Some Thoughts on Star Wars Episode VII "Release-Gate"

Last Thursday, The Hollywood Reporter published an article describing an internal dispute between Disney CEO Bob Iger and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy regarding the appropriate time to release the most eagerly anticipated movie of this decade, Star Wars Episode VII.

In lieu of repeating myself, here's how I summarized it for Suvudu:

Kennedy and “most of the film’s creative team” have been pushing for a delay into 2016, while Iger remains “adamant” that the film’s release timeframe “not budge.” More specifically, Iger is planning for a Summer 2015 release to fit his “Star Wars game plan.” Meanwhile, the script for Episode VII, which Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams recently took over from Michael Arndt, “isn’t close to ready,” according to several inside sources. And in what might be the most interesting part of this story, J.J. Abrams himself “is said to be more in sync with Iger's desire to meet the 2015 release target –– which allows zero margin for error –– at all costs.”

When I wrote about the change of screenwriters last week, I tried to assuage worries by pointing out that it probably wasn’t as major a shakeup as some reports claimed. I doubted that Abrams had pushed Arndt out and I highlighted Kasdan’s experience with Star Wars as a valuable (and now even more valuable) asset to the creative team. This report about internecine release date warfare is something else entirely.

When it comes to filmmaking decisions, I tend to defer to the creative vision of the moviemakers and not the movie-funders. When some people suggested to me that Episode VII was going to be delayed because Iger’s wishes just couldn’t be met, I countered that he wouldn’t have telegraphed his plans for Summer 2015 so loudly if he had, or had been hearing, serious misgivings about that idea. If The Hollywood Reporter’s story is accurate, my assumption was incorrect.

It appears that Iger is insisting that Lucasfilm accommodate his plan despite the concerns of the people who are most intimately involved in creating the film. Obviously, deadlines do have to be imposed and [sensibly] enforced, and I’m not suggesting that the creative team be given as much time as they want. There do have to be timetables and schedules. But rushing this project to theaters to fit a predetermined “game plan” could be disastrous for that plan.

If Episode VII is met with critical disapproval, and that criticism can be traced to mistakes that were made while rushing the film through production, it could have serious ramifications for the future of the franchise. So much is riding on the vision, scope, tone, and content of the new post-Jedi era that the first sequel will reveal to us. If Lucasfilm has to cut corners, we could see a situation where the film shatters box office records even as its story and characters are panned by professional reviewers and loyal fans alike.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that Lucasfilm cannot produce a phenomenal film in time for a Summer 2015 release. In fact, I have long argued that they can and probably will do that. All along, however, my argument has been based on the understanding that the filmmakers themselves thought they could meet that deadline. If principal photography begins in March 2014, Lucasfilm will have as much time to get the film out by the following summer as they did with The Empire Strikes Back. Such a schedule is not unprecedented for either the industry or Star Wars itself.

If, however, the thinking inside Lucasfilm is that the creative team will need more time, then that changes my calculus. As I said before, when it comes to entertainment products, I lean toward what the creative people –– and not the business executives –– want. If THR’s report is accurate, that worries me, because it suggests that Disney executives care more about making money in a “game plan” that best fits their product portfolio than they do about producing great films for the fans to whom they have consistently paid lip service.

I hope THR’s report is inaccurate or incomplete, because I want to believe that Disney’s goals for Star Wars can align with Lucasfilm’s goals for the franchise that was born and raised there. Only time will tell if Episode VII and future Disney Star Wars productions suffer because of the franchise’s new management. In the meantime, this report of a Disney-Lucasfilm clash is exactly what some fans have been fearing since the afternoon of October 30, 2012.

I'll have more to say about this story on Friday's episode of The ForceCast. Stay tuned.