The future of Star Wars
Star Wars creator George Lucas poses with a Storm Trooper in 2005 (AAP)
By Tony Field
The announcement that George Lucas was selling Lucasfilm to Disney left some fans crying "sell out".
They weren't just talking about his US$4 billion payday, but about the news Disney would be embarking on new Star Wars movies. Hadn't Lucas vowed he would not make anymore?
Well, delve into Star Wars history and more films appears to be what George Lucas had planned all those years ago when the first movie was released in 1977. As early as 1978 Lucas told Time magazine he planned four trilogies.
Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker, also remembers being told by Lucas that four trilogies were planned. Within a few years that ambitious plan had been scaled back to three trilogies. Years later Lucas attempted to downplay this, suggesting it was never more than a fun idea he'd kicked around. But it does seem rough plot outlines were locked away in Lucas' filing cabinet.
So what might the new films be about?
Jeff Gomez, who heads Starlight Runner Entertainment, told 3 News, "If you have been a long-time Star Wars enthusiast there have been tantalising hints floated by George himself and some people close to production of the original films that indicate what these movies could be about.
“Our guess is that these movies will be set between 20 and 40 years after the events of Return of the Jedi and we will see a new generation of Star Wars characters coming into their own, even as an older generation, the Luke Skywalkers and Princess Leias and Han Solos meet their destinies."
Gomez advises the major studios on how to maximise the "cross platform" potential of their franchises, across movies, TV, gaming, toys and social media. He has worked on projects including the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Tron Legacy, Hasbro's Transformers and James Cameron's Avatar.
He says Star Wars is a perfect fit for Disney.
"Star Wars is one of the franchises that has been doing this the longest in the history of pop culture, at least on purpose," says Gomez.
The first Star Wars spin-off novel appeared back in 1978, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, by Allan Dean Foster. That wasn't even the first new Star Wars story.
Marvel Comics had begun publishing new adventures the previous year, as soon as it completed its six issue adaptation of the original movie. Lucas quickly embraced the "multi platform" approach, with toys, bubble gum cards and yes, even a 1978 TV Holiday Special.
Made with little if any involvement from Lucas, the special centered on Han Solo's efforts to help Chewbacca make it home for Life Day. It was a sort of TV variety show and even featured Carrie Fisher singing a song in celebration of Life Day, to the tune of the main Star Wars titles.
Described by one critic as the worst two hours in US TV history it's never been rebroadcast, or released on VHS, DVD or Blu-ray. The one positive aspect was that the special contained the first appearance of fan favourite, bounty hunter Boba Fett.
Lucas clearly learnt from the experience and has since kept a much firmer control on what has been officially released.
“What you had with the original Star Wars was not all that different from Tolkien's creation of The Hobbit or L. Frank Baum's creation of The Wizard of Oz,” says Gomez.
“In all of those cases you had a story world depicted in the original work where the storyteller had conceived a much larger world around the body of that story."
He predicts there will be a lot more Star Wars, overseen by Lucasfilm co-chair Kathleen Kennedy.
"She is someone who wants content out there and a lot of it,” says Gomez.
“I think she is going to make a lot of Star Wars movies, I think she is going to make a lot of Star Wars television, I think she is going to make a lot of movies in general because she is a filmmaker."
But that will be just the start of it. Gomez believes Kennedy will embrace what is known as "transmedia storytelling". This is more than simply telling different stories in different media (movies, TV, comic books and games). Rather it involves telling a cohesive story across a range of multi media platforms.
"In the case of George Lucas what he did organically was he put out bits and pieces of that story along the way,” says Gomez.
“Even between Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back you had Boba Fett's appearance in the Star Wars Holiday Special before the character appeared in Empire and became this phenomenal, popular character.
"This was a kind of organic and instinctive transmedia storytelling that Lucas had engaged in. Not all that dissimilar to the way that Japanese pop culture had been proliferating characters and story worlds across different media platforms for some years by that time.
"Then you had a continued evolution except that Lucas, who was an auteur, someone who believed in the singular power of film, most of his focus fell on the movies from then on. So all of this other content, like novels and comic books, it either could or could not be part of the canon, depending on the author's whim."
Gomez believes that fans of pop culture are now demanding a more consistent and continuous experience of these story worlds.
"So it has to make sense, it has to fit together, fans don't want their time wasted with stuff that is not considered official by the franchise visionaries. This is something that Kathleen Kennedy is coming to recognise. Lucasfilm may transition from a kind of organic transmedia experience to something that is more carefully orchestrated and more artfully presented."
The transmedia storytelling approach is being accelerated by the new digital technologies.
"All of the content that will be tied into this new Star Wars endeavour will count, these will be important stories that fans will love and they will all contain a component of fan engagement,” says Gomez.
“They will encourage the fans to create and talk about and engage with the Star Wars universe in new and unique ways. This technique, this method of engaging with fans is the true future of popular culture. We are moving into an era where broadcast is going to become less important because communication that involves a dialogue, and involves a kind of communal storytelling is going to become more and more vital.
"It will include gaming, comics and the various books but it will also include social media and the development of a global community of Star Wars fans who will be encouraged to express themselves creatively about the new Star Wars stories."
The goal for Disney will be producing new stories that appeal to the various audiences who have watched Star Wars over the years, including 40-somethings who grew up with the original trilogy, the 20-somethings who discovered Star Wars when The Phantom Menace was released and today's children who know the saga through Lego toys and The Clone Wars animated TV series.
Says Gomez, “The most fascinating challenge is that there is a gap here of roughly 10 to 15 years where there is a population that did not have access to Star Wars, they don't own Star Wars as other generations do." These are people who grew up between the release of the first and second trilogies.
The US$4.02 billion price tag for Lucasfilm is almost as much as the six films have made at the box office, but revenue from Star Wars merchandise has amounted around three times that.
"If you look at just the toys being sold from Hasbro alone those toys have grossed US$120 million in a year,” says Gomez.
“When you add that to the videogame sales and the various licences and merchandise surrounding Star Wars you have a business model that rivals, if not dominates Lucas' Industrial, Light and Magic, which provides special effects to all the biggest Hollywood studios."
Lucasfilm now shares a home with Pixar, the animation firm that Steve Jobs sold to Disney six years ago - a firm Jobs had bought in 1986 from none other than George Lucas.
So for Lucas the story seems to have turned full circle. Not just because of the Pixar connection, but because he now plans to devote his time to experimental filmmaking (as well as charitable endeavours).
Well before Star Wars became a phenomena and consumed Lucas' life, his real passion was experimental filmmaking. His student film THX 1138 became his first feature movie.
Lucas now has the chance to fulfil an ambition he set aside a long time ago, in a place he still hopes is not so far away.