In an alternate universe R2D2 rolled onto the stage at Disney’s biannual D23 fan convention, greeted by the loud cheers and claps of thousands of fans. The droid beeped and whistled and turned back towards the screen that hung over the large arena stage at the Anaheim Convention Center. A beam of light came from R2, aimed at the screen, and then projected there was JJ Abrams, the director of the 2015’s Star Wars Episode VII. JJ was in his office at Bad Robot in Santa Monica; while only about 40 minutes away JJ explained he was so knee deep in prep that he couldn’t come see the fans in person. He thanked them for their excitement and told them he was making a movie worthy of the Star Wars franchise. Then he revealed a light saber, lit it and told the crowd... something. The title of the movie, perhaps. Information about the exact time period of the movie, maybe. Or he could have introduced Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, who would have taken the stage to ecstatic applause and announced they were returning as Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa.
In this universe Disney’s Alan Horn told the crowd he couldn’t share any Star Wars information, and he was booed loudly and enthusiastically. Thousands of die-hard Disney and Lucasfilm fanatics booed the chairman of the Walt Disney Studios.
D23 marks the third miss Disney has had with Star Wars this summer, opting to share no information at Comic Con or D23 and to only confirm John Wililams’ involvement at the big Star Wars Celebration. As fans begin to get worked into a lather about 2015 films The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Batman vs Superman, the people behind Star Wars remain mum.
Some people have remarked that the Prequels shared very little information in advance, sometimes not even announcing the title of the film until after shooting was complete. That’s true, but that was then. This is 2013, and fans have been trained to expect reveals, surprises and basic information to be fed to them for years before the release of a movie. The fact that there’s going to be a Star Wars film in theaters in less than two years and we know nothing about it strikes many modern movie observers as weird. At best.
There are those who speculate this is JJ Abrams’ standard mystery box bullshit, the usual pointless veil of secrecy. Somehow it doesn’t seem right. I don’t think Lucasfilm is going to bend to that style of marketing, especially with a franchise that needs to - and has already begun to - mend bridges with the hardcore base. From where I sit this reeks of a movie rushing to a release date (an as yet unannounced one, mind you) without being fully developed.
Before D23 I thought Disney might finally blink and delay the movie a year. At this point a 2016 release seems like it would give everybody more breathing room to deliver something of quality. But Horn got on stage and reiterated 2015; the fact that today’s Disney presentation included nothing about Pirates of the Caribbean 5, also slotted for 2015, indicated to me that will be the film to get pushed. Star Wars, it seems, is stuck with that summer.
Does Disney need to sell Star Wars? Yes and no; on the one hand a post-Jedi Star Wars movie will be a legitimate cultural event. On the other hand, this is a franchise that took some black eyes in the last decade and change, and people are wary. It behooves everybody involved to make it clear this is a return to the good Star Wars (supposedly).
What I can tell you for sure is this: the silence this summer - and the negative reaction to it - indicates that Star Wars can’t sit out the usual fan-stoking cycle. Fans expect information in advance. They like the tease. Marvel did it well this summer with the announcement of Age of Ultron - simply giving at title (and with it a villain) stoked the flames of fan speculation and excitement. Keeping shtum doesn’t help Disney combat the many rumors flying around Episode VII, including those of creative differences and arguments about the release date.
What’s especially weird is that there wil be no D23 or Star Wars Celebration next year. The next iterations of both of these Disney-owned conventions will bookend the release of Episode VII (assuming it gets a standard May berth). That means Disney has thrown away the ability to use its own events to make announcements about the movie. Now all announcements will be made through the media rather than directly to the fans. That’s not a big deal, but when you own TWO fan-oriented gatherings that fit the Star Wars bill it seems weird to not use them to disseminate information.
I still can’t get over how loud the boos were today; they weren’t scattered weisenheimers, they were the majority of the crowd. Today was the only day to sell out at D23, and the fact that Marvel and Lucasfilm were on the menu certainly is why; that room was full of Star Wars fans expecting some sort of information. Hell, even a presentation about the history of the films, with George Lucas and JJ Abrams having a laugh or something, would have been a huge hit - instead all they got was a bunch of stills lined up in a grid on the screen.
There were a dozen ways Disney could have satisfied fans without revealing much - if anything - about Episode VII. What does it mean that they didn’t bother? Are they taking the Star Wars fanbase totally for granted?