Wednesday, 25 June 2014

ESSAY:The Betrayed Fan Feeling Optimistic; Disney’s Buyout of Lucasfilm.

This essay was written as a piece of reception studies for my MLitt Film & Television Studies.

The Betrayed Fan Feeling Optimistic; Disney’s Buyout of Lucasfilm.

The Star Wars film franchise has a strong and committed fan base, who has followed the stories of the Jedi universe since the first film release in 1977. This has not been an easy relationship for George Lucas, its creator, and the vast fan base, who hold Star Wars very close to their hearts. Many grew up with the original trilogy, shaping their lives and holding an extremely important place in work, play and love. These fans feel a true ownership over the text and so the importance of George Lucas’ creative decisions has often come into question.

The fan reaction to the prospect of a prequel trilogy was met with much excitement, however on the release of The Phantom Menace (1999), much hyped for its use of digital special effects, filming and projection, there was a great sense of disappointment. The fan reaction to the subsequent prequel trilogy created a new discourse surrounding Star Wars, vilifying George Lucas for ‘ruining’ their beloved text, with the extreme phrase “George Lucas raped my childhood” becoming a common lament. Fan reaction shaped this discourse into popular opinion. It is now a common opinion to ‘hate’ the prequel trilogy, but to hold the original in high regard. 

At the end of 2012 it was announced that Lucasfilm had been bought by Disney, along with the rights to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Disney announced a plan to release a sequel trilogy from 2015 and to release subsequent films every few year for the foreseeable future, with spin off origin stories for existing characters and further sequels, at a pace likened to the James Bond franchise.

This news was met with a mixed reception. There is a sense of excitement but a muted one. By looking at opinions from fans, I want to see how reaction to the news differs from the events surrounding the prequel, and if any lessons have been learned. As there is a large worldwide discourse around Star Wars my focus will be on opinion pieces from David Mitchell, a prominent comedian and writer, and Simon Brew of Star Wars is such a mass appreciated text that I felt finding opinion in general public spaces online, as opposed to specific Star Wars fansites, would show a broad and universal result. By looking at pieces written by prominent contributors to the Guardian and on general fan website Den of Geek, I would find a range of ‘official’ opinions as well as those in the comments, agreeing or disagreeing with sentiments shared. This worked as a good place to collect fan reception of the news, in reaction to a piece of writing. Simon Brew’s piece is obviously from the point of view of an online fan space, speaking to already engaged and interested fans or “geeks” visiting the Den of Geek site. David Mitchell’s piece written found on the Guardian online widened the audience to newspaper readership and further to Mitchell’s audience as a comedian and frequent TV panel show personality. These examples do not intend to cast the net over all available opinions, but give interesting case studies of some of the reception to the news.

Jar Jar Binks and Bulging Pockets

Star Wars has had a long and varied history. George Lucas’s original trilogy brought in a loyal and active fan base, who grew up watching the films and formed many friendships through this shared interest. For that generation Star Wars became a huge phenomenon and whether you grew up to write Leia/Han fanfic and run the message boards or just get your beloved action figures down from the attic every now and then, it was a very important part of many people’s lives. Will Brooker discusses this with actor Simon Pegg, who wrote in many references to the trilogy in his series Spaced (1999-2001). Pegg reiterates greatly what is felt by many of these fans: “Star Wars was extremely important in my development as a child. It stimulated my imagination, increased my vocabulary, informed my notion of morality. My friendships were, to an extent, influenced by it at an early age… It was a social touchstone, an ice breaker, a common ground, shared by so many” (Brooker, 2002, 82).

With Return of the Jedi released in May 1983 marking the supposed end of the saga, fans did not let up in their love and appreciation of the films. They continued to enjoy creating fan fiction, attending screenings and conventions, some following the novels of the Expanded Universe, others holding sacred the original text. The story was over, but certainly not dead, and it was the Star Wars fans who kept it alive for all those years. Brooker explains it was “up to the longtime fans to become curators of the mythos, to keep it alive, to cherish it, and to sustain it both through their financial investment in all the secondary texts… and in some cases by participating in folk activity…”(Brooker, 2002, 88). There was therefore much excitement and anticipation when the news broke of plans for a prequel trilogy starting with the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999.

Brooker writes about ‘the fan betrayed’ and the reaction to episode one of the new trilogy.  He reasons that with the ‘anticipation’ and extensive wait building up to the release of a new Star Wars film there were bound to be some disappointed fans, as well as those with “a feeling of outright betrayal” (Ibid. 79). Fans felt ‘let down’ by what is now agreed to be an extremely disappointing trilogy; its reliance on CGI special effects and the dumbing-down of narrative to include characters such as Jar Jar Binks are amongst the most prevalent criticisms. Fans argued that this was not simply a case of growing old and trying to view a child’s film without the nostalgia attached, as Pegg maintains, “What lay at the heart of the first films was a very human story… Twenty-three years down the line and Lucas clearly believes it was the fireworks that lined his bulging pockets. Or maybe he just doesn’t give a shit” (Ibid. 83). Fans feel personally offended by Lucas’s treatment of the series.

Matt Hills has investigated the fan hatred of Jar Jar Binks and the rejection of The Phantom Menace as too ‘childish’:

 “This community is powerfully invested in defending its own sense of an ‘adult’ Star Wars against the encroaching interests and investments of ‘another generation’. It thus relies on discourse of childishness, cartoonishness and low-cultural commercialism to construct Jar Jar Binks as a low-Other. Although the Jar Jar haters continually seek to put away childish things, and hence to claim their adult fan ownership of the Star Wars universe, their imperial claim remains open to counter-discourses and to new rebel forces” (Hills, 2003, 88-89).

This need to enforce the credibility of Star Wars and to defend it from notions of ‘childishness’ is a driving force in the fan hatred of Jar Jar Binks. This could be seen as slightly contradictory as most of these fans first enjoyed the original trilogy as children. However as grownups, there is a desire to distance Star Wars from immaturity and to present an argument, which is not solely based in pettiness. Brooker discusses this as “the “eyes of a child” gambit”, a defence of Lucas for creating a film aimed at children, which therefore should be enjoyed for its ‘simple pleasures’ without so much ‘cynicism’ (Brooker, 2002, 83).

This is however not a defence taken up by the vast majority of fans. Brooker explains there is a balance in dues between the fan’s anger at Lucas and their ‘gratitude’ for his original creation: “But just as fans owe a lifelong debt to Lucas for his founding role in the fantasies that shaped their childhood, so he is perceived as owing a debt to the fans, and to have reneged on it with The Phantom Menace” (Ibid. 84). Alec Austin discusses ‘the implicit contract’ between producers and audiences, relying on expectations of a text to have been met or ‘exceeded’ in order to guarantee the ‘audiences’ satisfaction’ (Austin, 2013). Austin explains that viewing this relationship as a ‘contract’ allows an understanding of why an audience will ‘accept some content choices’ and yet ‘reject’ or take offence to others (Ibid.). Clearly Star Wars fans felt Lucas had let down his side of the ‘implicit contract’. Austin warns that a ‘violation’ of this contract can end up ‘alienating’ an audience, and as the audience holds the power to cease viewing or even attempt a ‘boycott’, it is in a producer’s interest to uphold this contract (Ibid.).

While Lucas certainly made a great deal of profit to add to his ‘bulging pockets’, the discontent of the fans could not be ignored. William Proctor argues that it should not be ignored, citing fan discontent with the Batman films of the 1990s, which were commercially, but not critically amongst fans, a success. He argues that the ‘sheer volume of fan discontent’ put the franchise into ‘hibernation’ for nearly ten years before coming back with the darker and more serious Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012), giving the fans exactly what they had been asking for. He maintains that producers should listen to fans as:

“fandom clearly has a voice and, at times, the volume is turned up so loud that the stability of the Hollywood hegemony can be loosened from its axis. In short, the ‘powers that be’, at the top of the spectrum, take note of the cacophony of voices bellowing from beneath” (Proctor, 2013, 222).

This negative approach to a text could seem strange from those calling themselves fans, however as Jonathan Gray notes in his work on ‘anti-fans’ and ‘non fans’, the protests against The Phantom Menace could be therapeutic:
“Fans may hate the current status quo, but their intense feelings and continued contribution to fan discourse stem from pleasurable engagement with the diegetic past. Negative discourse in these instances compartmentalizes dissatisfaction with part of the text so fans may continue enjoying other elements of it” (Gray, 2007, 294).

The discontent with The Phantom Menace and the rest of the prequel trilogy is such common opinion now that references to the films’ let down are ever present in popular television. Brooker discusses with Simon Pegg his use of references to the hatred of Jar Jar Binks in his series Spaced. Pegg insists, “I was expressing something felt by a lot of other people and have been rewarded by thanks from many and disgruntlement from a few. I feel qualified to say the things I said and it felt good” (Brooker, 2002, 82). References also frequently turn up in The Big Bang Theory (2007-) where calling someone “The Jar Jar Binks” of their group is meant as a major insult (Star Wars Fanpedia). An episode of The Simpsons (1989-) entitled ‘Co-dependent’s Day’ (2004) spoofs Star Wars as Cosmic Wars, with Bart and Lisa encouraged by Marge to write a complaint letter to the George Lucas spoof character, after seeing The Gathering Shadow with the character ‘Jim-Jam’, to explain to him that better special effects do not make for a better story (Ibid.). Even in an episode of the animated series Powerpuff Girls (1998-2005) a character named “Bubbles says "Junk!" as she throws a Jar Jar Binks action figure over her shoulder” (Ibid.). The recurrent use of jokes and references to The Phantom Menace and its characters in television gives us an idea of how deeply embedded this opinion is in society at large.

“Mickey Mouse- Jedi Knight? …bring it on”

As Star Wars is such a widely beloved saga, with its audiences’ tempestuous relationship with the prequel trilogy so engrained in popular media, I felt the use of a prominent and publicly accessible review would be a good starting point in mapping the reaction to Disney’s buyout of Lucasfilm. David Mitchell, writing on The Guardian/Observer website comes to a conclusion of resignation and optimism at the announced continuation of the saga. 
Mitchell examines George Lucas’s appearance in the press shot for the news, standing amongst Disney characters dressed in Star Wars costumes, wielding a light sabre with a “facial expression somewhere between exhaustion, sorrow and bafflement” (Mitchell, 2012). Mitchell’s critique of Lucas in this photo gives the reader a sense of the mocking of the billionaire filmmaker, criticising his choice not to smile along with Mickey Mouse’s signature grin. This mirrors opinion of Lucas as having lost his touch, particularly when it comes to pleasing his fans. Reference is made to an interview Lucas gave the New York Times where he complained: “Why would I make any more when everybody yells at you all the time?” Mitchell points out criticism is part of a lot of people’s work when he quips: “I think we can rule out his writing a column for the Guardian website any time soon” (Ibid.) This start to the article highlights the general consensus that Lucas is no longer particularly deserving of respect from his fans. Mitchell forms the opinion that a ‘Disneyfied’ Star Wars is no real threat to the ‘beloved space stories of my childhood’ as since then, ‘Jesus has desecrated his own altar and then set up a money-changer in his own temple’ (Ibid.). Mitchell very humorously sets up the view that as Stars Wars has already effectively been ruined, there is no more harm that could be done: “They might make an entertaining film about a duck in space. It would be a lot edgier than Jar Jar Binks.” The article ends with a nod to the contentious relationship between fans and Jar Jar Binks, which further emphasises how badly wrong fans believe Star Wars has already gone.

 In the comments section there is a lively debate on the potential positivity of Disney’s control over Star Wars. There are those who are optimistic and have come to terms with the saga’s history:  

“For me, more Star Wars is never going to be a bad thing. Star Wars is such a rich universe, like it or not there is the potential for many more movies, and in fact those movies could be far more varied and imaginative than the Bond series, which is essentially the same movie made over and over again. Considering anyone could direct, we're likely to witness some spectacular movies and some terrible ones. But then again, we already have. There will probably never be another one as bad as Episode 1, and never one as good as Episode V” (Madeye47, Mitchell, 2012).

The recognition that there has already been ‘good’ and ‘bad’ films in the franchise’s history brings about an acceptance of its future, and an optimistic consideration of the vast wealth of material in the Expanded Universe that provides much potential content, meaning the same stories will not have to be revisited as with James Bond. There is a sense that fans have come to accept their emotional response to the prequel trilogy, and can how consider them objectively as ‘bad’ films and as an unfortunate part of the saga’s lifetime.

There is also the expected abuse of Lucas, showing that feelings have not changed, although with some added humour to give some sense of this fan having moved on:

“Lucas needs to be paraded around the city in a wheel barrow so all the 30-somethings whose lives he has ruined can get the chance to jab at him with their old Star Wars figures” (samthedog, Mitchell, 2012).

To counter this however there is some sympathy for Lucas’s situation:

“Poor Lucas […] It's honestly sad to see him say that, that he don't want to make anymore for fear of being yelled at. Because he will, no matter what he does. It is strange how the fans hate the creator of the thing they are the fan of, as if the canon would be best served if none of it had ever been put to film […]
PPS Fuck Jar-Jar Binks though, and post-Fantasia Mickey” (OlaMarvin. Mitchell, 2012).

This commenter does feel sympathy for George Lucas as a film creator and laments the lack of appreciation for him. However, as is popular opinion, OlaMarvin ends their post with a dig a Jar Jar Binks, showing that no matter how much compassion or respect a fan may have for Lucas, there is just no forgiving him the creation of this character.

In a piece on Den of Geek, “a well-tolerated home for news, reviews, features, rants and bad jokes, all for those on the nerdier side of life”(, about how the deal will be good for Star Wars this positive outlook is continued. Simon Brew writes, “This is a chance for someone to walk into the universe that George Lucas created, and genuinely inject it with something new and exciting again. It's arguably the best thing to happen to Star Wars in nearly three decades” (Brew, 2012). There appears to be a consensus that the problem with the franchise is its creator, and his departure from it brings positivity. Brew also says of Lucas, “It felt like he’d fallen out of love with Star Wars too” (Ibid.). This chance to rekindle the love affair with Star Wars and give it ‘fresh life’ is an exciting prospect for a fandom growing worried about its stagnant text. Brew exclaims, “Heck, all of a sudden, it feels fun to talk about a modern Star Wars movie again.”

Brew refers to the trust instilled in Disney after its successful handling of the Marvel universe, and this is something that comes up a lot in the comments. Disney have proven themselves to fans by successfully producing films like The Avengers (2012) and The Muppets (2011), giving Star Wars fans a certain confidence in their abilities:

 “After allowing this monumental news to sink in, I'm feeling pretty positive about this. Marvel Studios was bought up by Disney and look at the Avengers! By handing it over to new talent, Lucas is finally realising the potential of his massive universe on a cinematic scale, rather than limiting it to the tale of the Skywalkers. This could quite possibly save Star Wars as a film series. Granted, it could fudge it up further. But I'm holding out for the positive. I can't wait for 2015. At the least, this will be very interesting” (Rhys Handley, Brew, 2012).

With the proof of the pudding in The Avengers these fans feel they have a genuine reason to be optimistic. Even if there is a chance they will ‘fudge it up’ this is not putting many fans off, as at least it could be ‘interesting’. Most commenters agree with the positivity of the buyout and it seems this is the case across the fandom:

“I'm a massive Star Wars fan and read a lot of forums on the subject... EVERYONE, myself included is relieved that Lucas is handing over to Kennedy to make another trilogy […] I'm seeing very little negativity towards the idea!” (Mikey Rees-Antonio, Brew, 2012).

There is some concern however over the future and dignity of the extensive Expanded Universe, which takes the form of many novels, comics, computer games and animated series. For some fans only the films are part of official canon, for others this extends to the wealth of secondary texts. With Disney planning a new trilogy starting in 2015 and proposed spin offs and origin stories, some apprehension is being felt by fans loyal to the EU:

“The problem, of course, is that any new movie could completely trample the established canon of the 100+ novels of the Expanded Universe -- which, arguably, is where the heart of the Star Wars story moved a long, long time ago by writers much more talented than George Lucas [...] The millions of die hard Star Wars fans who have not limited themselves to the 2 hour ease of simply watching a movie, but are in fact avid readers, will have their hearts broken if any new movie crushes the printed lore upon which the EU is based” (Grand Master Mispir, Brew, 2012).

Grand Master Mispir here elevates him/herself to a position of a better or ‘truer’ fan, by snidely belittling the fans who only go as far as the ‘ease’ of watching the films and do not ‘avidly’ read the secondary texts. There is surprisingly little backlash against this comment, with only Bodanki chiming in, “I hope to god that Disney pee all over the "EU" tripe from a great height.....Terrible, terrible stories, all of them” (Bodanki, Brew, 2012). Most commenters have a little fun imagining what will come and speculating on areas of the EU, which Disney might end up using. While Grand Master Mispir is concerned about the preciousness and integrity of the EU, most of the fans commenting seem ready to embrace whatever comes next, happy to see their much-loved saga brought back to life, whatever the consequences.

Proctor cites a conversation with Hills, where he discusses the ‘affective mapping’ of fan responses. Hills argues:

 “When a beloved fan object becomes, literally, a ‘transitional object’, with a new phase or new hope being offered to audiences, then this seems to very much become a moment of heightened fan feeling, and anxiety. In a sense, what’s important about this sort of news, and its consumption by always-on, 24/7 fandom, is that it highlights not just how fans “pre-read”, but how they respond to projected and counterfactual texts. It’s almost as if fandom starts to exist in a quantum undecidable state: whether one feels excitement, indifference or optimism depends, in a large part, on the version of Star Wars that’s been imagined and projected” (Proctor, 2013, 206).

This explains the differing in opinions between commenters, with some imagining a future where their beloved Expanded Universe is ‘trampled’ on, others projecting an exciting array of avenues Disney could go down, and many feeling ‘indifference’ as to them no more harm can be done.

Brooker discusses the ‘gushers’ and ‘bashers’ as a way of defining two opposing sets of opinion amongst fans. The ‘gushers’ being those who love and defend The Phantom Menace and George Lucas against the ‘bashers’ who resolutely hate it and its creator (Brooker, 2002, 85). While Brooker states that there were “approximately as many basher-led as gusher threads”(Ibid.) there definitely seems to be a greater balance in popular opinion towards the basher point of view. In light of the prospect of new Star Wars films there seems to be a swing to a more positive outlook, with many staying in the middle ground of indifference, although the war of the gushers/bashers could be reignited if Disney’s Episode VII is anything less than exceptional.

Similarly, Gray looks at how opposing factions of opinion within a fandom can create different senses of its history: “Discursive attempts to retrospectively define golden ages and all-time lows aggravate this fragmentation of antagonistic fan communities” (Gray, 2007,289). Certainly many fans will see the original trilogy as the ‘golden age’ of Star Wars and The Phantom Menace as its ‘all-time low’, but there is plenty of time for new golden ages and all-time lows to be formed in upcoming Disney creations. Likewise for different generations of the fandom these ‘golden ages’ could be entirely different, with children who first experienced Star Wars on the big screen with the prequel trilogy feeling a strong sense of nostalgia towards that time. The Phantom Menace generation could soon be echoing those of the original trilogy when the new film comes out in 2015, expressing their disappointment in a film aimed at children and not at the adult fans. There is a sense that things could come full circle, with each new generation that is presented with a new Star Wars release defining this as their ‘golden age’. As Gray notes: “Thus, fan interpretation is constantly shifting, never unified or maintaining the same values over time. Despised eras may later become beloved if they retrospectively satisfy the meta-textual desires of the dominant fan interests” (Ibid. 290-1).

With the fate of Star Wars now resting in Disney’s hands, they would be foolish to ignore the value of the ‘implicit contract’. With Disney’s long history of success, and trust being placed in them due to their approved handling of The Avengers, there is certainly every chance they will give the fans what they want or at least something that will please them. Austin cites science fiction writer Larry Niven, “who described the reader as “entitled to be entertained, instructed, amused; maybe all three. If he quits in the middle, or puts the book down feeling that his time has been wasted, you’re in violation [of the implicit contract]”” (Austin, 2013). Only time will tell whether this ‘contract’ is honoured and whether a new ‘golden age’ is a possibility. For now there seems to be plenty of optimism mixing in with the resigned indifference and even a little bit of excitement for what is to come.


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