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.