Over the past month, rumors have been flying that Star Wars: Episode VIII would be getting a delay. Yesterday, out of the clear blue (twin sun) sky, Lucasfilm made the rumors official and formally announced a release date switch from May 26, 2017 to December 15, 2017.
Given the company’s rather short press release – which didn’t offer a reason for the move – fan speculation immediately erupted across online communities, particularly considering just how closely the announcement came after other rumors about delays in production emerged. Much like the Force, there seem to be two sides to the sudden development: either Disney is eager to replicate Episode VII: The Force Awakens’s unprecedented Christmas-time success, or extra time is needed to account for creative reshuffling.
So, was Episode VIII pushed back for creative or financial reasons? We actually think we might have the answer.
Under creator George Lucas’s regime, the Star Wars films operated on a leisurely three-year development cycle, making each trilogy a nine-year affair. When The Walt Disney Company dropped a little over $4 billion to purchase his company, however, one of the first decisions it made with its new behemoth of a property was to fast-track every new installment, shortening the release window to only two years in between the sequel trilogy’s main entries. This meant, of course, that while The Force Awakens was in the middle of its production, development on Episode VIII needed to begin – which it did with director-writer Rian Johnson’s hiring in the summer of 2014.
Although J.J. Abrams, the director of Episode VII and executive producer on Episode VIII, originally said that the main draft of the sequel’s script was completed by the end of last month, word broke on Monday that last-minute script rewrites were being implemented and that production was being bumped back by a month, from January to February 2016, in order to allow Johnson the time necessary to make the changes. Two days ago, the news wasn’t met with much fanfare, as hardly anyone believed that one extra month would affect its release date. But now that its opening has, indeed, been pushed back, it might be worth our while to take a closer look at what’s going on with the development process.
As we originally reported three days ago, Jeff Sneider from The Wrap relayed information from his sources that Lucasfilm and Disney asked Rian Johnson to do one last pass on the screenplay to downplay the role of his various brand-new characters and to maximize the screen time of the returning Force Awakens protagonists. This has since been followed up by The Hollywood Reporter’s Borys Kit, who has shared his own sources’ claims of the new draft being prompted by audience reaction to the likes of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Furthermore, Lucasfilm was apparently surprised by just how well the new characters were embraced.
It’s instructive to take a look back at The Force Awakens’s own occasionally tumultuous development process, as it was also faced with a few delays: first when the original writer, Michael Arndt, wasn’t able to deliver a final draft within the production’s highly shortened schedule (resulting in his being replaced by Abrams and Kasdan), and then during shooting itself, when Harrison Ford was injured on set and cost the cast and crew two weeks while he recuperated. Thanks to the early troubles in getting the story up and running, Disney was forced to give the first sequel a similar delay of seven months, pushing the expected May 2015 window back to December 18.
When laying everything out side-by-side, the similarities between the two films heighten, but they also start to point to a different conclusion. Production on The Force Awakens started in April 2014 (for the second unit, at least; the main unit followed in May). That gave the filmmakers approximately 20 months to shoot, edit, and polish the film before its release; had Episode VIII kept its May 2017 release date, it would’ve had 15 months to do the same (taking into account its delayed February start). If that seems like an unfair window of time compared to its predecessor, do keep in mind that, while Abrams was announced to be the director of his film in January 2013, Johnson was officially brought on board in June 2014, granting him an extra five months of development time, balancing out the scales. Now, with the December opening, Johnson will be spending a total of 42 months on his project.
Granting so much extra time to a film that already has its entire backstory and nearly all of its cast of characters put into place seems like a bit much, no matter what kind of narrative complications and changes may have gone on behind the scenes. That leads us to conclude that the decision to delay Star Wars: Episode VIII was primarily a financial one.
When Lucasfilm officially revealed Episode VII: The Force Awakens’s delay to December 2015, there was much buzz about what a boon such a move could be – less crowded release calendar, Christmas break (providing kids and teenagers much more of an opportunity for repeat viewings), holiday shopping tie-in for merchandising. While all these proved to be true, what no one saw coming was just how well Disney played that December hand, starting three months earlier, when Force Friday (the day when the majority of Force Awakens-branded toys, novels, apparel, and other goodies became available around the world) became something of a mini-shopping event all its own. The delayed opening – and its subsequent $1.88 million (and counting) worldwide box office haul – seem like a no-brainer in retrospect.
This, clearly, is something that the Mouse House would love to replicate with all five of the follow-up Star Wars films. The first of the so-called “Anthologies” (those one-off, standalone movies that will release in between the main installments), which is entitled Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and will be helmed by Gareth Edwards, was already scheduled for December 2016 from day one, thanks to it being the first production of its type and, just like Episode VII, needing all the time it can muster to get all its space ducks in a row. That left Episode VIII as the first of the back-to-May releases.
If the various insider accounts are true, the timing of Lucasfilm’s/Disney’s decision to make this the third Star Wars Christmas opening makes sense. Disney is just now sifting through the reams of consumer reports and audience testing and making decisions on Episode VIII’s story based on them, so it only follows that fiddling with the release would be next.
There are, of course, a few other positive by-products, as well. Viewers would be getting another full year to recharge their batteries – and, even more importantly, their wallets. May can now be made into the domain of all of Disney’s other big tent-pole releases, including those that, unlike Star Wars, can’t survive a transplant to an entirely different part of the calendar – such as Pirates of the Caribbean. And, on the theme park side of the corporate equation, Disney can make its for-now one-off Season of the Force event at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts an annual occurrence, arriving every December and January, celebrating the latest film release with new character meet-‘n-greets and fireworks shows.
But if it were commercial considerations alone that prompted the move, then it raises more questions than it answers. The second “Anthology” installment, the still-untitled young Han Solo story, is still officially on the books for May 25, 2018, and the best guess for Episode IX was a May 2019 release. The very same arguments being levied against a summer release now will still hold just as true in all the following years, meaning that Disney will have to either push all of them back, as well – and thereby concede that December will forever more be Star Wars territory – or just bite the bullet at some inexorable future point.
Such a consideration is made all the more fascinating when one stops to ponder a simple question: what if Episode VIII doesn’t break the same records that The Force Awakens has (best December opening, biggest-ever domestic haul, etc.) – or, even, doesn’t reach the same level of box office draw overall? Given the decade-long lull in between the prequel and sequel trilogies, and given the general excitement of what, exactly, a Disney-owned Star Wars picture would be like, it’s an entirely possible scenario, especially considering that in both of the previous trilogies, the two follow-ups didn’t perform anywhere near as well as the inaugural ones. Will Disney attempt to maintain the traditional May release window to see if the cards fall any better, or will the possibility of overlapping with holiday shopping remain a strong consolation prize?
Far more than the continuing evolution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the still-unfolding Disney initiative to make live-action adaptations of its animated classics, Star Wars will be the biggest indication of how healthily The Disney Company is faring in the post-modern cinematic world – and how well the others studios will be looking to its lead to similarly adapt.
Agree with our conclusions? Have your own suspicions about what Disney really has in store for the future Star Wars chapters? Sound off in the comments below.
Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, and will be followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode 8 on December 15th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode 9 is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.