Editorial: What Role Does the Voice of Fans Play in Star Wars Today?
Star Wars began as solution to George Lucas’s inability to secure the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie. Four decades later and it has grown into a multi-generational movie franchise with the most impassioned fan base, for good and for bad. Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy recently talked about fan reactions and feedback, and while she gave the answers you’d expect a smart executive to give, it got me thinking: What impact does the voice of Star Wars fans really play?
Let me start by clarifying, in no way do I believe any movie studio takes directive from fans as the main driving factor in what content they create, nor should they. However there is a balance. You want to keep your audience happy and coming back for more, and I think Disney has always kept their (mouse) ears to the ground and near the pulse of the consumer, from all aspects of their business.
I do believe Lucasfilm behaves organically/independently from the Disney model, as there always seems to be a bigger cloak of secrecy over its future productions compared to say, Marvel, who quite literally map out and announce their next 12 (arbitrary number for the sake of this example) movie titles without batting an eye.
Response to Viral Fan Movements
Fan movements are real, I am humbled and fortunate to know first hand. Last year I created the #MakeSolo2Happen idea as a tongue-in-cheek response to the under-performance of Solo: A Star Wars Story, which in my opinion is one of the best Star Wars movies since the 1980’s. Fellow fans embraced the campaign because I made it out of love. It is not a petition, not a demand, but something fans could come together over and get behind. I know for a fact that the creators and actors of Solo are aware of it as most of them have warmly acknowledged it at this point. The executives and creatives at Disney and Lucasfilm are well aware of it too. Mission accomplished, right? Probably not. If I am being honest, there is still a better chance that a follow up to Solo (whether a movie or Disney+ series) doesn’t happen. But will that stop me from positively promoting that hashtag? Not at all. (So let’s keep that going forever, more on that at a later date, wink wink).
But let’s take a look at something that is happening. The return of The Clone Wars. The Clone Wars was saved! While I typically look at TV and film productions with a skeptical/jaded view (how can you not?), I really do think the fans saved this show. I’ve had some discussions with peers and also those in the industry familiar with animated productions, and while some rumors claim the show had been produced and finished years ago, simply waiting for a platform for release, I don’t believe that is accurate. Yes, we can point to Filoni’s panel at Star Wars Celebration as more tangible proof of that, but he could have simply been grandstanding as a way to show the fans love. All that aside, after having discussions with several people who may know a thing or two, I really believe the fan movement to #SaveTheCloneWars really helped bring the show back from the galactic graveyard to earn itself a proper conclusion.
Lucasfilm Under Disney Compared to Lucasfilm Under George Lucas
Love it or not, Star Wars under George Lucas was all about his vision, regardless of what people thought about it. Yes, it’s likely that Lucas did things like dial back Jar-Jar Binks’ screen time in subsequent prequels after a negative reaction to the character. (Hard truth, while Jar-Jar may be more beloved today, the character was not received well by a majority of movie-goers and critics alike in 1999).
Lucas was telling his story how he wanted to tell it, and if you wanted to go for the ride, great! If not, that was fine with him. This is where I have seen a shift. While detractors of Lucasfilm today, yearning for the years of George Lucas (who they likely also bashed during the prequels), claim Disney is not listening to the fans, and I couldn’t disagree more.
— Ron Howard (@RealRonHoward) May 23, 2019
From social media engagements to responding to fan movements like #SavetheCloneWars and #MakeSolo2Happen, I think the bridge of communication between Lucasfilm and Star Wars fans is closer than it has ever been. This does not mean fans are dictating content, but Disney and Lucasfilm want to entertain their audience, and what better way to do that than understand your audience and what type of content they’ll keep coming back for? Say what you want about Disney, however you feel, but their bottom line is having a happy audience, because happy audiences come back and spend money on products they like.
Kathleen Kennedy Acknowledges Fan Feedback
In a recent interview with YAHOO! Finance, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy acknowledged the passion of Star Wars fans, and listening to the feedback, for good, and for bad.
“I frankly love the feedback and frankly the criticism. You develop a little bit of an armor, but you learn from that. It’s kind of like having a continual focus group that’s out there telling you things, whether it’s what you want to hear or you don’t want to hear. We’re just like the fans out there, we’re just trying to find what’s cool, what’s heartfelt, what’s strong storytelling and so I have to say – within reason – I love the feedback.”
Regardless of how you may feel about Kathleen Kennedy, you wouldn’t see quotes like this coming from George Lucas during his reign at Lucasfilm. With that said, it is a different ball game now. There is much more at stake for Star Wars to be successful. Yes, Disney already recouped what it spent on the franchise, however it serves as one of Disney’s flagship franchises and they need it to be a big part of the company’s future, especially having dedicated a considerable chunk of its theme parks and future Disney+ productions to the space opera. Kathleen Kennedy ultimately has to answer to Bob Iger and Disney shareholders when it comes to the financial success of Star Wars, so while the content is still made at Lucasfilm, as it always has been, they are held accountable to more than a man in a plaid shirt and white sneakers.
The Justifiable Sensitivity of George Lucas
George Lucas is a creator first. He is a storyteller, and self-admittedly, not very interested in the business side of making movies, other than always wanting to own his intellectual property so he could tell the stories he wanted to tell, for as long as he wanted to tell them. From the beginning, he let Fox’s Alan Ladd Jr. (in my opinion the single-most important person responsible for this franchise existing besides George Lucas) and Gary Kurtz handle the business of Star Wars (1977). Kathleen Kennedy is cut from a different cloth from “the maker.” She is a very successful producer and executive, who knows the business side of making movies, and has done so masterfully for the better part of 40 years.
Lucas was perhaps a bit more sensitive than someone with Kennedy’s business-acumen. Lucas wasn’t as receptive to fan backlash or reactions, and many argue, to which I agree, that part of the reason he sold the franchise is because he was tired of dealing with angry fans disagreeing with his vision for his creation.
It is much easier to have thick skin when you aren’t the one writing the story. Kennedy can absorb fan feedback, but handle it objectively (to an extent) easier than George Lucas ever could, because when he was dealing with angry fans over the prequels, it was much more personal to him. George Lucas loves filmmaking. He is probably still doing it today, but as he told Anthony Carboni at The Force Awakens premiere, he is making them for himself, and that nobody will ever see them.
Lucas also didn’t have anyone looking over his shoulder at Lucasfilm, the buck stopped with him. If he decided to pack it up and call it a career or make smaller indie movies under Lucasfilm, he would have done it. I think a large part of the reason he sold Lucasfilm as opposed to closing up shop was simply out of love and respect for the mass amounts of people who worked for his company. He wanted to make sure their future was secure, and he felt the company would be in good hands with Disney, whom he knows is very protective of their intellectual properties.
History Repeats Itself
Let’s bring it back to the present by referencing the past. Back in 1999, George Lucas, ahead of the release of The Phantom Menace, borderline predicted there would be backlash from older fans who hyped Episode I so highly that there was no chance it could meet their expectations.
“I am fully aware of the fact that some of the older fans have gotten themselves into a situation. The film is really for young people. They have these amazing expectations the film can’t possibly meet.”
The same thing is happening today with the sequel trilogy and will continue for years to come as long as there is older Star Wars content with greener grass viewed through a retrospective lens. But, Star Wars isn’t going anywhere. It will continue to exist, so fans have a simple choice to make. You can keep being a fan or decide it’s not for you anymore, and move on. For the fans of the franchise who are embracing the future, while you may seem like a small fish in a big galaxy, you matter more than you know.
You Have a Voice and They Are Paying Attention
I can endlessly travel down every fork in the road that ties Star Wars to its fans since its birth, but you’ve probably had enough of me by now. The bottom line is that now, more than ever, Lucasfilm is paying attention to the pulse of the fan community. Our website and podcast are one of hundreds, possibly thousands of other Star Wars blogs, sites, and podcasts out there, and its truly a remarkable thing that transcends the average movie franchise following. We live in an age where your voice can be heard and received well if you conduct yourself the right way.
We as Star Wars fans have a voice, and they are listening. This doesn’t mean that a Solo 2 movie or series will happen, Han will shoot first again, or Ahsoka will crossover to live action, and that is okay, because those are not our stories to tell. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention, because they are. So keep staying passionate about what you love in Star Wars, or what you’d love to see one day, because you never know, you could help make something happen. It is a great time to be a Star Wars fan, and I am eternally happy to be a part of this fan community and in the trenches with you!