Star Wars Episode VII The Force
Courtesy of Disney/Lucas FIlm

In a letter to staff this week, Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger declared the opening of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” this weekend to be “one of the proudest and most exciting moments in our Company’s history.”

That kind of boast is a rarity at a time when media companies like Disney are so diversified, their tendrils reaching out into cable television and digital platforms, that films can do massive business or crash in spectacular fashion without making a dent in a stock price. But then again, “Star Wars” is no ordinary film franchise. It’s less a film than a giant corporate happening — a film intended to not just sell tickets and DVDs, but to spawn toylines, theme park rides and television shows.

“When you are launching a new platform franchise, the first film better be good,” said Eric Handler, a box office analyst with MKM Partners. “We’ve seen that blow up in companies’ faces before.”

The expectations for “The Force Awakens” and the pressure on director J.J. Abrams to reintroduce a pop culture mythology — one that pits the Forces of Light with those of the Dark Side — that made the first “Star Wars” an epoch-defining cinematic experience were perhaps greater than any other filmmaker has faced before. Not only did the film have to succeed, it had to become such a massive hit that it could justify the $4 billion Disney shelled out in 2012 to buy Lucasfilm and with it the rights to the ongoing saga of the Skywalker clan.

“This is the train that starts everything rolling,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Rentrak. “If the film had been poorly received, the entire investment in Lucasfilm would have seemed like folly.”

Compounding the situation was the fact that creatively, the “Star Wars” franchise had hit its nadir. Creator George Lucas’ much ballyhooed prequels had made money when they were released in the late 1990s and early aughts, but their experiments with digital trickery, laden dialogue (“Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo”) and grating supporting characters like Jar Jar Binks had been poorly received by critics and many audience members. If the “Star Wars” brand had not been affixed to them, it’s doubtful they would have been successful. Fans of the original series breathed a collective sigh of relief when 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” seemed to signal the end of  Lucas’ account of the rise, fall and rise again of Anakin Skywalker.

But by going back to the roots of the science-fiction fantasy, Abrams and his co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan were able to recapture the spirit of the first films. In place of CGI and the overly pixilated worlds it conjures, they put the emphasis back on in-camera effects. The collaborators also tried to inject a sense of humor that had been missing from the dour prequels and a spirit of adventure that had been scrubbed clean by those pictures’ deep dive into trade wars and political machinations. Their greatest nod was in the plotting. “The Force Awakens,” with its tale of a Messiah-like figure, Rey, who is propelled from her bleak existence on a remote desert planet into an inter-galactic conflict, directly mirrors the 1977 original’s storyline of Luke.

For good measure, Abrams mixed in veteran cast members like Harrison Ford, donning Han Solo’s iconic blasters after a three-decade absence, with newcomers such as Daisy Ridley and John Boyega. Importantly, those actors introduced a welcome note of diversity into the proceedings — Ridley’s Rey is an ass-kicking female protagonist for the post-“Hunger Games” world, while Boyega, who is black, helps shake up a film universe that was largely monochromatic with the exception of Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian. And the movie, fulfilling the wet dreams of toymakers, also introduced a merchandising rival to R2-D2 in BB-8, a lovable droid soon to be cropping up in Christmas stockings across the galaxy.

The delicate mixture of old and new, that push and pull between scratching a nostalgic itch and finding a fresh take on a galaxy far, far away, paid off in stunning fashion. “Star Wars: The Force Awakensshattered domestic records with a $238 million debut and grossed a gargantuan $517 million globally in its first weekend of release.

Critics loved the film, handing it a 95% “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes, and audiences agreed, with the picture picking up an A CinemaScore. Box office analysts believe that “The Force Awakens” has a chance of joining “Avatar” and “Titanic” among the only films to gross more than $2 billion around the world. It’s also expected to be a retailing juggernaut, generating upwards of $5 billion in merchandising, and setting the stage for an ambitious list of sequels, spinoffs and prequels intended to keep the “Star Wars” money machine humming for the rest of the decade and beyond.

“The stars totally aligned,” said Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment. “People have been rooting for this movie to be great since the first trailer. It’s just going to keep clobbering everything in its path.”

Disney executives, who know something about establishing inter-connected cinematic universes thanks to their stewardship of the Marvel Comics brand, credit a marketing campaign that kicked off over a year ago with a special 90-second film teaser that, with a few stray seconds of Millennium Falcon footage, captivated the social media conversation. The studio kept fans engaged, offering up shots of Ford as Solo and introducing BB-8 and Adam Driver’s villainous Kylo Ren in future trailers, while keeping details of the story closely guarded. Critics and media weren’t even allowed to see the film until four days before it opened, a rare show of restraint for a film with a $200 million-plus budget.

“This was ultimately a two-year campaign in which every beat, every pulse was considered as we built towards the crescendo that was opening weekend,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief. “We were able to make this a cultural event, while still preserving a sense of mystery.”

Ironically, the thing that ultimately may have enabled “Star Wars” to attract new generations of fans to its stories of Jedis and Sith lords, is that it was liberated from its creator. Lucas’ place in film history is secure. Along with Steven Spielberg, he helped usher in a new era of blockbuster entertainment, rubbing off the rough edges of the gritty films that defined the first half of the 1970s, and replacing them with soaring updates on the Saturday matinee, B-movie genre that could appeal to a globalized audience of filmgoers. These are the films that inspired Abrams, and directors such as Rian Johnson and Gareth Edwards, who will be guiding future “Star Wars” adventures, to take up their movie cameras. But in the prequels, Lucas lost that childlike sense of wonder, immersing himself in technological improvements at the expense of storytelling. Although Lucas mapped out stories for another trilogy as part of the sale of Lucasfilm, he has said the new corporate ownership and Abrams had opted to go in a different direction.

Now, with the Disney era of “Star Wars” films upon us, audiences are left with the rare movie series that has outgrown its author. A franchise that belongs more to the fans than the filmmaker behind it.

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