperial troops have driven the Rebel forces from their hidden base …"; why not a chase movie about the Empire hunting down Rebels?).
As Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams neatly put it to Variety recently, "One of the many wonderful byproducts of the universe that [Lucas] created is that nearly anything can happen within it."
As long as profit is a given, then, expect anything and everything from Disney – as long as it's set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens Dec. 16, with select evening showings Dec. 15.