Hello Interwebs! Have you ever loved a franchise before– like really loved it? You’ve seen all the movies, read all the books, played all the games, bought all the toys, and waited with anticipation for every new morsel of content? And have you ever fallen out of love with a franchise– a franchise that used to bring joy but now feels empty? You find yourself less and less attached to the content and your enthusiasm for each new item dwindles more and more? My answer to all these questions is a hard “yes”, and I’m willing to bet many of you have the same response. Today I share the story of my tumultuous relationship with Star Wars to illustrate why and how franchises lose fans.
NOTE: Even if you can’t relate to that particular property, I urge you to mirror your personal experiences to mine. Also, Star Wars is a great a case-study for this essay as an example of a franchise in crisis.
Investment of Time Goes Unrewarded
A long time ago in a childhood (that seems) far far away… I was a massive fan of the Star Wars franchise. As indirectly stated in the opener, I consumed all potential media I possibly could, and purchased a tonne of the merchandise, and learned everything there was to know about Star Wars.
For anybody who doesn’t happen to be a fan of these things– almost all popular stories like Star Wars extend into multiple mediums. Star Wars started as a movie series, but the story branched into dozens (if not hundreds) of original books, video games, comic books, etc. Such stories take place from thousands of years before the movies to hundreds of years following. To the uninitiated, you’d probably be shocked and horrified to find how deep the rabbit hole goes. I fell down that hole pretty far. To this day I can tell you almost the entire history of that world’s universe, from the first Jedi temples on Tython to Cade Skywalker and his adventures in the SW future. Yeah, I know…
Maybe you’ve done the same with this franchise or something else. I hope so– otherwise this entire essay has a big chance of landing in your brain with a massive thud. Where was I? Most of my youth was spent investing myself into this wonderful world of mysticism and mythology only to have that investment ripped from me. So began my rocky relationship with the SW franchise.
Of course nothing can take away the joys I experienced immersing myself in the SW galaxy and discovering all this useless information; but what was taken were my incentives to invest any more time and energy to that story. See, for context, we have to go back to 2012 and Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm (the original creators of Star Wars). In the 35 years since the original film was released, all these aforementioned stories from outside the movies had piled up into the minds of fans and were considered, by most accounts, the “true” version of events in that universe. Once again, this happens with basically all popular franchises.
Here’s where things get a little complicated… Following the purchase of Lucasfilm, Disney announced a new trilogy of Star Wars films. Great! This was the dream of SW fans everywhere. However, to tell the stories they wanted to tell, Disney needed to erase all previous stories that took place after the original movies. But they didn’t stop there. For good measure, they erased over 30 years of narrative history (that wasn’t the movies) and effectively wiped the slate clean. Good business plan; dreadful first impression.
Younger fans of Star Wars/ casual audiences weren’t bothered by this because nothing really changed for them; but for longtime superfans like me this news was devastating! One day all this “knowledge” I had “counted” and the next it didn’t… I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal to most people but, to nerds, comprehensive understanding on a subject of choice is a massive point of pride! I went from the guy who knew everything about Star Wars to a cut above “casual fan”.
So what’s the point to all this besides my hurt ego? Fanbase investment in a story matters a lot. I put in ridiculous amounts of time to learn about something I loved and got badly burned for it. And you know what? I’ve barely consumed Star Wars content since then. I watched the new movies, and I’ve seen some of the new shows but I can’t be bothered to read the books or comics or even find summaries of their narratives. I simply don’t care about the peripheral stuff anymore! Not to say a lot of the new content isn’t good, because I’ve enjoyed a lot of the recent installments (which I’ll get to later), but it also isn’t outright better than anything that came before. Basically, Disney has lost potential revenue from alienating me and other people like me. Why invest myself too deeply in a story that can be wiped away and replaced on a whim?
I understand why this is done. Dense mythologies are scary to newcomers and a clean slate has potential for creative and unexpected new visions. In practice: such tactics drive off long-time fans and demonstrate that corporations care more about a temporary sales boost (from fresh and curious consumers) than maintaining the integrity of the narrative and proving that investment will be rewarded.
Alright– so we’re into year 14 of my Star Wars fandom and I’ve already stopped caring for the most part. I was looking forward to the new movie but, even from the marketing, I could tell Disney was rehashing key elements from the old “legends” tales (as the old stuff was now branded). Not one movie in and they were already trying to appeal to folks like me who caught the references. I’m ashamed to say it worked for a while… Yet, even me at 14 years old could see this as a red flag. Disney wiped out a well-told and classic adventure of the old continuity only to tell it basically again? Odd choice. Speaking of:
Repetitive Franchises Are Boring
I’m gonna skip ahead to 2015 now. This was the year Disney released their first huge piece of Star Wars content: Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Hype was ridiculously high for this one! After 10 years we mere mortals finally got to see what Disney had planned for this franchise. Would it live up to, or even exceed, the old “legends”? Frankly, no… But let’s be fair and judge the film on its own merits first.
TFA successfully reintroduced the world of Star Wars for a new generation, featured plenty of nostalgia for the older fans and provided big mysteries for everyone to theorize about. The recipe was a success and turned the movie into one of the biggest box-office hits of all time! But it also immediately drew flak from long-time Star Wars fans who derided the new plot as, essentially, a complete rehash of the first film.
I know the SW films are supposed to “rhyme” (as creator George Lucas famously said) but TFA wasn’t simply a rhyming section to a larger poem; it was a glorified remake of the whole first stanza! Spoilers for TFA in the Next Lines: ***Desert-planet orphan embarks on quest to become Jedi, finds a mentor who was a hero many decades ago, visits a bar, runs around a planet-killing superweapon for a while and fights Nazi-esque badguys; the mentor is killed, the superweapon is blown up and the day is saved.*** Familiar?
Sure, there are a lot of new and intriguing elements such as the main villain’s pull to good, the protagonist’s potential lineage, and the primary supporting character’s arc from enemy soldier to deserter but I wouldn’t exactly call the movie original. It relies heavily on nostalgia/ prior knowledge of SW to fully enjoy. That can be a plus or a minus depending on who you ask. For the record, I did in fact like this movie when it first came out! I still think it’s easily the best film of the new trilogy. However, a lot of the film’s fun relies on its mysteries, and I don’t think those mysteries got good conclusions later.
I’m getting a bit of topic… The point: Disney threw out decades of original stories and replaced them all with a remake. Fans hate to see repetition in their stories. They want to see a world grow and expand over time– not revert back to almost the exact same status quo as it started with. I reiterate that I actually enjoyed the film but I would have gladly traded its existence in a heartbeat for the compelling and original continuations of the “legends”. TFA just didn’t add enough new content to justify its existence. Hype and good will blinded a lot of people to that opinion for 5 years but it’s becoming more and more common.
Ultimately, repeating a nostalgic story or playing up the familiar can be powerful tools in a franchise’s arsenal; but those tools wear down quickly. Eventually fans tire of seeing the same thing and they want to see something new. Having given us our healthy dose of nostalgia, Disney decided to do that and give us Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Playing Things too Safe
So we got something new with Rogue One, right? New characters, new worlds, new lore, new droids, etc. Frankly, I think Disney cheated here. They got to bank on nostalgia again by setting the film just before the first movie (not even trying to hide it this time) and make sure fewer people complained by making an original story. Now, I love RO –it’s easily my favourite film from the Disney era– but this film could have been a chance for Disney to take a risk and they played safe again!
“Remember the plot from the first movie? We just reminded you in last year’s film but –get this– we’re telling the story of the people who did the mission teased in the first line of text!” RO could have been anything and set any time in galactic history yet, by tying it so closely to A New Hope, Disney basically spoiled the whole plot. We knew going in to the theatre that certain things would happen in RO by virtue of the status quo in ANH.
I’m not arguing that playing safe is inherently bad, or even all that horrible. As I said, I liked the movie a lot. However, like with repetition, playing safe starts to lessen the impact of a franchise. If anyone with a bare amount of story knowledge can guess how the plot will end then they don’t feel nearly as fulfilled by their experiences. You know what TFA and RO both make me want to do? Rewatch A New Hope for the millionth time instead. It’s a more complete experience. Franchises need to stop constantly looking over their shoulders to the past and move on.
Changing Too Much (All at once)
OK. Now onto The Last Jedi— that film which inspires nothing but thoughtful and courteous debate… Ugh. I didn’t like it OK? I’m just gonna say it up front. But I’m not looking to be a jerk here or start any fights. Like what you wanna like. Take my opinions as you will.
Based on my last points about “moving on” I probably sound like a real hypocrite right now. TLJ is the only movie of the sequel trilogy to attempt to move the mythology forward in any meaningful way. You can quote me when I say “attempt” because I don’t think the movie did a good job. In any long running franchise there are certain things that people gravitate towards: Characters, lore, tone, factions, ideology, etc. Going back to a few points ago: people will get bored if these things don’t update over time, or if they’re only played with at a surface level. But fans will get outright pissed off if their beloved properties are changed. Fandom is a vicious cycle and it doesn’t always make a lot of sense. I know…
I’m here to argue that TLJ wasn’t controversial because it changed the status quo. In fact, I respect TLJ for trying to do this but it was the way that film executed its changes which felt wrong. Namely: instead of giving reasonable explanations for why the status quo changed it simply changed whatever it wanted and expected the audience to buy it (examples: traditional optimist Luke Skywalker became bitter cause… vague reasons; the First Order is a completely dominant force now cause… vague reasons; Finn, who spent the last film accepting the Resistance, tried to abandon his new friends cause… vague reasons). If you don’t follow Star Wars whatsoever those examples probably didn’t make much sense… I apologize for that. The point is that fans expected characters to behave in certain ways and certain information to remain consistent but found a very different world than what TFA gave us.
If you’re looking at TLJ in a vacuum as someone who had never seen Star Wars, there are some intriguing ideas and characters in the film, and it would probably entertain you. As part 8 to a 40 year-old franchise, however, many plot elements felt at odds with established continuity from before (including the previous movie). Change is good, and I believe fans want to see their world grow and adapt with the time; however, a franchise can’t make major character and world-building detours without explaining why. Maybe fans will hate the stories either way (they probably will; fans are a defensive bunch resistant to change) but at least we can respect the effort.
TLJ neglected to “show the work” (as a math teacher might say) and effectively split the Star Wars fanbase in half overnight. It’s never really come back together since… Some liked the film’s bold and daring new direction while others (such as myself) decry the inorganic nature of its story. Mainly I’m trying to get across that I don’t mind the story TLJ told on its own merits; I mind it because I appreciate consistency in a long-form narrative.
By this time, my faith in Disney had worn out. They’d shown me after 3 films that Star Wars was not in great hands. All films were financial hits but fan opinions were mixed (as I’ve described) and franchise fatigue was dawning. After TLJ my mother declared she was no longer a Star Wars fan (she still gets terribly angry if you even bring up that movie). Even my brother, who’s probably the most tolerant guy on the planet and a huge Star Wars nerd, seemed uninvested at this point. And that’s just my own family! Most of my friends weren’t too kind on the franchise anymore either.
And the next film Disney chose to give us was Solo: A Star Wars Story. Once again: another prequel set after Revenge of the Sith nobody really needed or wanted. But this time the box office spoke loudly– mostly by its shocking silence. Disney had flooded the market with Star Wars content and they went too far. This was the fourth film in 4 years (considering only 6 movies were made between 1977-2005 that’s A LOT) and audiences already weren’t buying anymore. Solo is the first Star Wars film ever considered a financial flop! This seemed near impossible even a couple years beforehand.
The reality is nothing is too big to fail. Even the biggest fanbase in the world has only so much cash to give, and even the biggest franchises will eventually have financial trouble once general audiences stop caring. You might argue that Marvel releases 2-3 films a year and most of them do well. I’d fire back that “Marvel” is successful because it’s a layered franchise. Each character/ film series has its own fanbase. If you see every Captain America movie you might not see every Guardians of the Galaxy movie too. Many fans will, but there’s slightly more variety of content available. Even Marvel fans will get tired one day though. Star Wars just jumped the shark early with a couple high-profile misfires in a row.
Truth is, Star Wars is no longer special anymore. There was a time every movie was an event to be cherished and celebrated. The rarity of the films made them precious. But suddenly we were getting a movie every single year, and at least half of them were of arguable quality. Disney gave us too much too soon. Now that once beloved property is yet another soulless entity that will be squeezed for every last drop of cash it can earn.
Still, I think Disney learned their lesson with Solo: they won’t make a billion dollars every time they paste the “Star Wars” name to something. That’s because fanbases quickly grow tired when they are not happy. TLJ lost Disney a lot of good will, and the sheer unoriginality of a movie based around Han Solo (the guy who already starred in 3 movies and had a decently clear backstory) hurt them further. With brand loyalty comes certain expectations (both reasonable and otherwise) for how that brand ought to be handled, and Disney wasn’t delivering. Unfortunately, Disney’s next attempt at a Star Wars film tried to meet expectations in the absolute worst way possible…
Pandering to Fans
As I hope I’ve made abundantly clear, fanbases like feeling validated when their investment is rewarded. That’s why “nerd” movies and other such content have so many things called “Easter eggs” sprinkled throughout them. No– these are not literal eggs (although I think the first technical easter egg in video games actually was an egg, but that’s not relevant). Basically, these are references or special things for people in-the-know to discover.
Nerds appreciate understanding things other people don’t. For example: in The Force Awakens the superweapon is called “Starkiller Base”. Nerds know that, back in the mid-70s, George Lucas’ original name for Luke Skywalker was Luke Starkiller. Here’s another: Finn’s First order designation– FN-2187. Those are the same numbers on Princess Leia’s Death Star cell in A New Hope. See? I’m even having fun now telling you my inconsequential knowledge. I’m “Nerdsplaining” if you will. I think I just made that up. Can I coin that?
All that stuff is in good fun because it doesn’t hurt the story. If anything, it enhances certain people’s experience. The problem arises when franchises start basing stories around the whims of fans rather than taking creative liberties with their own properties. Entertainment shouldn’t be like an improv show where audiences come up with the setup and performers go from there… When it comes to film and TV that’s no fun for anyone. I don’t want to infringe on the creations of other people (even if I don’t always like them) and I don’t want to feel validated because the creators obviously felt swayed by audience opinion. I’ll explain this point deeper in a moment. The case study for this section: Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker. What a mess of a movie… Spoilers ahead:
From the first sequence we are re-introduced to Emperor Palpatine, who is apparently alive and well, and has been orchestrating all the events of this trilogy. When asked how he’s even alive, he simply replies with an exact quote from the Prequels. I was basically out right away at that point. How insultingly lazy did the writers have to be to resurrect a long-dead villain for no good reason? I didn’t mind in principle that Palpatine was back (because any story has potential) but, just like in The Last Jedi, a lack of proper explanation bothered me. But I knew exactly why he was back: TLJ bothered people for killing the person who seemed to be the badguy, so to fill the vacuum Disney brought back the franchise’s main villain. They obviously didn’t trust in Kylo Ren to be good enough on his own so they had to force nostalgia down our throats to pick up narrative slack.
The rest of the film basically just ran down a checklist of fan theories: Rey is a Palpatine, The Emperor was behind everything, Kylo Ren is redeemed; Kylo and Rey have a bit of a romance, Finn is Force sensitive, etc. Funny enough, they outright avoided the fan shipping of Finn and Poe, which I believe drew so much outrage because they gave fans almost everything else they wanted (so why not go the extra distance?). Because most of this film’s plot was called on the internet years before it ever released (hell, since before TFA even released in some cases) I found the whole thing a terribly hollow experience.
The pandering didn’t even stop there. TROS seemed to try and make up for everything people didn’t like about the older movies. Luke wasn’t “right” in TLJ? Lighten him up this time (FYI, this version of the character felt off as well); Chewie never got his medal back in 1977? Here it is; Lando and Wedge Antilles weren’t in the sequels? Here they are. Also, here’s the Death Star II wreckage, Leia’s new history as a Jedi, the voices of characters past, and the Lars homestead for good measure. I’m sure I’m missing a lot… Point is TROS is more interested in being a “greatest hits” album and “fixing” the undesirable franchise elements than telling a story of its own, or even appropriately finishing the one starting in TFA.
I’ll give the film this: it’s a better Part 9 to all of Star Wars than a Part 3 to its own trilogy. I’ll also admit that pandering kind of works, because I like this film more than TLJ. However, I have no respect for TROS and I find its pandering insulting and unsatisfying because it’s so obvious yet still inorganic to the story it was finishing. My opinions on other films might have shifted in the years since I saw them, but this is the first Star Wars film I left the theatres outright disliking.
If Disney should ever read this article (or really anybody who has power over long-term stories), here’s a major point I’d like to insist upon: DON’T GIVE US WHAT YOU THINK WE’LL WANT; GIVE US WHAT MAKES SENSE. Whether or not the best version of a story is exactly what fans expect is besides the point. Sometimes the fanbase does know what’s best; but the writers should always know better. General audiences don’t write Star Wars– you do. Tell the best version of whatever story you choose but don’t go out of your way to satisfy people. Truth be told– you can’t please everyone. But if you give us what makes organic sense in context, whether we expected it or not, we will ultimately appreciate it.
How A Stale Franchise Wins Back Fans
Though the situation was dire, hope was not yet lost! Since (what I consider to be) the failure of TROS, my fandom of Star Wars has been slowly renewed by a stream of quality content. For the first time in nearly a decade, I care again about the peripheral narratives and actually want to learn more about the world.
The Clone Wars Season 7 was a solid jumping off point for me to reinvest myself in Star Wars. This series had the distinction of being one of the few expanded media “legends” to still “count” after the great purge of SW content. I’d finished the previous 6 seasons years ago, and I looked forward to seeing the show continue. Truth be told, I’m still not finished (my renewed fandom is a work in progress) but I’m thoroughly enjoying it so far. My interest in Clone Wars led me to Star Wars: Rebels (which is made by the same team), and I love that show now too. There’s also The Mandalorian, which I’ve been a fan of since the start. And all my video-gaming friends have strongly insisted I play Jedi: Fallen Order for a long time now.
Though these things are tie-in heavy and nostalgic, they’re also solid pieces of creative storytelling, both within and independent of the Star Wars brand. They’re original and refreshing and yet still organic to the overall franchise. All of them add to the lore in meaningful ways whilst also not being dependent on the past or pandering. I believe even a casual fan of the franchise can invest time in these shows/ game and find a complete and fulfilling experience!
If you’ve gathered anything from this article, it’s probably that fans are a fickle bunch: we expect our investment to be rewarded, we don’t like repetition in our stories or overly safe narrative choices; we hate snap-changes to continuity (and barely tolerate well-explained ones), won’t spend our money on absolutely anything and like to be considered but not tailored to. All we’d like like is original stories which push the world forward in a fresh way and stay true to whatever came before. THIS is the way Star Wars needs to continue if it wants to heal its fandom divide (The Mandalorian was trying to teach us all along). It’s personally telling for me how the majority of people seem to enjoy the above-mentioned content while simultaneously being split and outraged over the movies.
A stale franchise has the ability to turn itself around. That’s the moral of this section. At the end of the day, fans want to love things. There’s a variety of reasons they ultimately don’t, but their passion is a defining characteristic. Failures can be forgiven and learned from and audiences can move on to better things.
What franchises do you love strongly? Have they ever burned you? And what would it take to forgive them? Also, if you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Be sure to like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time