Thanks to the overwhelming success of Marvel's Cinematic Universe, the concept of shared world building has become the norm in the realm of blockbuster entertainment. In the wake of the record-setting The Avengers, studios such as Sony, Fox, and Warner Bros. have looked to expand their intellectual properties in upcoming films like Sinister Six, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Batman vs. Superman.
While the artistic merits of such a strategy are open for debate, it’s hard to argue with the financial gains studios can generate using this model - which is why even franchises not based on comic books are starting to adopt it. After shocking the Internet by purchasing Lucasfilm, Disney not only announced that Star Wars: Episode 7 was in development, but that they also intended to release spinoff films in between the core “episodes.” Their intention is to release a new Star Wars film each year, and last week Disney CEO Bob Iger confirmed that three spinoffs are currently in the works.
As fans gear up for their return trip to a galaxy far, far away next December, they’re also beginning to ponder the concept of revisiting their favorite series annually for the foreseeable future. Spinoffs are an exciting proposition filled with possibilities, but there’s also some concern about this prospect, which is why we’re offering our ways to do Star Wars spinoffs the “right” way. It’s all a matter of perspective, but if the filmmakers follow these guidelines, we think most will agree they’ll turn out well.
1. Avoid Franchise Fatigue
The Marvel Studios method of “solo films leading into big team-ups” is perceived by many as the “correct” way of handling a massive shared movie universe, but it honestly depends on the situation. For example, WB is building towards Justice League, but it will be the third installment in a trilogy that started with 2013’s Man of Steel instead of the endpoint after a series of origin stories. Basically, what works for Marvel (annual releases) doesn’t necessarily work for others because all franchises are not created equally.
“Franchise fatigue” is an expression that gets tossed around a lot in the film industry, but it’s a very real thing and a legitimate concern for studios to contemplate. For example, underperforming domestic box office numbers for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 are in part being attributed to the fact that Marc Webb’s sequel is the fifth film in twelve years to feature your Friendly Neighborhood hero.
Star Wars films have always been major events for several reasons, chief among them the avoidance of the franchise fatigue phenomenon. Both the original and prequel trilogies saw their installments hit theaters every three years, giving fans and moviegoers ample time to build anticipation and excitement at the idea of going back to that world. Even the lukewarm reception of the prequels didn’t stop each movie from scoring a higher opening weekend than its predecessor. Not only does that illustrate the strength of the brand, it also shows what can happen when you don’t flood multiplexes with new movies every year.
The sudden shift of “once every three years” to “one every year” has the potential to dilute the brand and take away part of what made the previous movies so special. There are some exceptions (Lord of the Rings), but it’s typical for studios to release franchise installments every couple of years. Disney obviously wants to make the most of their $4 billion investment, but if casual audiences lose interest due to there being “too many” Star Wars films, they won’t see anywhere close to the types of profits they envisioned. So how can they confront this issue?
Originally, Episode 7 was supposed to be released in the summer of 2015, keeping in line with the franchise’s history. However, Disney is committed to making this property work, so they commissioned a script change and even delayed the film to December in order to give JJ Abrams and his team all the time they needed to deliver the best product possible. Since they’ve already shown a willingness to be flexible with the series relaunch, we’d like to think they’d display similar patience when it came to putting together their spinoff films. Rushing a project into production for the sake of box office returns could damage the name (which needs all the rehab it can get after Hayden Christensen, Jar-Jar Binks, and Midi-chlorians) and cause die-hards to skip out when the next one rolls around.
Essentially, this boils down to the simple argument of taking your time to get it right. Make sure there’s a solid screenplay in place. Hire talented directors like Abrams (or Zack Snyder, who had an interesting idea for a Jedi movie) and give them the creative freedom to let their imaginations run wild. Don’t worry about hitting a target release date; as well-received pictures in the extensive MCU have shown, as long as you keep making good movies, people will come to the theater.
2. #ItsNotConnected? Take Advantage!
Marvel is known for #ItsAllConnected thanks to their balancing of multiple feature films, a collection of one-shot shorts on home media releases, and TV shows, but the Lucasfilm brain trust has a different idea when compared to their superhero colleagues. Although the spinoffs will obviously take place in the main Star Wars universe, they are NOT going to be connected to the events of the new sequel trilogy, meaning that there won’t be an obligation to include certain characters in every film.
This could cause some to view the spinoffs as inconsequential since the “next” film won’t be continuing the main story, but this actually has the potential to be exceptionally rewarding from a creative standpoint, since writers and directors will have some freedom over whatever film they’re assigned.
One of the major criticisms lobbied at films like Iron Man 2 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is that they sacrifice a compelling character story for the sake of introducing characters and plot threads that will be later developed in future installments. The serialization of big-budget films has upset some, since not every development will have a satisfying payoff and not every character will be as fleshed out as immediately possible. Television dramas like Breaking Bad acquire a rabid following by slowly establishing key aspects of story and character, but most prefer their movies to tell a complete narrative in one sitting, and if anything’s left dangling, they question why it was there to begin with.
The announcement that Star Wars spinoffs will be their own separate entity could remove the possibility of this happening. However, Lucasfilm recently said that there will be a "story group" in charge of managing the universe and coordinating different events over a variety of platforms. So while the films won't be directly connected, they do have to fit together as one unified (and consistent) canon. This is all fine, since it gives the Star Wars universe a creative foundation, but the element of creative freedom could become an issue if everything storywise needs to be approved by the powers that be.
As we've written before, making everything fit in place in a large interconnected franchise can have its toll on directors, since many of them are used to having full reign over their movies. Those pesky "creative differences" can lead to tension behind the scenes, causing a ripple effect that could damage the franchise going forward. If Lucasfilm were to earn a similar reputation to their Disney brethren Marvel, high-profile filmmakers might pause at the notion of taking on a Star Wars job.
Since Disney hasn't been too stubborn about planning (recall our earlier point about delaying Episode 7), they could probably take a similar approach to the spinoffs, giving directors more room to breathe. The goal of putting out one film per year is a potential hinderance, so we'd encourage Mickey Mouse to have fun with these spinoffs and allow a variety of fresh takes on the franchise. Be imaginative. If the films don't have to be directly connected to each other, then there's no need to force things to come together.
Which plays into our next point…
3. Eliminate the Narrow Focus
In these early stages of Star Wars spinoffs, the so-called “big three” that are being discussed are a Han Solo origin film, a solo Boba Fett movie, and a story focused on Yoda. These are no doubt three of the most popular characters the studio has at their disposal, which is why these are the movies being developed, but it raises a critical issue that Disney executives should consider.
One pitfall the prequels fell into was an obsession with shoehorning in original trilogy characters just for the sake of them being in there. While it offered something familiar for audiences, it seemed to neglect the fact that the Star Wars galaxy is very expansive and is populated by a plethora of otherworldly beings.
Granted, since the core saga chronicled the adventures of the Skywalker clan during two very specific points in the universe’s history, it would be expected that the same circle of characters would keep popping up. However, since Episode 7 will continue the focus on sci-fi’s famous family, the spinoffs should offer something different by showcasing corners of the universe we’ve never explored before.
While the spinoffs won’t be connected to the main episodes, the ones currently being discussed could fall into their trappings. A Han Solo origin film might be fun for fans, but it’d still have to hit certain beats (meeting Chewie, encountering Jabba the Hutt) in order to keep in line with the events of the classic trilogy. Even a Yoda Begins type of movie would reopen the concern about the removal of dramatic tension in franchise filmmaking. Most of these characters had rich arcs in their previous appearances, posing the question of how much ground there is left to cover.
It’s possible that Disney is only using these as a starting point, going with recognizable characters to draw people in. Boba Fett, for all his brief screen time, is one of the more iconic characters in the franchise; characters like Boba and Yoda (and Chewie) are no doubt also attractive to the studio because of their merchandising potential. That said, the Star Wars brand is big enough that it would be able to carry a film featuring new characters.
In the very first movie, Obi-Wan Kenobi mentioned the 1,000 generations that the Jedi protected - why not go back in time and tell an interesting story about those characters (possibly using the Knights of the Old Republic video game as a guide)? A Fett-centric tale that explores bounty hunter culture (think Star Wars meets Goodfellas) has potential, but it would be wasted if he just tracked down Han Solo. There were probably other bounties he hunted in his life.
Ideally, the spinoffs would blend the familiar with new worlds and experiences to keep the proceedings fresh instead of rehashing old things. When you’re working in a gigantic, captivating world, you should use that opportunity to show fascinating things happen to other people besides the Skywalkers and Solos. Of course, each spinoff would have to be focused on its own tight cast, but opening new corners and possibilities would be more creative and give the Mouse House new marketing opportunities as they sell new merchandise featuring the spinoff characters. If there's no need to connect the spinoffs with the main saga, then there's literally a galaxy's worth of possibility for spinoffs. Think wide.
Of course, that’s just what we’d do in order to ensure the Star Wars spinoffs are great pieces of entertainment. Now we toss it over to you in the comments section. Sound off below and let us know what kinds of spinoffs you'd like to see on the big screen and what you'd do to make sure it worked.
Star Wars: Episode 7 hits theaters December 18, 2015. The spinoffs are currently in development and are without release dates.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90.