The benefit of fanboys and fangirls

Last week I posted something on Medium about how Walt Disney World blows other theme parks away – not by being the best theme park, but by telling the best stories. Toward the end, I made a passing reference to Disney re-invigorating the Star Wars franchise.

Maybe that comes off like a dig at George Lucas (not like he would care). It’s actually pretty common for a good media franchise or a political movement to enjoy success beyond its originator.

This year marks the Star Wars franchise’s 40th anniversary. It’s easy to pretend like that has been four decades of uninterrupted cultural significance. That isn’t the case. Sure, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Star Wars built an empire (ironic) of movies and merchandise. By the late 1980’s, though, the franchise flagged; Star Wars looked to have run its course. Something else would surely dominate the 1990s, the 2000s, the 2010s.

Then came Timothy Zahn’s book, Heir to the Empire – the first of three books which would form the closest thing to a sequel trilogy until, well,  2015 kicked off a sequel trilogy. Zahn invented characters, planets, and concepts that felt at once new and wholly consistent with the original movies.

People forget just how fringe Star Wars was circa 1990. Zahn’s novels set the foundation for a library of books, comics, video games, and other media that made Star Wars a marketable commodity again.

All of this was done with the guidance of creator George Lucas – but, notably, without his direct control. That was before the dark times. Before the prequels.

Years after that unsatisfying, CGI-heavy 1999-2005 prequel trilogy, Lucas again turned over the keys – this time to Disney. And it all happened again. The Force Awakens and Rogue One were box office hits. The Last Jedi will be released this coming December, but not before fans examine each trailer release the way Moon landing conspiracy theorists watch video of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around in that southern California sound stage.

The Star Wars franchise is invigorated again and, just as in the 1990s, someone else is leading the charge.

It isn’t surprising that Star Wars fans connect better with the works of fellow fans.  Translating this to another industry: What images spring to mind when you think of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign? Maybe Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” graphic or the “Yes We Can” video. Neither was produced by the campaign itself, though the campaign was happy (and smart) to reap the benefits of their influence.

Why does this happen?  Here’s a theory: Fans have enough detachment to see what makes their obsession interesting. George Lucas might have built an excellent story explaining Darth Vader’s motivations for his descent into evil; he forgot how much the likable characters, practical special effects, and witty dialogue had to do with drawing viewers in. Obama’s 2008 campaign was known for it’s “hope and change” rhetoric. The campaign spoke about “change,” but it was the supporters who started talking about “hope.”

 

 

Ok, fine, get excited for Star Wars

“You know,” I told friends up until a few weeks ago, “this new Star Wars movie is probably going to suck.”

Here was my reasoning: viewed outside the lens of nostalgia, many of the Star Wars movies aren’t particularly great. The entire franchise rests on the excellence of The Empire Strikes BackStar Wars itself captures the imagination, but one wonders if it would have held up as a stand-alone movie. Return of the Jedi ties everything up nicely – but has its weak moments, too. Obviously, the prequels left a horrible taste in everyone’s mouth.

Since the franchise is really built on one excellent movie and a handful of flicks that hold up better in your memory than on screen, I figured a new, Disneyfied Star Wars movie would prove to be a shallow, thinly-plotted, poorly-acted money grab – just like the prequels.

Then the trailers started coming out. And three big reasons to get excited became clear:

  1. J.J. Abrams. There’s been plenty of excitement about the focus on practical effects over the CGI that made the prequel trilogy look like cartoons. The real value of Abrams, though, comes through in his work directing Super 8. If you’re a fan of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you’ll appreciate the way Super 8 uses light and sound to create a mood. Abrams understood what made those older movies special and adapted those elements in a modern film. He mixed a fan’s appreciation with a filmmaker’s expertise. That’s something George Lucas couldn’t do with the prequels; the storyteller can never see his or her own tale through the same lens as the audience.
  2. It looks like a good, new story. The first trailers banked on  familiar imagery – a downed Star Destroyer, lightsabers, Han and Chewie returning home. But look at this one, and seems clear there’s an well-thought-out story that intertwines the fates of several new characters. While the prequels were attempting to tell more of a story wehad already heard, this is uncharted territory.
  3. Prequels are, by nature, a disappointment. The problem with prequels is that, if a story is sufficiently interesting and addictive, fans will write their own prequels in their heads. Everyone who watched Star Wars had an idea of what Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker’s friendship must have been like, how the Old Republic fell, how the Empire rose. The mystery allowed each person to have their own image in their mind. Even if they had been good, the prequels couldn’t match the mythology each Star Wars fan had built in their own minds. (By the way, remember this in a few years when the Hunger Games folks cash in on a prequel showing how Panem was started.)

Early returns are good, so maybe there’s a new hope after all.

3 Rules for Message-Driven Media

Unsurprisingly, my prediction that Atlas Shrugged would suck proved to be true.

Scathing review notwithstanding, the filmmakers deserve plaudits for the ambitious attempt.  The movie might have been a swing-and-miss, but you have to hand it to John Aglialaro, who ponied up the cash to get the picture made, and the team who put the thing together quickly.

The truth is that Atlas Shrugged falls into the trap so many attempts at “conservative entertainment” fall into.  It is reminiscent of 2004-2005, when several documentarians from the center-right grabbed a camera to answer left-wing movies like Supersize Me and Farenheit 9/11. Just about anyone who put something mildly amusing on videotape was labeled “the conservative Michael Moore.”  In the years since, others have followed in various media.  Fox News Channel’s “1/2 Hour News Hour” was supposed to be the conservative answer to the Daily Show.  Websites spoofing the news as a conservative answer to the Onion spring up every now and then.

Being “the conservative version of [INSERT ANYTHING HERE]” is pretty much an epitaph, defining a project by its political views rather than its quality.  And unfortunately, that’s what happened to Atlas Shrugged.

This is, however, a teachable moment for those on the center-right who want to entertain people with a good message.

 

1.  Be entertaining first.

A major problem with Atlas Shrugged (the movie) was that its commitment to libertarian philosophy led to an unhealthy reliance on the book.  Plot points and even dialog were almost directly lifted from Ayn Rand’s text.  The result was muddled, outdated, and difficult to follow with characters and characterizations that were difficult for audiences to identify with.   With a plot that’s hard to follow and characters who are difficult to warm up to, philosophy becomes the most recognizable element of the film.

 

2.  Give the people someone to identify with. 

Speaking of characters, another common mistake of politically tainted entertainment is the lack of attention paid to character development.

Not to continue picking on Atlas Shrugged, but business moguls do not fall into the “warm fuzz” category.  That problem isn’t as pronounced in the book, which gives fuller portraits of the characters and allows the readers a peek into their thoughts.  In the movie, the titans of industry are simply business executives who happen to be in the story.  With the financial problems of 2007-2009 still close in the rear view mirror, that does not make for especially sympathetic characters. (Sure, there are many reasons it’s easier to create compelling characters in a book – dialog doesn’t have to be quite as sharp, and the body language of the actors isn’t as important.  But if you take on the task of producing visual media, accounting for that goes with the territory.)

More to the point, though, is the fact that the most memorable stories work on emotion, and having identifiable characters allows the audience to share in that emotion.  Star Wars is still celebrated because a generation of kids grew up pretending to be Luke Skywalker (and occasionally fighting with their brothers over who got to be Luke Skywalker even though, you know, you’d think the oldest would get first pick).  Everyone thinks of themselves, at times, as the orphan living under the stairs, so we all share in Harry Potter’s elevation from forgotten one to chosen one.  We all wish we could spend the day bowling and drinking like Jeffrey Lebowski (or like Luke Skywalker in Episode VIII: Man, It Sure Is Boring Without the Empire).

 

3.  Have respect for your audience.

The show goes on because of the folks in the seats.  Politically-motivated entertainers who use the stage as a pulpit to advance messages that are important to them may do so at the expense of what’s important to the audience.

That isn’t a problem for those tuning into overtly political entertainment, where strong views are expected – for instance, dialing up Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann.  The people tuning into those types of shows are doing so because they want to hear the entertainer’s views.  But the audiences in most movie theaters (regardless of the individual audience members’ personal philosophies) are going for something completely different.  Ditto for the family that sits down to watch a sitcom together.  (Do people even actually do that anymore?)

In that respect, there’s a sort of arrogance and rudeness in coming to the stage to push a message; it prioritizes the entertainer’s goals over the audience’s.  Unless you’re Don Rickles, nothing turns off a crowd faster than disrespect.  A little subtlety goes a long way.

Sunday Funnies: The REAL 30th anniversary this weekend

Despite Google’s little Pac-Man doodle on Friday, this weekend is more notable because Friday was the 30th anniversary of the release of The Empire Strikes Back.

The Empire Strikes Back might be the best sequel ever, and is regarded as the best of the Star Wars trilogy.  But one can only wonder if it would have been as successful with the original ending:

Here’s a bonus one – this is what passed for a trailer in 1980, for the sequel to what was, at the time, the highest grossing movie ever: