We got news late last night that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were no longer developing the next batch of Star Wars movies. This comes after a summer where the divisive (and allegedly quite rushed) final seasons of Game of Thrones turned at least a faction of the fan base against the HBO mega-hit in its closing hours, and just days after the duo made controversial comments suggesting that they were unprepared for Game of Thrones when they were hired to oversee the HBO show and essentially learned on the job, an admission which didn’t play well in an industry where countless “not a white guy” filmmakers struggle to get that big break with or without relevant experience and credits. Or, maybe they really did bow out because of the time commitments related to their $250 million deal with Netflix.
Either scenario puts Disney and Lucasfilm in a mild pickle, as Benioff and Weiss were developing what was supposed to be the next Star Wars movie, due December 22, 2022, after The Rise of Skywalker, which is to be the finale to the Skywalker Saga. It’s no secret that the franchise would be facing a fork in the road at the end of “Episode Nine,” with audience interest in Star Wars movies sans any explicit connection to the 1977-2019 nine-episode saga or the flagship characters (Luke, Leia, Han, Yoda, Kenobi, etc.) that defined the franchise for generations. It doesn’t help that the departure continues a pattern with filmmakers being hired and then fired/replaced from the saga before (Colin Treverrow, Josh Trank) or during production (Chris Miller and Phil Lord during Solo, Gareth Edwards from Rogue One).
Maybe the issue is Lucasfilm, including Kathleen Kennedy and other interested parties, should be less concerned about snapping up proverbial flavors of the month. They snapped up Edwards right after Godzilla broke out, hired Treverrow for Episode IX a month after Jurassic World broke box office records, grabbed Miller and Lord on the strength of The LEGO Movie and 22 Jump Street and hired Josh Trank before Fantastic Four even opened. With the knowledge that J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was not an easy production (reshoots, revamps, etc.), even if it obviously worked out pretty well, it is ironic that the one “easy” Star Wars movie was Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which probably explains why they offered Johnson (not nearly as “so hot right now” when he first joined) more Star Wars movies before Last Jedi opened.
For the record, there are still Star Wars movies in development courtesy of Marvel’s Kevin Feige and The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson. But should there be? Creating a new trilogy of Star Wars films without George Lucas was always a challenging proposition, if only because the franchise was uniquely his through the first six feature films. Yet, they were direct sequels to Return of the Jedi. Now that J.J. Abrams’ The Rise of Skywalker will end the story of Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren, along with the Skywalker/Solo story, it might also be a good stopping place for the Star Wars theatrical brand, at least for the moment. What is a Star Wars movie without George Lucas and without Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa and Han Solo? More importantly, do audiences want one?
When Disney first bought Lucasfilm in 2012, the initial plan was to offer a Star Wars movie ever year, with an “Episode” alternating with a spin-off/stand-alone Star Wars Story. But the global rejection of Solo: A Star Wars Story (after its budget had ballooned to $275 million due to swapping out Miller/Lord for Ron Howard), as well as development stalling for a Boba Fett flick and a Ben Kenobi flick, put those plans on ice. Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi movie became a Disney+ episodic while the Boba Fett movie was seemingly retrofitted into the upcoming The Mandalorian episodic, also debuting on Disney+. Simply put, the notion of a new Star Wars movie every year was an announcement meant to please shareholders and impress the media as opposed to meeting an audience demand.
Without presuming too much about the new “in development” Star Wars films, the question becomes: Who wants these? Do general audiences want more Star Wars movies on an “every two years” basis with no foundation in the Luke/Han/Leia story? Do they want relatively “new” sci-fi action movies that just happen to have the words “Star Wars” slapped on the title? Or, as feared from the beginning, did the initial excitement over the last three “episodes” stem from their status as direct sequels to Return of the Jedi? Simply put, were general audiences less excited about the return of Star Wars and more excited about the return of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill as Han Solo, Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker? And if it’s the latter, what’s the risk of pressing onward anyway?
The theatrical industry has changed since 2012. Moviegoers spend a much larger percentage of their money on a much smaller pool of “big” movies. Audiences who once went to the movies just to go to the movies now get much of their filmed entertainment on TV and streaming services. If anything, The Mandalorian (which looks damn good) and the other in-development shows may suggest that the immediate future for Star Wars is not in theatrical but in episodic television content. After all, a Star Wars movie without the beloved Star Wars characters (even the prequels were rooted in familiar characters) may end up as viable over the long run as Fantastic Beasts or Men in Black: International. Even the rebooted X-Men series only financially flourished when the old gang showed up in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Moviegoers are already more hesitant than every to show up for big movies sans character for whom they are already attached. This isn’t like television (or streaming) where audiences will take a chance from the comfort of their couch on new characters encased in an existing property. That said, even (among others) Star Wars: Rebels, Angel, Fraser and Better Call Saul had connections to the proverbial TV mothership. Offhand, I would say that in television spin-off world, save one or two properties I missed, Star Trek (which had its first spin-off, The Next Generation, taking place a century after the previous show)is the exception rather than the rule. No matter who directs it, a new Star Wars movie sans any flagship characters and much connection to the core “Empire/Rebellion” story is not a preordained global smash.
This isn’t to suggest that Star Wars theatrical franchise should end after The Rise of Skywalker. Even a disappointing Star Wars movie will help Disney increase market share and spice up Disney+. However, we’ve seen a stark difference in how franchise titles are received depending on who wants them. If audiences want them ( Pitch Perfect 2, Angel Has Fallen, Jurassic World), they become big hits. But if studios or filmmakers are the most interested parties ( Alien: Covenant, Rambo: Last Blood, Terminator: Genisys, The Huntsman: Winter’s War), then they tend to fail. After The Rise of Skywalker, Disney will hope audiences still want explicitly “new” Star Wars movies or believe that they can pull a Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a disconnected continuation sans any flagship characters,which appeals to those who only cared about Luke, Han and Leia.