Since Disney announced their acquisition of Lucasfilm back in 2012, the studio made it clear that in addition to a new Star Wars trilogy, the Mouse House was also green lighting non-episodic adventures in the Galaxy Far, Far Away. For months, fans debated which classic Star Wars heroes and villains should get a spin-off treatment and in the following years, we've learned that the tie-in projects wouldn't all focus on known characters - especially with the introduction of Rogue One. Between Episodes 7 - 9, three spinoffs, and a new animated series (Rebels), Lucasfilm has sidelined the Expanded Universe, in favor of building a canonical shared cinematic universe, to tell stories throughout the fan-favorite Galaxy.
However, with a full decade since Star Wars - Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith hit theaters, wrapping up the story that came before not after Star Wars - Episode 6, The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams had a tough task ahead of him: balancing a continuation of the Skywalker Star Wars narrative while setting up the franchise for all-new adventures in the future. Now, with only one month before Episode 7 hits theaters, the filmmaker is reflecting on the challenge of laying the foundation for the Star Wars universe going forward - while also serving his story in The Force Awakens.
Speaking to Wired, Abrams wasn't shy about admitting that Episode 7 was instrumental in setting the stage for the franchise - even going so far as to admit that working on the The Force Awakens has been 50% current story and 50% longterm universe building:
“Working on this new movie has been as much about trying to set up elements of what is beyond what you’re seeing as it has been about telling a story that will be satisfying in and of itself. But it can’t feel like a cop-out—like we’re just setting things up and not resolving them.”
Abrams comments come on the heels of multiple films that have struggled to tell a quality standalone story - at the hands of film studios pushing for shared universe setup (most notably in The Amazing Spider-Man 2). After all, Disney knows the pitfalls of shared universe building. Without question, it's a profitable model for longterm brand building (both ticket and merchandise selling) but several Avengers film installments, especially early-on, prioritized introducing shared universe storylines at the expense of standalone arcs and villains. The most obvious example being Iron Man 2, which sidelined its central antagonist, Whiplash, in favor of introducing S.H.I.E.L.D. and Black Widow.
For that reason, Abrams and Disney have been extremely cautious of how Episode 7 will lead into Episode 8 (and other Star Wars properties) - so that Episode 8 isn't expected to do all the heavy shared universe lifting. In the interview, Abrams makes it clear that he has met regularly with writer/director Rian Johnson in Episode 8 pre-production - to ensure a smooth transition (one that is good for fans, the filmmakers, and the studio's bottom line).
“The script for 8 is written. I’m sure rewrites are going to be endless, like they always are. But what [Lawrence Kasdan] and I did was set up certain key relationships, certain key questions, conflicts. And we knew where certain things were going. We had meetings with Rian and Ram Bergman, the producer of 8. They were watching dailies when we were shooting our movie. We wanted them to be part of the process, to make the transition to their film as seamless as possible. I showed Rian an early cut of the movie, because I knew he was doing his rewrite and prepping. And as executive producer of 8, I need that movie to be really good. Withholding serves no one and certainly not the fans. So we’ve been as transparent as possible.”
It's not surprising that Abrams would support Johnson's sequel (especially since Abrams stands to benefit financially from Episode 8), plenty of filmmakers have consulted on sequels; however, more importantly, the director and Disney appear to understand what is at stake - and are investing time to guide a steady escalation of Star Wars on the big screen, rather than focusing entirely on one chapter at a time.
Given the pressure, and time-commitment, of reintroducing Star Wars to moviegoers, it would have been easy for Abrams to lock himself inside the editing room - to dedicate every second of available time to his Episode 7. That might have been a service to The Force Awakens but, as Abrams indicates here, it's equally important that the filmmakers who have been entrusted with such a precious brand, work together to deliver the best experience (long term) for fans.
Episode 7 will feature plenty of familiar faces (and at least one of the original trilogy character is confirmed for Episode 8 already), making it easy to forget that The Force Awakens introduces more new characters than it brings back. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) are all unknown to moviegoers, though recent Episode 7 trailers have added a bit more context to their role in the Star Wars saga - meaning that, even though several original trilogy members are back, Abrams has, indeed, spent a lot of time populating The Force Awakens with new characters that can be unpacked in future entries - for an all new generation of Star Wars fans.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits theaters on December 18th, 2015, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode 8 on May 26th, 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.