Monday Morning Critic – The Five Biggest Implications Of Rian Johnson In The Star Wars Universe and Its Sequels For Disney, LucasFilm and Beyond


The biggest story this week was the announcement of the next director for the Star Wars sequels. J.J Abrams is handling the launch of the sequels, with production (and Harrison Ford getting hurt) already underway, and it came out this week that Brick director Rian Johnson is going to tackle writing/directing duties for Episode VIII and will potentially write Episode IX.

There’s been some confusion, as it’s been reported in a couple of places he’s going to direct both.

Deadline had it first, of course, but The Wrap added that charming little detail. The Hollywood Reporter has him writing a treatment for the 3rd only, with directing duties on the 2nd sequel. My presumption is that the preponderance of established outlets reporting what THR and The Wrap are saying means it’s most likely happening and the Deadline report was probably in error in that regard at the time of release. Sometimes it happens like that when you try to be first with the news instead of being right.

It is substantial in every shape and form as Disney, who owns the rights to the franchise from LucasFilm, is showing us a lot with this first big announcement for the next series of films. In fact it’s showing us five things of note.


Rian Johnson has arguably the toughest job in recent cinematic history

At a minimum we can deduce that Johnson is going to have a valuable part of shaping the trilogy as he gets the toughest part of the next three films. The middle film of nearly every franchise is usually the weakest and for good reason: if you’re telling a three part story the middle is usually the one with the least implications for the story as a whole. Sequels en masse usually are letdowns from their predecessors because of this.

It’s why lists like “best sequels ever” and “worst sequels ever” exist; as a whole they usually tend to go downhill after the first film. And Star Wars boasts one of the greatest sequels of them all with The Empire Strikes Back which, along with The Godfather Part II, makes up the gold standards of second films in a franchise. You can throw in The Dark Knight, as well, but the point remains: the quantity of sequels that match or exceed their original high quality predecessors are few and far between.

Johnson is tasked with the film that will have the hardest time of the new franchise to draw at the box office. The first is guaranteed to have one of the biggest box office openings ever, and probably is a near lock to hit $1 billion in worldwide grosses right now. The second won’t have the same novelty factor that a “new” Star Wars film will have for Episode VII. All the 3D tricks in the world won’t raise the box office grosses to supremely high levels if it’s a stinker. We found that out with the first set of “new” Star Wars films. They all grossed exceptional amounts … but the second and third films didn’t get within $100 million domestically of Phantom Menace for a reason. The “OMG it’s awful” factor overrode the “but it’s a Star Wars film” for enough people to matter.

The fact that he’s got the second film to do the heavy lifting is something special to contemplate in a lot of ways. Abrams has the easy task; he could make 90 minutes of Jar-Jar Binks flying the Millennium Falcon while singing Taylor Swift songs and having Chewbacca fetch him lattes and hardcore fans would come out, multiple times, to see it. Hell, people would defend it because of reasons like “Jar-Jar was toned down and not nearly as racist as George Lucas made him to be, Asian jokes aside” on message boards everywhere.

There’s a reason why Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith both did worse than The Phantom Menace. Episode I was guaranteed to make insane amounts of money because it was a new Star Wars film, quality notwithstanding. The next two had to make a better case besides “Hey, it’s new Star Wars so please buy a ticket … with your money” that J.J Abrams gets to do.


Rian Johnson is getting at extended tryout of sorts

Johnson isn’t a lock for the third film, the ninth overall. So far he gets to write a treatment for the film after the one he’s slated to direct, nothing more. A treatment, for those unfamiliar with it, is basically a longform story describing what happens in a film. It’s there as part of a sales pitch for a film, nothing more, and Johnson is basically being given a shot to direct the second film and audition for the third. Nothing more.

It’s very interesting that Johnson isn’t locked into pair of films, just one, but it’s good on their part to not automatically guarantee him two films . At this point it kind of looks like this in terms of how they view him. Johnson is a gifted director, with a nice substantive rise from good indie work to good studio fare, but they don’t trust him with the keys to the franchise kingdom just yet. They’re confident enough he can make a good Episode VIII but nothing beyond that.

He’s being given a shot, with the option to go further, BUT nothing is guaranteed beyond the one film. He might just want to do one film, or write the screenplay and let someone else direct based on his experience, but ultimately Disney isn’t giving him the option to take what he wants so far. He’s being given the first shot at Episode IX … but it’s not a guaranteed one. This film could be very interesting on a purely artistic level because of it.

Odds are he’s the leading candidate for the third film … and he could be a great pick for a film in the franchise regardless. BUT he’s not a certainty.


Disney has learned some lessons from Marvel Studios

Disney isn’t screwing around with its franchise, either, in terms of hiring quality directors. Josh Trank, of Chronicle fame, has already been hired to do a standalone film with few details out there. So the good thing about this is that Disney doing to this franchise what Marvel has effectively done with theirs: hire mediocre directors to make follow-up films that high level directors kicked the franchise off with.

Disney is targeting guys with experience in science fiction and action, known for being able to write & direct and have experience with big films. Trank is going to be handling the Fantastic Four reboot in the near future, with casting a new costumed superhero group already done, but it’s the ultimate endorsement that they’re willing to give him his own off-shoot film in the franchise before that film has been released.

The key is that Disney isn’t skimping, creatively, on Star Wars because they rightfully view it as something that be a consistent nine figure profit maker on an annual or bi-annual basis. The one thing that would be easy to do is hire Abrams for the first and mainly just hire music video directors and guys like Rob Cohen or Simon West to do a paint by numbers Star Wars film that’s more of a studio collaboration than one person’s vision.

That’s what most blockbusters that aren’t from major directors are: collaborations. It’s why plenty of high profile directors never do big summer blockbusters, either, unless you have Spielberg level clout.


Welcome to the new summer movie franchise.

“Star Wars” is going to become a regular franchise in theatres during the summer blockbuster season. You don’t hire a director for the sequel when the first film isn’t even done with production if you don’t plan on pushing out a sequel relatively quickly after the first film. Disney has a plan to crank out the films and make Star Wars into the same sort of genre that comic book films have become.

That’s why it’s quotation marks and not italicized … eventually, if Disney gets it right, we’ll have a Star Wars boom period the same way we have one for comic books. Disney has studied history profoundly well and knows that a series of films that all hit can change the narrative. Iron Man was a fun one off, designed to be a hit but wasn’t expected to launch the comic book wave.

But in retrospect we will view it historically as the film that showed that comic book films could be successful to both the target audience (comic book donks) and casual movie goers alike. It’s the one that crafted all the Marvel cues, the post credits scenes setting up other films and all the usual requisites we’ve grown to expect in the six years since Iron Man dropped like a bomb shell and drastically changed the movie industry.


Star Wars is the new Twilight. And that’s not an insult.

The best franchise we can compare it to now is The Twilight Saga, which basically aped the formula from Saw of being able to crank out films every year for as long as it could pull off profitability. They also progressed a story rapidly, as well, and were able to change directors for nearly every film and not miss a beat in terms of everything plot related. It was interesting to see so many different directors essentially craft the same type of film on a regular basis until the series’ logical conclusion at the end of Breaking Dawn Part 2.

The one thing Summit did exceptionally well as a studio is that they had a plan in place to keep the machine churning. The franchise was only going to stay relevant as long as they could keep making films; part of its appeal was that the tabloid atmosphere surrounding the cast was fueled continually by either the film coming out or hype for the next one. It was a continual cycle and making it a regular event gave it a circus type atmosphere any time one of those films came out.

It was an advanced method of what made the Saw franchise a regular, profitable occurrence. It was a horror film fan’s blockbuster, even though it never had massive numbers, and every Halloween it got to dominate until the franchise completed with Saw 3D. When you get people in the habit of coming out for a specific type of film every year you can build in an audience; it’s why Marvel has multiple big films a year.

People go to cinemas less and less each year … but if you can get them conditioned to come out for something on a regular basis you can make money off it. Star Wars Episode VII will be an event, that’s for sure. It’s up to Disney to make every film afterward into one and it starts with Johnson’s effort.


I’m not excited for the new Star Wars yet … but so far they’re doing a good job of at least making it intriguing. And so far … I can live with that.

Stuff for General George S. Pimpage, Esq

Travis tackled Borgman, an indie Dutch thriller.

I tackled Jersey Boys, which you can read here.

And now on MMC … Star Wars done Guardians of the Galaxy style. If you’re going to be on a Star Wars kick, I suppose, you go full bore.

If you want to pimp anything email it to me with a good reason why. It helps to bribe me with stuff, just saying ….

A Movie A Week – The Challenge


This week’s DVD – Les Miserables

True story: My buddy Nick the Stand Up thought this film was pronounced “Less Miserables,” the easy dumb American version of the French pronunciation. I almost tried to convince him that it really was the French Expendables, and pictured him thinking that since it has “the Gladiator guy and Wolverine” it would be fun. And then I pictured him going nuts, thinking “somebody shoot somebody” and waiting for them to do something violent, instead of sing.

Alas it was not to be, but made for a good stand up bit that I think he never used. And thus comes this week’s film, the French stage play adapted many times to a film (and earned Anne Hathaway an Oscar).

I saw this film with some friends on Christmas Day … perk of having a family that only meets on Christmas Eve is that you can spend all day watching movies and not feel all that bad. I reviewed it, too, and decided that after the Portugal/US game Sunday afternoon it would make for a good conclusion to this week’s column, considering it went all Star Wars wonky.

Simple premise: Jean Veljean (Hugh Jackman) has been sentenced to prison for theft. Serving his time under Russell Crowe, Veljean changes his name and finds fortune as a factory owner. When one of his employees (Anne Hathaway) gets fired, and dies, he takes care of her daughter. The problems begin when Crowe figures out who he is and begins to hunt him down. All the while a Revolution is brewing.

I enjoyed the film in theatres … but the same problems it had there are the same ones it still has.


What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 tall boys of Red Fox and community college co-eds with low standards at the Fox and Hound

Transformers: Age of Extinction – Shia Labeouf is gone, so now it’s time for Marky Mark to lead the Robot Bunch in a big $200 million CGI fest.

Skip it – Did we really need another one of these after the third film?

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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