Did you hear the news about Star Wars? No, not the Han Solo teaser that aired at the Superbowl. Not the TV series that’s been announced for the Disney-owned Netflix-like streaming service. Not the Rian Johnson-helmed trilogy. The creators of the soon-to-be-defunct show Game of Thrones are going to helm another trilogy. Yes, the very same ones who needed a major social media controversy and a lot of bad press to realise that a series about “what if the South had won the US Civil War?” was, at best, an unfortunate idea. That’s a lot of content in the pipes for one franchise alone. In today’s film market, this may prove really challenging -even for Star Wars.
A long time ago…
A long time ago, in what seems like a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars was an exception. In a market that produced Chinatown, The Godfather, Klute, The French Connection, blockbusters tended to be the exception. The concept was only born halfway through that decade, when Jaws happened in 1975. For the fans of the first hours, there was no way of describing that the world would never be the same.
Today, however, the landscape is unspeakably different. Blockbusters are released every other week (during scarce months), and studios have succeeded in establishing equally strong brands. The main success, of course, has been Marvel’s cinematic universe. When it was announced that the Mouse House was buying Lucasfilm, it was clear that a lot of new content was going to be created (with the tie-in products that inevitably have to come with it).
The new Skywalker trilogy has pushed the nostalgia button very effectively (to the point of following the beats of the original movie almost to the minute). The first spin-off was good and kept us entertained between two main courses. Let’s not forget it was perfectly linked with the original movie. The Han Solo spin-off is also going to dig into the origins of the canon.
A new film market
Nostalgia is a very strong motivator for any decision. And when it comes to story universes such as Star Wars, nostalgia is probably the only reason anyone went to see The Phantom Menace in the first place.
The challenge that the new trilogy has faced was to create new compelling characters that hardcore fans would accept and engage with in a way similar to how they gushed over Luke, Leia and Han. If anything, this trilogy is probably just a bridge to many more explorations of the universe, in other times and places of the universe.
Two trilogies, a few TV series and a bunch of origin movies (Han Solo will be released in 2018, and rumours are circulating about an Obi-Wan Kenobi spin-off as well), are a lot to release, and even nostalgia won’t be able to carry that much. The gamble is that by releasing more content, the studio will keep their fans’ interest and engagement with the brand.
By trying to replicate the model of the Marvel cinematic universe, Lucasfilm is making an enormous bet. Marvel has had a large fanbase for decades because, as this Forbes article puts it, Marvel can “draw on 60+ years of comics and wide-eyed superhero adoration”.
The Last Jedi was technically canon as part of the Skywalker trilogy. Yet it proved extremely divisive due to the creative decisions that were made by its writer-director that started deviating from a time-honoured formula. Fans were not happy.
And this is only comparing the two main blockbuster studios (both owned by Disney). They are both generating new content constantly, but the film market is terrifyingly crowded in general. Film has followed the same trend as the global economy. In the beginning of the 20th century, the market set prices based on the scarcity of a given good. The 21st century is the economy of wealth, and sharing it through networks.
As cinema was a nascent medium, scarcity applied to the film market -any movie was an event, at that point. Now, you don’t have to leave your flat to have heaps of content fed to you. A night when you don’t watch anything because you don’t know what to pick in the Netflix catalogue has become most people’s standard Friday night.
The economy of scarcity
Blockbusters have tried to manage expectations by moving scarcity. It’s moved from the content to the information that’s given to audiences ahead of the release of the movie. It’s all in the marketing. Blockbusters are not just any movie anymore. They’re such an event that even the press can’t see it. Their much-adored stars can’t speak about the movie when doing press for the movie.
For the independent filmmaker, teasing has to be part of your campaign and release strategy. Scarcity in the information that you provide and what you reveal will raise the expectations.
Only time will tell if Disney’s gamble strategy is going to pay off. It very well may do, but the leap of faith for Star Wars fans is going to be much greater than anticipated -as is the risk that the studio is taking.