2014 has been a pretty miserable year for the box office, with summer revenue at an eight-year low and down by 15% from 2013, but one studio that seems to have emerged from the dip largely unscathed is Disney. Despite this summer offering a major risk for Marvel Studios’ first flop, both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy can be counted among the biggest hits of 2014 and Disney also enjoyed a surprising amount of success with the live-action Sleeping Beauty prequel/re-imagining Maleficent.

All this bodes well for the debut of Disney’s take on the Star Wars franchise next year. The first movie in a new Star Wars trilogy (which will be accompanied by spin-offs and a multimedia shared universe) arrives in December 2015, and despite director J.J. Abrams’ love of secrecy it’s been impossible to keep the production entirely away from prying eyes.

During the initial stretch of filming in Abu Dhabi a large batch of set photos made its way onto the internet, though it didn’t show much outside of the extras and scenery of a Tatooine marketplace. Security surrounding the filming at Pinewood Studios in London has been a lot tighter, but it’s difficult to hide outdoor set pieces from a birds-eye view.

While flying over the RAF airfield Greenham Common taking publicity shots for a flying school, photographer Matthew Myatt spotted some very unusual aircraft. Unless the RAF is training its pilots in starfighters now, the X-wing and (half of) the Millennium Falcon shown in the photo below are actually props being used in the filming of Star Wars: Episode VII.

Abrams probably won’t mind these images too much, since he himself confirmed that the Millennium Falcon would appear in the movie with a set photo showing a small section of it. Abrams was also the first to reveal the new X-wing design in a video promoting a Star Wars competition in aid of UNICEF. The director seems to have come to terms with the fact that some things are too big to be kept secret, and so has been taking charge of the rumor mill himself.

In fact, Abrams has done just that once again this week with a seemingly innocuous tweet that may actually be a big hint that the Empire (or some remnant of it) will return in Star Wars: Episode VII. Celebrating Apple’s unveiling of the new iPhone 6 and Apple Watch, Abrams left this note lying around on the Star Wars set.

The note itself doesn’t reveal much outside of the fact that Abrams likes Apple products, but the reflective surface that it’s lying on shows a lighting pattern that’s extremely similar (though not completely identical) to that of the Death Star in the original Star Wars trilogy. Star Wars: Episode VII is going to need some bad guys, and this image suggests that the Empire could be making a comeback.

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Star Wars: Episode VII could potentially win the hearts of both old and new fans by adopting a tone not dissimilar to that of Guardians of the Galaxy: a space opera adventure that happily embraces its own weirdness (the classic pop music soundtrack probably wouldn’t fit, though). Speaking to THR, Disney CFO Jay Rasulo explained that the studio has definitely learnt from the success of its shared superhero universe: “We are doing what we do for our Disney franchises … with ‘Star Wars,’ and it is mirroring Marvel, but we already know the path, so it’s going to go faster, smoother, with the same goals.

With both Marvel and Star Wars under its umbrella Disney is in a good position to dominate the box office for the next few years to come, but it remains to be seen whether Marvel’s multimedia shared universe model work as well for Star Wars as it has for Disney’s comic book brands.

Star Wars: Episode VII is set for release on December 18, 2015.

Aource: Matthew Myatt, Bad Robot, THR

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