Saturday, July 20, 2024

‘Star Wars’: The (Mostly) Risk-Averse Movie Bets of Lucasfilm

Kathleen Kennedy decides on a slate of films after years of deliberation in the aftermath of the unsuccessful ‘Solo’ spinoff, but leaves the title open to interpretation.

Ashlyn Ni Fhearghail, an Irish expat living in the Middle East, was on the convention floor of London’s Star Wars Celebration dressed as one of her favourite characters, Rey, when she heard the news. In another section of the ExCeL building, Lucasfilm had just announced that it was finally moving forward with new Star Wars films, one of which will centre on Rey, the heroine made famous by Daisy Ridley in Disney’s sequel trilogy. It was a sign to Ni Fhearghail, who had been standing with another fan costumed as Rey, exchanging costume notes. “We’re looking forward to seeing more films with her and more films in general,” she remarked.

To paraphrase a Star Wars comparison, these are the fans Lucasfilm is looking for, at least in terms of building a successful picture slate. There hasn’t been a film since The Rise of Skywalker, which debuted in December 2019 to mixed reviews and a $1.077 billion global total. That picture, combined with Solo: A Star Wars Story, which failed at the box office in 2018 with $392 million, prompted Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy and Disney CEO Bob Iger to take a break from movie production.

Fortunately, a move to television with Disney+’s The Mandalorian revitalised the storied brand, which was founded by George Lucas in 1977, in unexpected ways. There is now an entire Mandalorian-connected universe — The Book of Boba Fett, the impending Ahsoka — that has elevated Iron Man and Lion King director Jon Favreau and Rebels and Clone Wars animation creative Dave Filoni to the status of the most influential creative forces in Star Wars since Lucas himself. Filoni’s personal narrative is notable in and of itself, as a fan turned Lucas protégé who rose to the top of Star Wars animation and is now bringing his cartoon characters and plots to life.To top it all off, one of the three new movies will be directed by Filoni, marking his live-action feature debut, and will tie the threads of the Mandalorian-focused episodes into one final event feature centred on the “escalating war between the Imperial Remnant and the fledgling New Republic.”

And therein lies the stumbling block for the new trio of flicks. Lucasfilm has not committed to a release date for its newly announced titles, having learnt the hard way after having dated movies before they were put into production. (In 2019, it was announced that the next Star Wars film would be released on December 16, 2022, with additional installments following in 2024 and 2026.) Patty Jenkins’ Rogue Squadron, billed as “the greatest fighter pilot movie ever made,” was one of the casualties, with the project being withdrawn from the 2023 release calendar after being announced at Disney Investor Day in 2020.

However, a December 2025 release date for an undisclosed Star Wars film, which may be one of these names, remains open. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Lucasfilm would ideally prefer to return to theatres with the Rey-focused film, followed by the Filoni film a year later, however nothing is written in stone due to the timings of the Disney+ Mandalorian universe programmes.

The three new films will not be made and released for some years. James Mangold’s project, set in the far future of the Star Wars universe, would ideally be tackled after the filmmaker completes his Bob Dylan biopic for Paramount (production is planned to begin this summer).

Filoni’s feature is dependent on the interlocked TV series’ machinery and will take into account deadlines for a fourth season of Mandalorian and a probable second season of Ahsoka. The latter is not guaranteed and would be contingent on the success of the first season, which premieres in August.(According to Nielsen’s most recent weekly streaming viewership report, The Mandalorian ranks sixth, with 889 million minutes viewed of its 18 episodes, including the first two episodes of season three.)

The Rey project is reported to be the furthest along, with Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight taking over from Damon Lindelof and Justin Britt-Gibson in the second round of writing. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is in charge of the direction. That film is also a chance for Lucasfilm to have its Bantha and eat it as well. The Star Wars films have stayed true to the broader plot of the Skywalker family, which was supposed to conclude with The Rise of Skywalker. Lucasfilm had previously stated that it would broaden its focus. But saying goodbye has been difficult, and the Disney-era Lucasfilm has become risk-averse, according to one Star Wars source.

Two of the three new films take significant risks. A Mandalorian film is about as safe as it gets – Grogu gear is already on store shelves — and the character of Rey remains popular and would link to the Skywalker narrative without being officially connected to the saga. Mangold’s idea, a biblical epic about the beginnings of the Force set 25,000 years before any of the current films, is the one that truly stretches the boundaries of what a Star Wars film can be. (Its tagline reads, “Telling the story of the first Jedi to wield the Force and harness it as a liberating power in an era of chaos and oppression.”

According to Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy, the three films aim to highlight the “past” (the Mangold film), “present” (the Filoni film), and “future” (the Rey feature) of the Star Wars Universe’s canon chronology. However, the organisation has failed to build alliances with well-known filmmakers and writers’ projects and views. Projects from Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss are among those in the Death Star trash compactor, while any films directed by Rian Johnson are floating someplace in the Unknown Regions. Not to mention that the directors of the last two spinoff films, Rogue One and Solo, were both fired, while a third spinoff film centred on Obi-Wan Kenobi was shelved and resurrected as a Disney+ series.

“They don’t have a George,” says one producer familiar with the Lucasfilm bureaucracy, referring to the franchise’s primary creative character. “Kathy is not the same as George. Filoni is the closest at this point.” As an example, consider the original trilogy: Despite the fact that Irvin Kershner directed Empire Strikes Back and Richard Marquand directed Return of the Jedi, both films were directed by Lucas. Look no further than Lucasfilm’s sister unit, Marvel Studios, where Kevin Feige oversees all creative aspects of both film and television shows.

On some way, it all comes down to the fans and their unwavering faith. Star Wars Celebration crammed them in over four days, with attendance increasing since the convention’s last appearance in London in 2016, attracting visitors from France, Italy, Germany, South America, and elsewhere. According to insiders, it was the largest worldwide Star Wars Celebration ever, with tens of thousands of attendees per day at the ExCel conference centre. Fans of the franchise are so committed that they not only dress up as their favorite characters, but they also create working droids and life-size spaceships. Many are well-organized and involved in charitable activity. One man jogged on a treadmill dressed as a Stormtrooper to raise money for Make-a-Wish.

“Every Star Wars film has flaws, but I’ve enjoyed them all,” said Kiefer Jenkins, who had recently gotten a Star Wars tattoo. He’d driven from Los Angeles with his wife to attend the event, and he was dressed as a Mandalorian. “I’m glad they appear to be taking more risks,” he remarked. “Risks, whether good or bad, always produce something interesting.” I’ll be there on the first day of the film’s release.”

But that generosity would evaporate if at least one of these films did not come to fruition. “Lucasfilm will burn whatever goodwill it has left with this fan base if they don’t make at least that Rey movie,” a producer who has worked with the studio warns.

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