Audience Terrorists Issue Demands

It shouldn’t be surprising. It’s the natural next step in the thought process of audiences that for the last two years have been demanding Warner Bros. #ReleaseTheSnyderCut and have been growing up online with tales of The Phantom Edit and YouTube trailer remixes for the last decade or more.

Now there’s a push for Disney to #ReleaseTheJJCut of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a movement born of the notion that the studio somehow interfered with the director’s vision of the movie’s story. Notable is that the anger shifted from one position – that Disney wanted Abrams to incorporate more elements from the direction Rian Johnson had taken the series in with The Last Jedi – to one that holds Abrams was told to ignore as much of TLJ as possible. Whatever the case, these individuals are convinced that any issues with RoS’s sometimes muddled story stem from Disney not letting Abrams fully realize the *real* story he set out to tell, assured that if he had the final product would have been much more satisfying.

[Side note: It’s worth pointing out that the only Star Wars movie that hasn’t been plagued by stories of producer/studio interference is The Last Jedi, one that “fans” found unsatisfying, disrespectful to the franchise and otherwise problematic. So the problem isn’t actually with the studio or the filmmakers, but the cranky individuals who feel their years of buying action figures and comic books has earned them the right to dictate creative decisions.]

A sense of entitlement goes hand-in-hand with widespread feelings that are capable of doing it better, one resulting from nearly two decades of consumer-generated media. That environment is one that’s ripe for discontent, especially when social media platforms where those opinions are shared continue to be well-suited to turn small instances of outrage into big headlines because of their focus on engagement.

But one more thing is in play here. It’s not just that fans are upset that giant companies are creating products designed to be as safe and approachable by the largest possible swath of the public. It’s not just that editing and creation tools are easier than ever to use and so put more power in people’s hands to remix and remake as they like.

It’s that we live in the age of #PizzaGate and other widespread conspiracy theories.

Just last week, Vice President Mike Pence justified the unsanctioned killing of a high-ranking Iranian official by saying that individual was tied to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 despite a complete lack of evidence. And today President Donald Trump advanced the idea that Iran was planning to blow up the U.S. embassy in Iraq, something for which there does not seem to be any intelligence or proof. As he’s dealt with concerns over the killing of that official and the looming impeachment, Trump has spent an inordinate amount of time spreading conspiracy theories about his political rivals and others.

People believe in conspiracy theories for a handful of primary reasons, including the need to retain some control over their lives, maintain a positive self-image and to achieve some level of certainty, even if its illusory.

Those reasons should be familiar to anyone who’s been online, especially those sections devoted to movies and entertainment.

As Holden said in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: “This is a site populated by militant movie buffs: sad, pathetic little bastards living in their parents’ basement downloading scripts and what they think is inside information about movies and actors they claim to despise yet can’t stop discussing.”

There’s never any proof to any of these, but that doesn’t matter. The lack of proof become evidence of the power of those at the center of the conspiracy, who have once more killed a story that’s about to come out or silenced a key witness that could have blown the lid off the whole thing.

How long, one wonders, before Warner Bros. or Disney become the target of the anger of a true believe that has decided to take matters into his own hands?

We’ve seen it happen in other recent instances. At least one “PizzaGate” adherent was arrested after shooting up a Washington, D.C. pizza place, one alleged to have been part of the child sex trafficking ring at the heart of the conspiracy. Trump’s continued comments about media institutions being the “enemies of the people” have lead to repeated instances of threats and violence against newsrooms across the country. A woman who believed YouTube was actively restricting her channel’s growth shot three people at the company’s headquarters.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, of course. For decades people have thought NASA faked the moon landing or that a massive cabal of international players had John F. Kennedy killed. There are countless more examples. Director Oliver Stone has made a career of such ideas.

In this day and age, the conspiracy theories that circulate around blockbuster movies are driven by the same sort of “we have an inside source” thinking that was once the purview of AICN and other niche sites. The protests and petitions that crop up in the wake of such beliefs amount to demands issued by an insurgent militia, though, especially as they’re given increased attention and therefore credence by the entertainment press. “Give us what we want and we won’t hurt your next release” is the implicit message sent.

What we see in the political field is that catering to those individuals only emboldens them, making them into a group that must be taken seriously at the expense of all others. There’s no other reasonable explanation for why the small percentage of Americans who believe all Trump’s statements are still held up as a “base” that must be strengthened and appealed to by the opposition. And there’s no other reasonable explanation for why the disgruntled whiners who complain about super heroes becoming social justice warriors (a role they’ve played in print and other media for 80+ years) are viewed as a “core” audience whose tastes must be taken seriously.

Push them out. Ignore them. Let them stew in their anger and let history treat them as the non-factors they truly are. They see everyone as needing to serve them and will never be happy regardless of what changes are made.

They aren’t just terrorists, they are a splinter group of a terrorist organization whose power is solely derived from the attention paid to their manifestos. They should be treated as such.

Art Isn’t Really Part of It

The Last Jedi is as close to an art film as we’re likely to see from the franchise-centric studio era. It’s nuanced, almost completely free of anything that could be described as “fan service” and confounds expectations at every turn.

Some of that explains why it was so divisive among the audience. They couldn’t bear that Luke Skywalker was so reluctant to fly into battle and save the day, or that they might be expected to consider the plight of ordinary people caught in the crossfire of endless war, or that family heritage might not be the only determination of success.

It’s everything The Force Awakens, which was eminently enjoyable, wasn’t.

The Rise of Skywalker was sold as a big, emotional ending to the Star Wars series, one that was designed to appeal to all generations of fandom. While director J.J. Abrams repeatedly said he wasn’t throwing out some of the plot points from The Last Jedi that caused some of the most vocal haters but that the movie would hopefully meet everyone’s expectations.

Jedi director Rian Johnson’s recent comments that pandering to fans is a mistake, one that runs in the exact opposite direction of what constitutes “art” or what creators should attempt to do, reflect the unconventional approach he seems to have taken when he had his turn at the franchise plate. They certainly offer a clear insight into the mind that made such unexpected choices instead of engaging in two hours of fan service.

That was further on display when Johnson responded to a critic on Twitter, pointing out that it’s much more interesting to show the character of Luke Skywalker as a flawed, complicated character than as a super powered perfect hero who never feels regret or conflict.

Meeting everyone’s expectations is what products are meant to do, which gets to the point made by Martin Scorsese in his latest declaration that such films are crowding out smaller movies that have more artistic goals. That truth is evident anytime you look at your local multiplex, where the latest franchise blockbuster is playing on 10 screens while a more dramatic character drama will be on just one, and likely only at limited times.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Terry Gilliam, who is rightfully concerned that big studios with lots of money are playing it stupidly safe with the choices they make, creating stories with no real stakes and no grounding in reality.

What Johnson created in The Last Jedi was as close to an art film as I’ve ever seen in a franchise entry, with real stakes and a powerful sense of danger for everyone involved. Sure, it takes place in a universe where space wizards fly massive starships to exotic worlds, but everything else about the story was designed to make you unsure of what would happen next and care about the implications of how things transpired.

Luke feeling guilt over his actions and the effects they may have had was real.

Rey feeling unsure of her place in the universe because she didn’t know her family history felt real.

Poe not knowing how to transition from warrior to leader and making mistakes along the way felt real.

Rose feeling anger about how the poor of the universe are taken advantage of for the benefit of the wealthy felt real.

Yoda toying with his student for the lulz and teaching one final lesson as a result felt real.

If the point of art is to challenge audiences, most of the franchise films released in the last dozen years or so don’t meet the definition. Exceptions include Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a handful of others, with The Last Jedi at the top of that list. It takes risks few movies like it have even attempted and does so with panache and humor.

One thing it’s not: A bland, faceless product. It has a point of view and a message, not just a story, and that is so unique in this day and age to make it remarkable.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Marketing Recap

You can read my full recap of the marketing campaign for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker at The Hollywood Reporter.

Online and Social

As the other movies do, this one gets its own page on StarWars.com, complete with a collection of the posters, teasers, featurettes, photos and more. Blog posts that contain movie material or which highlight related announcements can be found on the page as well.

Media and Press

While we were still in the hype cycle for Episode XIII it was announced that Trevorrow, who’d long been attached to the project, had left. That was two Star Wars movies in row, including the Han Solo one, that had high-profile director shifts. Three if you count how Josh Trank was involved in a movie right up to the point he wasn’t. That firing was apparently a long-time coming and resulted from the director’s own personality issues, which caused tension with producer Kathleen Kennedy, and the fact that unlike on Jurassic World he didn’t have Steven Spielberg around to protect him.

Shockwaves then emanated when it was announced The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams would return for this movie, which was also pushed back from May to December. Later on, as part of the publicity for The Last Jedi, Abrams talked about taking the opportunity to return and close out the trilogy he started.

Isaac and others from the cast talked about the movie while promoting other projects.

A wide-ranging profile of Abrams included his recounting of the unusual sequence of events leading to his rejoining the franchise and his feelings of concern, panic, stress, excitement and more around doing so.

There as a significant press push in the wake of Star Wars Celebration and the debut of the first teaser. That included Abrams revealing Lucas was involved in crafting at least part of the story and Boyega making it clear he didn’t know what the title referred to either.

Abrams and members of the cast appeared on “Good Morning America” shortly after Celebration to talk about the movie and explain (or not) some of what was going on.

Meanwhile, Hamill explained why he has so much fun poking at obsessive Star Wars fans.

As has been the case with every Star Wars movie since 1999’s The Phantom Menace, the publicity cycle included a Vanity Fair cover story featuring exclusive behind-the-scenes photos by Annie Leibovitz. That series of stories offered not only new looks at the cast and sets but also additional details about what the story entails and what fans can expect from the film.

Ridley was interviewed about the emotional moment that was the final day of filming.

Another interview with Abrams in the wake of D23 had the director clarifying that nothing about The Last Jedi was being discarded, nor had that movie upset any plans for the series’ story. So, despite the outcry of disgruntled or disappointed viewers, that movie is still canon. He later shared his thinking on why it was important for Palpatine to return for this movie and more.

EW debuted a first official look at Zorri Bliss, the mysterious character played by Keri Russell. At around the same time Abrams was interviewed about his assurance that the movie would provide a satisfying conclusion to the nine-film epic story and more details were revealed about the watery planet seen in the trailers. Ackie was profiled in an interview about her reaction to joining the Star Wars universe.

In late November EW offered a big cover feature that included a number of other interviews, photos and other inside looks at the movie, with comments from most of the cast and crew. At the same time Rolling Stone ran its own package that included an interview with Kennedy about this movie and the future of the Star Wars franchise as well as another interview with Abrams about the story of the movie.

Late night appearances by the cast and Abrams started in late November as well, with Driver and Russell showing up on “The Late Show” as did Abrams. Ridley and Boyega showed up on “The Tonight Show” while Isaac chatted on “Late Night.” Russell chatted on “The Tonight Show” as well while Tran appeared on “The Daily Show.”

An extended profile of Williams had him talking about the legacy of Lando he still holds tightly to as well as his overall career and coming out of semi-retirement to revisit the character one last time.

An interview with Ridley allowed her to talk about what her plans for self-care are following her involvement in a massive multi-year commitment. Tran finally joined the press effort with an interview making it clear Rose has evolved in the time since the last story. A profile of Daniels included him promising this wasn’t the last you’ve heard of him as C-3PO while a similar interview with McDiarmid allowed him to talk about his expectation that he was done with the character of Palpatine until he got the call.

Abrams talked about the behind the scenes drama that lead to him coming back to the franchise and lots more in this extended profile that included him throwing a little shade at Johnson’s middle installment for being too “meta.” One of the movie’s cowriters spoke about trying to craft a worthy final chapter for the story.

The same night as the movie’s premiere, the whole cast along with Abrams appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to engage in games and more. Lupita Nyong’o, who is always forgotten about when discussing the cast, talked about the movie on “The Daily Show.”

Tran was interviewed about her experiences with Star Wars and more here.

Overall

Picking Up the Spare

That mysterious message from the presumed-dead Palpatine that kicks off the events of the movie was revealed in Fortnite, likely because of the promotional tie-in with that game. The movie’s editor explained why that message was cut from the film as well.

Abrams has praised Johnson while trying to downplay any potential bad blood because of the different directions the two directors took.

An interview with Terrio allowed him to dig an even deeper hole regarding the way the story makes Rose Tico into a non-factor.

A new featurette from IMAX has the cast and crew talking about their experiences making the movie. Another video from IMAX has them all sharing their favorite moments from throughout the Star Wars movies while a third has Issac answering fan-submitted questions.

One more TV spot touting the movie’s box-office success.

Second unit director Victoria Mahoney has finally been getting some attention, in part because she’s the first woman to have any directorial duties on a Star Wars feature.

Abrams Returns to Star Wars for Episode IX

After a brief period of uncertainty following the dramatic exit of Colin Treverrow, Lucasfilm announced yesterday that The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams would return to helm the upcoming Episode IX. That part of the news was less interesting to me than the accompanying point that the movie, originally scheduled for May of 2019 was being pushed to December of 2019, presumably to allow time for Abrams to get back in the production groove. The Last Jedi was initially slotted for May of this year but was similarly shifted to December. That’s the same month both TFA and Rogue One were released. So far the only current Star Wars movie that’s maintaining its May release date is Han Solo film that’s scheduled for next year.

The reason the date shift is more notable to me than the return of Abrams (though that’s substantial as well) is that it directly impacts the movie’s marketing. Each movie since The Force Awakens has faced – or is currently facing – a unique situation when it comes to launching a campaign. Specifically, the marketing of the next movie can’t impact the release cycle for the current one. The Rogue One campaign didn’t kick off until The Force Awakens was hitting home video. Similarly, Rogue One’s theatrical run was well over before The Last Jedi’s campaign started.

Assuming Han Solo’s May release date holds, there are two situations that will be in place:

First, what Han Solo’s marketing will look like is anyone’s guess. There will be just five months between The Last Jedi and it, with none of the seven-month cushion other films have had. Lucasfilm/Disney will be in the unique position of actively marketing one Star Wars movie while the previous one is still in theaters. That could mean it doesn’t get quite the press push or the number of trailers the other movies have because it can’t step on The Last Jedi’s toes too much. The studio doesn’t want to write Han Solo off completely with a half-hearted effort so it will have a very fine line to walk to avoid marketplace overlap and audience confusion.

Second, Episode IX will have the longest marketing lead since The Force Awakens, which was in the advantageous position of being the first mover in the revived franchise. Assuming Lucasfilm allows for at least four months post-Han Solo, the campaign for this could kick off in earnest around Thanksgiving or so, the same time we saw the first trailer for TFA. That could work as this is, at least in theory, the final entry in the third trilogy and would therefore be filled with all the emotional and action resolution built up over the previous two chapters in the Saga series.

All of this is up in the air, of course. You have to figure Han Solo’s release date is fixed at this point, despite that movie’s own directorial upheaval. So Lucasfilm/Disney will have to make sure each movie has its own distinct presence in theaters, regardless of the challenges presented by an aggressive release schedule.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.