Let the Speculation Begin! – Part One

I’ve borrowed the title of today’s post from the D23 Expo live-action film panel. When it was spotted on August 1, our FANgirl editor, who also happens to be a lawyer, noticed the wording in the blurb on the first day. While Lucasfilm is included in the first sentence, the second and third sentences, which mentions clips, appearances, and specific movies to be discussed, steered clear of Episode VII. So Disney promised nothing Star Wars at this panel, really.

Let the Adventures Begin: Live Action at The Walt Disney Studios

Go behind the scenes at The Walt Disney Studios with this revealing look at our upcoming roster of live-action adventures from Disney, Marvel, and Lucasfilm. Fans will enjoy exclusive video clips, filmmaker discussions, and star appearances at this session hosted by Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn, Disney Live Action Production President Sean Bailey, and Marvel Studios President and Producer Kevin Feige. With Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Disney’s Maleficent, Saving Mr. Banks, Tomorrowland, and Muppets Most Wanted, coming down the pike, make sure to claim your spot for the total package—surprises included!

Setting Expectations

Lucasfilm already had set expectations a couple of weeks earlier, laying out its plans for San Diego Comic-Con, Celebration Europe II, and D23. It’s no surprise they stayed on target with the tenacity of Porkins during the Battle of Yavin. MiceChat has a detailed recap of the exposition, and also reflects on some of the history of the event. Apparently announcements generally do happen, yet there weren’t any across the Disney kingdom during D23.

It would be one thing if Disney had never used the D23 Expo as a platform for major announcements, but the first two Expos were just that – the place for Disney to proudly show off its new toys and get people excited with big announcements on major new productions. Despite Disney announcing before the Expo that no new announcements would be made, the lack of information still stung fans and burned the blogosphere. Entertainment magazines and film blogs aren’t being shy about openly discussing the disappointment of Saturday’s live action presentation; Variety opens an article on the subject with “The disappointment was palpable at D23 Expo as Walt Disney Studios promoted 11 movies that it will release through the end of 2015.” Obviously, the biggest letdown from the studio was the lack of Star Wars announcements but that disappointment bleeds through to just about every other major division of Disney, including Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

Pieces similar to Variety’s “Did Disney Underestimate Fan Demand for ‘Star Wars’ at D23 Expo?” were popping up all over the internet in the days following the expo. While Variety placed some of the blame for fan disappointment on the shoulders of Disney, it also suggests the media and bloggers are partly at fault.

And that’s where Disney may have now created a monster. Fueled by a lack of information it got at D23, the media — ok, mostly bloggers — are now driven more than ever to uncover any new “Star Wars” news on their own.

Already the pre-Episode VII frenzy has been interesting to watch unfold. It’s most likely that the larger entertainment media outlets – like Deadline, Entertainment Weekly, and The Hollywood Reporter – are positioned to break some of the key announcements. Smaller blogging sites like Jedi News and Schmoes Know have unearthed key scoops through less traditional avenues. Bloggers, and I say this as one, can be problematic. They are often self-taught and have little to no journalistic training. On the other hand, the bloggers are better students of the franchise and are able to make connections and draw inferences that major entertainment sites would miss.

The old cliché says “consider the source.” When considering Episode VII rumors and reports, it’s important to remember that every site approaches spoiler news with an agenda. The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly, and Deadline have a reputation for breaking solid news and have fostered resources and won trust from their sources and the audience. Their business model relies on these relationships to make money, which sometimes means sitting on a big story rather than breaking it. Blogs range from the wannabe entertainment press to Star Wars fansites. Often the wannabes are in the mix mostly to generate hit counts and possible short-term income from those hit counts. Another factor is the dynamic of the attention fix, which I would liken to a drug addiction. Attention generates a need for more attention, and some bloggers will do continually foolish things to keep the hit-count high to their own detriment. Most fansites, though, approach the franchise from a place of passion, and generally want to share that passion while also expressing their opinion. But that also means Star Wars fansites can be the most susceptible to confirmation bias, especially compared to less Star Wars-focused entertainment sites. This can lead not only to being too quick to discount reports that don’t fit what they’d like to believe, but also to being too quick to trust reports that line up with their expectations or desires.

Even Lucasfilm now uses a website to manage their announcements, which used to go out as press releases. When the news first broke of the sale to Disney, StarWars.com released video shorts with Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas. In the first video, Kennedy jests about George Lucas going off to blog as a fan, suggesting she is well aware of bloggers’ potential effect on the rollout of the movie. The Twilight and Hunger Games franchises have used fansites successfully, building upon those fanspassions to spread the word or even to test production decisions. As major media sites reported on the breaking Disney deal news last October, they turned to fansite bloggers like Dunc from Club Jade and Eric Geller from TheForce.net for informed perspectives. Between the big wheels of media, the production team, and the passionate fansites exists plenty of opportunity for positive effects by fostering a symbiotic relationship.

Fan Curiosity versus Storytelling Needs

From my observations, the recent lack of Episode VII news isn’t a matter of Disney or Lucasfilm hiding the ball. No sooner than J.J. Abrams inked the deal, the news broke and it was confirmed on StarWars.com – late on a Friday evening, no less, hardly an ideal time to make such a major, favorably received announcement. Several rumors have surfaced over the past couple of weeks. Among all of those, the major entertainment sites have acknowledged one: the Jedi News report on Foodles, which held kernels of truth and some inaccurate suppositions that filming was imminent. Pablo Hidalgo’s comment on ClubJade suggests this pattern will hold. As more people get involved in the movie, information will be harder to keep under lock and key. Actors will have to start training, logistics need to be managed, and contracts will be signed. All these elements open the process up to more visibility.

Just fyi, there are no casting ‘secrets’. If someone hasn’t been signed, they haven’t been cast. That’s what triggers an announcement. That’s why everyone who has been announced has been announced when they were.

~Pabawan aka Pablo Hidalgo on Club Jade

It’s also important to remember that story design is a fluid process. The Pixar model, which earned Michael Arndt a screenwriting Oscar and which he speaks highly of, involves lots of input and many rewrites – the script process isn’t just one and done, but constant revisions to make it better. There are plenty of examples within Star Wars of characters coming and going within the story; the upcoming comic The Star Wars, based on an earlier Lucas screenplay for Episode IV, is one of the best examples. Recently scenes with the character Mary Jane Watson were filmed and then removed from The Amazing Spiderman 2. The balancing act will continue throughout the process.

The Need to Know: Spoilers and Fans

Abrams has a reputation for being secretive, mostly born out of the Star Trek Into Darkness marketing. The excessively tight-lipped approach to Abrams’ second Star Trek movie was symptomatic of the story itself, which struggled under the shadow of the Khan legend rather than trying to make its own mark. Early secrecy no doubt kept the option open to delete the Khan references from the movie, but as the release date loomed that option went off the table. The irony is that keeping a tight lid on Benedict Cumberbatch’s character created an Occam’s Razor situation where it was a given that he had to be Khan – concealing that “surprise” was the only reasonable explanation for hiding the ball.

Abrams has been working on the inside of the creative process most of his life, so he may lack perspective on what it’s like to be a fan on the outside. If Episode VII’s story is still under development, then it’s reasonable for his team to keep any details tightly concealed for now, just like Lucasfilm did during the negotiations of the Disney deal until it was finalized. Fandom is quite capable of taking tidbits of information out of context and turning them upside down. The creative process is hard enough without the freedom to simply allow the story to unfold and the imagination to stretch. As a writer myself, I sympathize with the storytelling team. Interestingly enough, only a few weeks ago Badass Digest, a site that covers Star Trek news, suggested Abrams was leaving the movie based on rumors that flourished as the director remained out of the summer convention spotlight. Now, with the post San Diego Comic-Con success on the heels of Whedon’s and Feige’s Marvel media tour, Star Wars Episode VII News broke the rumor that Abrams will be an overseer of sorts for many more Star Wars projects than just Episode VII. I’m inclined to think Abrams is not a Feige overlord, but closer to a Whedon story design mastermind in the scheme of things, if the rumor bears out. There is also a possibility that the original screenplay created from the Lucas-inspired treatment has run counter to Disney’s now-determined goals, and some of the rumors reflect the struggle as all parties try to come to an equitable solution.

As James points out at Club Jade, Star Wars is not equivalent to Marvel, in that it has one movie forthcoming between now and 2015 as opposed to five from Marvel. Even the platform the Sequel Trilogy creates as the springboard for further franchise films won’t be equivalent to Marvel’s phased approach. Star Wars is putting far more weight into Episode VII than the early Marvel strategy, which weaved differing fanbases together by subtly linking storylines for Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor, then slam-dunking with The Avengers. The recent rumors that Palpatine and Obi-Wan may return in Episode VII as Force spirits does show some similarity to the Marvel approach, though, along the lines of how Hawkeye, Agent Coulson, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill were given a brief scene or two in advance of a bigger role later. If these rumors prove accurate, it could easily be as a comparably brief cameo. Then again, they may end up as discarded ideas – like Mary Jane Watson – when the movie is finished.

With the recent spate of rumors, Pete Morrison discussed spoilers and the fandom at Lightsaber Rattling. He points to a 2011 UC San Diego study on spoilers, which I’ve referenced at FANgirl previously in talking about why readers jump to the end of the Expanded Universe novels. The study suggests that spoilers don’t ruin the experience of a story, but rather enhance it.

Given the age of the original Star Wars trilogies and it’s ingraining in pop culture we all know that the spoiler of Darth Vader being Anakin Skywalker and thus Luke’s father is one that is ruined for almost everyone who was born after the films release. But there are also other significant instances of spoilers such as the soundtrack for Episode I revealing that Qui-Gon would die in the film. More [significantly] we had the novelization of the original Star Wars film coming out in December of 1976 long before the film’s release on May 25, 1977. A New Hope was also spoiled by the Marvel Comics adaptation the first issue of which hit newstands in April of 1977. Star Wars and spoilers have a long history and the hunger of the modern fan community will only lead to more spoilers as media outlets seek to use the intense interest in Episode VII to drive viewership and readership.

As a blogger and avid consumer of movies and books, it’s my observation that the most successful movies and books have a conceit, and the conceit is usually one that essentially spoils the ending. The Princess Bride was undoubtedly going to find her true love, E.T. was going home, Harry was going to defeat Voldemort, and the Rebels were going to defeat the Emperor and Luke… well, we expected him to defeat Darth Vader. Luke’s journey in the Original Trilogy worked with the conceit but twisted it a bit to deliver an ending that the audience might not have expected from the start. It doesn’t subvert the journey or the story. Everything that happens at the end is foreshadowed along the way and paid off for the fans, which creates a powerful dynamic where people enjoy returning to the story to pick up the clues.

The Prequels, on the other hand, relied on a different conceit – more along the lines of a Shakespearian tragedy, a storytelling choice that can work quite successfully. Episode I delivered a young hero, the eye-rolling antics of Jar Jar, and hid its heroine in plain sight for most of the movie. The returning fans found it difficult to self-insert into those characters or relate to them as a means to experience and enjoy the spectacular CGI renderings of Naboo and Coruscant. On top of that, the lead-in marketing failed to effectively clue the audience into what they should expect from the movie, particularly the ways in which Episode I was going to be different from the Star Wars movies fans had seen before.

I recall seeing a trailer of the Gungans riding their kaadu out of the mists and not even realizing initially it was a Star Wars movie. At least for me, The Phantom Menace didn’t feel like Star Wars until the heart-pumping beats of “Duel of the Fates” ushered in the climactic battle, and I’ve heard similar feedback from other fans of my generation. Many fans who reacted negatively, though, might have approached Episode I with different expectations if they’d been given a clearer sense of what was coming when the lights dimmed in the theater for the first time. In the Disney sale and Episode VII movie announcement video, Lucas and Kennedy point out that Disney is the perfect fit for Star Wars based on their track record creating family entertainment.  For the most part, children and the younger adult audience received the Prequel Trilogy much better than the entrenched Original Trilogy fanbase. By the time Revenge of the Sith rolled out, with the more adult storyline and the payoff with the Obi-Wan versus Darth Vader duel, the Original Trilogy generation started coming around. While the movies may be aimed at a younger audience, the adult audience will be the ones setting the tone on the internet based on their reception. The Sequel Trilogy now faces expectations from two different generations who grew up with the previous two trilogies.

The Prequel Trilogy Impact: Going Dark

During the production and release of Episodes I, II, and III, the internet fansite message boards communities were in their earliest iteration. TheForce.Net became the go-to site for spoilers and speculation. Lucasfilm managed to get a handle on the spoilers later in the process, but the community remained a hotbed of discussion and debate. Many of the wildly varied rumors that we’re seeing pop up on the blogs today would have been typical in these message board discussions, getting reasoned out by fans with differing information or a different perspective. At times, the discussions turned into aggressive, opinionated conflicts, and in the years since most existing fansites were created by groups splintering off from the main fan community. TFN is now a shadow of its former self as a message boards community, and even some its longstanding VIPs and moderators have created their own unaffiliated blog where they hope to find a way to deliver their opinions effectively. This splintering of the online fandom, though, has resulted in the lack of shared information across the fandom. In the past month several significant tidbits of information have been noticed on one site or another but, unlike the collective that existed at TFN ten years ago, not by enough fans to create a critical mass to join forces and draw the logical conclusions about what the disparate pieces of information mean to the overall big picture.

The Prequel Trilogy era also heralded in a new age of Star Wars Expanded Universe books. The New Jedi Order paralleled the grimdark tone of the movies and created shocking character deaths. As the books continued after the movies ended, the shadow of the Prequel Trilogy became even more evident with storylines and themes more aligned with the tragic turn of Anakin Skywalker’s fall. They reflected an increasing level of violence, perhaps taking a cue from Revenge of the Sith’s PG-13 rating, a choice Lucas did not make lightly. By comparison, the Original Trilogy snuffs out plenty of lives; it just delivers them differently. This week, io9 published an article on the use of violence in storytelling as a means to show that villains are evil enough. It includes some interesting commentary on serial storytelling and the spiral effect of relying on brutality instead of machinations to beef up a villain’s credentials. While Expanded Universe ran down the torturous violence route post-Return of the Jedi, the well-received Darth Plagueis focused less on violence and more on the collusions of the Sith to impressive effect.

The Prequel Trilogy also had an enormous impact on shaping the new Jedi Order and the worldbuilding around it. By the Fate of the Jedi series, the Jedi began to look like the Jedi Order we see in the Prequel movies without any thought given to how resources, philosophy, in-universe events, staffing, and even the characters’ experiences would shape their size or capabilities. The Jedi Order we see fall in Episode III had risen to their position over thousands of years. In Fate of the Jedi, barely 40 years have passed since the Rebel’s victory at Endor, yet the Jedi Order fields a sizable operation that would have required Jedi Master Skywalker to be more of a bureaucrat and lobbyist and less a warrior. When we see reports that the Sequel Trilogy movies will be unlike anything we’ve seen in the books and comics, this is an example of where fans will need to unlearn what they know.

This point was made at the “Designing the Universe” panel with Doug Chaing and Iain McCaig at Celebration Europe II. The site Bastion Polskich Fanow reported on this panel, where the artists likened their work in creating the universe artistically to a process of evolving the visuals from the benchmark of the Original Trilogy. In the video short filmed after the panel with host Warwick Davis, Chaing reiterates what he mentioned on the panel: that they rely on history as inspiration in their worldbuilding. The example used in the panel was the fall of the Roman Empire, where a time of contraction as opposed to growth followed the empire’s collapse. It’s another indication that the expectation of a more modern society as we came to know in the Expanded Universe may be unlikely. Even current world events, such as the uprisings in Egypt, prove that defeating an entrenched dictator doesn’t necessarily bear out to creating better political and cultural climates. While the Bantam era of the Expanded Universe had its problems, it is probably closer in its portrayal of the post-Battle of Endor political situation, with warlords and local skirmishes between the New Republic and Empire, that we will see in Episode VII. The Polish site also relays what they understood about how the artists would draw from the Expanded Universe, and even Abrams relationship with it. The prediction of a contraction for the galaxy far far away, as opposed to a grand re-emergence, seems more likely – and this too will affect the Jedi Order that we see on screen. I don’t expect to see hundreds of Jedi, but more like a dozen, if that.

Check back tomorrow for Part Two, where I will discuss how Star Wars expertise might lead fans far astray in their speculation and expectations, and why it will be important for both the storytellers and the fans to acknowledge this potential in order for Star Wars to meet everyone’s goals – a blockbuster, fan-loved Episode VII.

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Tricia Barr took her understanding of brand management and marketing, mixed it with a love of genre storytelling, and added a dash of social media flare to create FANgirl Blog, where she discusses Star Wars, fandom, and strong female characters. She also writes about Star Wars for Random House’s science fiction and fantasy blog Suvudu.com and Star Wars Insider magazine and is a contributor for Her Universe’s Year of the Fangirl.

Tricia is putting the finishing touches on her first novel, Wyndea military science fiction with a fantastical twist that features heroines Vespa Wynde and Gemini Reed. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.

For updates on all things FANgirl follow @FANgirlcantina on Twitter or like FANgirl Zone on Facebook. At times she tries the Tumblr.

14 comments to Let the Speculation Begin! – Part One

  • What a great piece.

    I’m very much looking forward to Part Two.

    :)

  • What a great piece Trisha! You make some great points about the speculation for Episode VII and how this has changed since the Prequel Trilology. I cannot wait to read the second part!

  • […] there’s a interesting piece on speculation and how having too much knowledge of the franchise puts fan bloggers in a precarious position. Personally, although I do and will continue to report rumors, I’ve been staying away from […]

  • Top article and thanks for the mentions (even though we’re a traditional catch-all website, not a blog but thanks anyway!)
    All I can say about what we post in terms of spoilers (and it’s not something I was ever connected enough to do in my lightsabre.co.uk days when the prequels were coming out) is that it’s all posted in good faith and certainly not intended to spoil things for readers.
    The Foodles rumour is a good example. The info in that piece was 99% public record that a friend-in-the-know did some digging around for. We purposefully didn’t name any names out of respect to those involved (although a minimal amount of rooting about would quickly bring up all the names up), even though one of the people involved was high up at Disney and also involved in a whole slew of Marvel projects. Other sites DID name names – that’s their decision entirely.
    But you are SO right, our knowledge of the saga and how they are produced, rolled out, presented etc does make us think we understand things perhaps more than we do. The current discussions about the release date is another good example. I can see the logic in moving it well away from Avengers 2 and releasing it in November, but other folks think it HAS to stay in May. From what I’m told there’s been no decision, but it doesn’t mean one supposition is right, another wrong. Well, not until LFL/Disney announce the actual release date that is! As long-time fans and followers there’s definitely an element of understanding that non-Star Wars folks wouldn’t have, but as always until it’s announced by LFL then it’s just rumour. And – unless it’s utter fabrication intended to raise hits/finance/kudos etc – then I don’t see the harm in discussing it, because the power of Star Wars above ALL other franchises, series, films, books or stories is that it keeps us hooked and talking after all these years. We’re certainly going to continue posting such items (the McDiarmid article we ran last week was something we first heard about MONTHS ago, but only now have we got any kind of solidity behind it. We’re sitting on a story right now that would make the cover of the New York Times if we ran with it, but we’re waiting for solid reports and first-person confirmations until we do, and we’ll run this one by LFL before we even consider posting it, it’s THAT big).

    Interesting times, and as long as we have 1st class commentary on the fandom landscape like this article we’ll all be the richer for it.

  • Well written piece. Thanks for the good read!

  • Great insight – and yes fans need to “unlearn” some things. I can deal with spoilers as long as the Episode VII story line is the best it can be.

  • Norm

    Hi Fangirl, But which Screenplay treatment are you referring to? Are you referring to the Episode 7 treatment?

    “There is also a possibility that the original screenplay created from the Lucas-inspired treatment has run counter to Disney’s now-determined goals, and some of the rumors reflect the struggle as all parties try to come to an equitable solution.”

  • Mark, thanks for your insight.

    Norm, yes, the Ep VII screenplay treatment.

    To everyone else, thanks for the nice feedback.

  • When can we expect Part Two?

    :)

  • […] Blog has a very detailed piece on Star Wars and speculation that’s worth checking out. Part II will be out […]

  • […] character in the movies’ future and a lot to lose by not. At the same time, as I have noted in my speculation series, it’s important to remember that Mara’s real significance isn’t as a love interest or wife […]

  • […] Fangirl – The Blog Share this:TwitterFacebookGoogleLike this:Like Loading… August 21, 2013 in Star Wars Sequels. Tags: Part Two, Star Wars, StarWars.com, time […]

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