When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 for the small sum of $4 billion, they announced they were going to do all they could to get a return on their investment. This meant in addition to producing a sequel trilogy set in the main Skywalker saga, the studio would also make a series of spinoff films to flesh out the universe. The first of these, Rogue One, was released last year and the young Han Solo movie is currently in production for its May 2018 premiere. Though both projects feature familiar elements of the earlier Star Wars movies, they look to expand the galaxy far, far away with different locations, new characters, and filmmaking techniques that don’t adhere to the old school style of the numbered episodes. The positive reception to Rogue One encouraged Lucasfilm they were heading in the right direction and gave them confidence.
Still, there are viewers who view the Star Wars standalones as a missed opportunity, since they are intricately connected to the saga installments despite telling their own stories. With an infinite universe at their disposal, why do Disney and Lucasfilm keep going back to old wells when there’s so much more to explore? While the subject of the third spinoff (due in 2020) is unknown, rumors suggest it will either be about Obi-Wan Kenobi or Boba Fett and other bounty hunters. That somewhat limited scope is frustrating for fans who would like to see Lucasfilm search out new horizons, but there are actually some good reasons why it’s important for the spinoffs to link back to the saga films in some way – both in terms of business and storytelling.
Easy to Market
Star Wars is a franchise that exists in several mediums, but the feature films will always be the crown jewel of the empire. Someone can be a huge fan of the galaxy far, far away without having read any of the novels or seen an episode of Rebels. For many people, their only real exposure to the property will be the movies, which in a way paints Lucasfilm in a corner when they are developing the anthologies. Obviously, a Star Wars movie (which can have a production budget of $200+ million) is going to be marketed to reach the widest audience possible. Disney has seen their first two Star Wars films gross over $1 billion worldwide, meaning that’s a benchmark they expect to hit with regularity. It goes without saying that brands with the most mass appeal are more likely to post those figures, so it’s almost a requirement to give your movie a sense of recognizability.
It’s true that the name Star Wars can sell anything on its own (just look at the merchandise sales), but when it comes to a huge blockbuster tentpole, there’s some value in playing things a little safe. Rogue One primarily consisted of fresh characters, but the promotional campaign still leaned heavily on classic iconography like the Death Star, X-wing dogfights, and Darth Vader. Those aspects let viewers who aren’t die-hard canon junkies that this is still a Star Wars film set in the original trilogy era. General moviegoers were able to see things they knew and understood in the trailers, giving them a reason to become invested and buy a ticket. In a box office climate where there are few guarantees, tapping into the consciousness of the zeitgeist makes for a smart way of selling a movie. When looking at the spinoffs from the perspective of a studio executive, it makes sense to provide a strong link between the anthologies and the main saga episodes.
Looking ahead to Han Solo, it’ll be a similar deal. Yes, the smuggler is played by a new actor this time around, but the previews will still depict Han and Chewbacca flying the Millennium Falcon. One can expect Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian to be a lynchpin of advertising too, since he’s a legacy character famous from The Empire Strikes Back. There will surely be a focus on new additions played by Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, and others, but Disney will still play the nostalgia card so casual viewers are exposed to imagery they’re familiar with. Regardless of how closely one follows the Star Wars brand, just about everyone knows Chewie and the Falcon just through pop culture osmosis. It’s difficult to say if a tale set 1,000 years prior to A New Hope would be able to post the kind of numbers Lucasfilm is looking for, but an adventure through space with young versions of old scoundrels will be able to find an audience – especially with the top notch creative team the studio has assembled for it.