Star Wars is About to Get Bigger, Unimaginably Biggerby Todd King, contributing writer
It Belongs to Us
The interesting thing about finally having new Star Wars action figures and toys—the new stuff came out about two weeks ago on "Force Friday," is that there is now something tangible about this whole experience, of being a fan and waiting for the new movie.
You can hold a three-dimensional object—a representation of a new character from a new Star Wars movie that we haven't seen yet—in your hands. You can examine the details of these pieces of plastic resin and pick up the character of Finn, for example, and inspect the intricacies of his costume, discover what accessories comes with him, and how all of this might tell us more about what kind of person, or hero, he might be.
For the not-so-faint-at-heart, we can open the package and take the figure out, thereby reducing the value of the toy and letting it fulfill its destiny to be loved by a child—or else, it might become an embittered schemer like Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2. By getting out of the box, the toy becomes ours. It belongs to us now. We play with it, we have the characters re-enact scenes from the film, or we set them out on new adventures in our imagination…anything! It's a toy, that's what it does.
In a deeper way though, it gives us a sense of ownership. Action figures, even posters and T-shirts, can all become part of our identity, can be assimilated to our consciousness and into the outlook of our lives in small ways and large. In fact, something larger than the toy itself seems to belong to us.
As kids, the toys connected us to the characters, to the stories and to the overall idea of the movies. They made us intimately familiar with the fine particulars of the franchise. We knew what Han Solo's blaster looked like because we had the toy with its accessories. We got a good look at the reclusive monster (the dianoga) in the Death Star's trash compactor and discovered it was more than just a periscope eye and tentacles. We could then spot these fine details in the movies, giving us a sense of discovery and knowledge. It's all because you could hold these things in your hands. There was all that stuff on the big screen but when it's in your hands the connection makes a different impact. Our imaginations took the characters beyond the boundaries of film.
Now there are new figures out, and you've probably seen pictures and videos of BB8. These toys are available now, before the movie is even finished.
What is available now must have been carefully curated so that no major plot details or spoilers are leaked. Every reveal of information from the movie is orchestrated at precise times. So, with the toys in hand, we can only speculate what might become of these characters—speculations I once made before The Phantom Menace when I wondered what the characters of Watto, Sio Bibble, and Ric Olié would bring to the story. Not much as I found out. It was slightly disappointing.
Some of the New Merch
There aren't just action figures now, there are large-scale figures that are almost like statues.
There are Monopoly games...
Die-cast metal miniatures...
And images of Star Wars on bags of Pop Secret kettle corn and Betty Crocker fruit gummies.
Then there are C-3PO and R2D2 appearances on Disney Channel on shows like ANT Farm.
Star Wars is popping up everywhere, and I do mean everywhere.
But is that good? Is that bad? Do you think it's ridiculous? Do you think it's a terrible flood of products? Do you think it will overdo the hype?
I think this marks the coming of a new era. Merchandising and marketing have been leading to this for some time.
The Era of Going Big
What's it been leading to? A new mentality of pop culture. The old business analysts and us old fans tend to think all this will cram the market to its breaking point and cause some kind of downfall, either in the movie's extra-curricular economics or in the downfall of interest from the general public, causing a backlash against the movie even before its arrival. But that doesn't seem to be happening. It has happened with other large-scale movies, like The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which just happens to be another franchise under the auspices of Disney.
This is a machine of merchandising, advertising, hype, and interest-making. Disney has always had a knack of building interesting in something. Go back to the Disneyland TV show hosted by Walt himself, where he used the medium of television to build interest in his upcoming newfangled theme park thing. That helped Walt sell his idea to the people who would actually attend and enjoy Disneyland—but it also served to bring interest to investors for the project so that it could become reality.
Star Wars seems to be a franchise that doesn't need much to build interest—there are already tons of fans, and a simple 80-second teaser trailer for the new movie was enough to garner excitement from most of the world. But making two trailers isn't all that Disney is doing to promote the movie. It's putting Star Wars everywhere.
You've heard of product placement in movies? Well, things are the opposite here in the new world—here, we are in the scenes, and in these scenes there are movie placements! And that is the new era we are already in. An era of placement. The Force Awakens is going to be in theaters at the end of the year, but Star Wars is going to be everywhere outside the theater. We are in for a deluge, a tempest of movie placements. I do know that my heart says. "We don't need all this. The movie will be a major hit regardless of this stuff." But that's just not this era's reality. The reality is to weave it into everything. More is more. And if we're worried that it will work against Disney's intention to promote the movie, that it will spur a backlash, well, I just don't see that happening. This new era will simply absorb it.
During the original trilogy's run, the interstate speed limit was 55 miles per hour. Now, it is most often 70. Are we more careless because of that? No, we've grown and have adapted ourselves to the speed—we're not free from accidents, but neither were we free from them at 55. What about cars and their mileage? Technology has caught up and adapted to the speeds while mileage gets better every year. It's the same with products and promotion—the field is much wider today and the boundaries have yet to be found.
And it's not going to end either. There is no end in sight. We have Star Wars movies upon Star Wars movies on the horizon that are already planned—some less than a year apart. Rogue One and Episode VIII will be mere months apart. This is not just a new trilogy of three movies released three years apart anymore. Disney has enabled Star Wars to become a whole new thing. Star Wars is changing. It is getting bigger—unimaginably bigger. It's taking on a whole new life and the hard realization is that it has been on this path for some time.
Does it Belong to Us?
For the longest time after the original trilogy, Star Wars belonged to us. It was ours. It was no longer being made and no longer in anyone else's hands. The movies were released and that is a form of letting go. George Lucas made it so that the movie would go out into the world and hopefully be a success. And the viewers and fans made it a success. We loved it and we passed it on to others so that they could experience our joy, too. This was ours.
So when the prequels were being made, was there a sense of encroachment? If Star Wars was ours, how would we feel about these new movies being made? There had to be some bond of trust for this to succeed. With George Lucas at the helm of the new movies, there was trust. He was the original creator of Star Wars; who better to tell the backstory than the creator himself? He would be the one we could certainly trust.
After the excitement wore down after the release of Episode I, a shakiness to that trust began to develop. Later when the backlash began to hit, it hit pretty hard. It seemed like the trust had been broken, and Lucas became fallible. There had been hints of this feeling after the "Special Editions" of the original trilogy in light of the changes that were made to the films, which didn't altogether sit well with fans. Lucas encroached on something that belonged to us. He was tinkering with things that to us were already fine.
With The Phantom Menace and its sequels, and some time to reflect upon them, many concluded that the productions simply did not meet our expectations. It seemed Lucas was tinkering with our imaginations. There was, however, simply no way that anyone could have satisfied the hype for the prequels. We as fans had been imagining the stories in our minds for over 20 years—no one could match the ideas we had developed. Or could they? We began to ask if something could have been made better if in the hands of someone else.
Fast forward to now, and the franchise is now in the hands of someone else: Disney. And if we look at the success Disney has had with Marvel, then we can make an educated guess how Star Wars is going to turn out. But is there a sense of trust?
It's a Matter of Trust
I believe there are many ways to trust Disney with the Star Wars movies. One way is that while J. J. Abrams as the director is not without his detractors, he is an accomplished director with experience in special effects, who regenerated the Star Trek franchise. Another way is that Abrams is not alone; Lawrence Kasdan had a hand in Star Wars's success with his screenplays.
Disney has given ample time for the production to work. All those involved have supported the return of the original cast to be involved in the stories. John Williams has returned to compose the score. There is less reliance on computer-generated imagery for the film's special effects. Star Wars Rebels is turning out to have deeper stories than originally thought.
These are just a few of the reasons Disney is building a solid foundation for Star Wars, but one more example caught my attention some months ago. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly magazine, Anthony Daniels recounted how it was playing C3PO during the prequels when the character was made into CGI for some scenes:
"[During the prequels], the only time [Threepio has] been CG was when it was very dangerous [to act in the scene in a suit]—and it wasn't very good. In fact, I'm going to say it was awful… With CG, you're working with some brilliant person on the keyboard who is trying to pretend to be me. The only time that has worked without doubt is Disney's Star Tours: The Adventures Continue… There's an element in the pre-show which is digital and I cannot tell it's not me. It's brilliantly done by Disney."
This may have been just a one-off interview but this is one of the best endorsements I can see for Disney's handling of Star Wars, at least before the movie's out. And this may be a quick detail, but it is an important one.
As for ways to not trust Disney with Star Wars? Well, there is this tidal wave of merchandising, but it is not all that different from what we saw with the prequels—and yet, it seems to be bigger. Having the droids randomly show up in some pre-teen Disney Channel show makes me scratch my head (the Muppets also happened to show up in Good Luck Charlie once).
The digital release of the first six movies was a good step, but fans are still hoping for a full-on release of the original theatrical cuts of the original trilogy that are remastered and upscaled, but no hint of that fan-service has been rumored. I'm excited for Star Wars Land, but just how much of the park will be devoted to re-creating environments from the original movies? If the sets are solely from the new films, how will they satisfy the older fans looking for that nostalgic immersion?
Finally, is there just too much of it coming? Too much Star Wars? Isn't that blasphemy? Well, I'm really excited and I do want to see the movies they have planned. I want to see the stories of Han Solo, and Obi-Wan, and Boba Fett, but this free reign of storytelling has no limits—there's nothing stopping Disney from telling any story it wants.
This is something we used to do when adding to the Expanded Universe, which is now called Legends and is no longer "canon." Disney felt they needed to start the new series of stories in a kind of reboot by beginning with a clean slate where the previous feature films, and not the collection of books by various authors, were the primary focus. But many fans have been put off by the wiping away of the Expanded Universe and it felt like an encroachment, to put it lightly.
Will we be able to add anything back to Star Wars ourselves? I'm not sure.
Would such a large company as Disney even need us to do such a thing? Would they hear us at all anyway? And herein lies my trepidation: it feels like Star Wars is out of our control—not that it essentially needs to be in the complete control of fans—but there are these hints that makes us believe Disney isn't considering the sense ownership by fans. Perhaps they are seeing us less as partners, and just more as consumers. Not as fans, but as guests. Guests are treated well, but implies that they are not at home—that they are in another person's house. In the same breath, Disney uses the term at their parks, and cast members work hard every minute to be sure every guest has a wonderful experience.
We are in the house of Disney now, and a careful relationship is being built. Even with all these good points and negative hints, it is too early to tell just how this issue of trust will pan out. The proof will be not just in the quality of The Force Awakens, but in the reactions to it—both our reactions to it, and Disney to us. As for me, my hopes are high but they are high with many good reasons to trust, but a trust that still must be earned.
How can Disney earn and keep that trust? I believe they must adhere to the original spirit of the movie's purpose which takes us back to George Lucas, who said (back on the Star Wars Album from 1977):
"The reason I made Star Wars is that I wanted to give young people some sort of faraway, exotic environment for their imaginations to run free."