‘Star Wars’: Behind Lucasfilm’s (Mostly) Risk-Averse Movie Bets

Ashlyn Ni Fhearghail, an Irish transplant living in the Middle East, was standing on the convention floor at London’s Star Wars Celebration, dressed like one of her favorite characters, Rey, when she heard the news. In another part of the ExCeL center, Lucasfilm had just revealed that it was finally pulling the trigger on new Star Wars movies and one of them was going to center on Rey, the character made famous by Daisy Ridley in Disney’s sequel trilogy. To Ni Fhearghail, who had been standing with another fan dressed as Rey comparing costume notes, it was a sign. “We’re excited to see more movies with her and more movies in general,” she said.

To mangle a Star Wars analogy, these are the fans Lucasfilm is looking for, at least as it seeks to build a winning film slate. There hasn’t been a movie since The Rise of Skywalker, which bowed in December 2019 to middling critical reception and a $1.077 billion global gross. That film, along with Solo: A Star Wars Story, which underperformed at the box office in 2018 with $392 million, led Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy and Disney CEO Bob Iger to take a pause in the feature space.

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Luckily, a pivot to TV with Disney+’s The Mandalorian reinvigorated the storied brand, first created by George Lucas in 1977, in unanticipated ways. Now there is a whole Mandalorian-connected universe — The Book of Boba Fett, the upcoming Ahsoka — that has made Iron Man and Lion King helmer Jon Favreau and Rebels and Clone Wars animation creative Dave Filoni the most important creative forces in Star Wars since Lucas himself. Filoni’s personal story itself is noteworthy, that of a fan turned Lucas protégé who became the top driver in Star Wars animation and is now bringing his animated characters and storylines into live action. To cap it all off, one of the three new movies will be directed by Filoni, his live-action feature debut, and will weave the threads of the Mandalorian-oriented shows into one climactic event feature centering on the “escalating war between the Imperial Remnant and the fledgling New Republic.”

And there’s the rub for the new trio of films. Lucasfilm has not committed to a timetable for its newly unveiled releases, having learned its lesson the hard way after having dated movies before features were put in production. (In 2019, the plan was for the next Star Wars film to bow Dec. 16, 2022, with other entries in 2024 and 2026.) Among other titles, Patty Jenkins’ Rogue Squadron — initially plotted as “the greatest fighter pilot movie ever made” — was a casualty, with that project being removed from the 2023 release calendar after being unveiled at Disney Investor Day in 2020.

But there is still a December 2025 date kept open for an unspecified Star Wars movie, which in theory could be one of these titles. A source tells The Hollywood Reporter that Lucasfilm would ideally like to return to theaters with the Rey-focused film and follow that a year later with the Filoni movie, although nothing is set due to the timetables of the Disney+ Mandalorian universe shows.

Star Wars Celebration Studio Panel
Lucasfilm’s Dave Filoni along with Daisy Ridley and director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy at Star Wars Celebration.

The three new movies are still years away from being made and released. James Mangold’s feature, one set in the far past of the Star Wars Universe, would ideally be tackled after the filmmaker makes his Bob Dylan biopic for Paramount (shooting is expected to begin this summer).

Filoni’s feature depends on the machinery of the interlocking TV series and will factor in timelines of a fourth season of Mandalorian and a possible second season of Ahsoka. The latter is not a given and would depend on the performance of the first season, which debuts in August. (On Nielsen’s latest weekly streaming viewership chart, The Mandalorian sits at No. 6, with 889 million minutes viewed of its 18 episodes, which counts the first two entries from season three.)

The feature that is said to be the farthest along is the Rey project, which is now on its second stage of scribes, with Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight taking over from Damon Lindelof and Justin Britt-Gibson. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is directing. That film is also a way to have Lucasfilm have its Bantha and eat it too. The Star Wars features have stuck to the overall story of the Skywalker family, which was to have ended with Rise of Skywalker. Lucasfilm had indicated it would move beyond that focus. But saying goodbye has been hard, and the Disney-era Lucasfilm has become a bit risk-averse — at least that’s one complaint among Star Wars insiders.

Two of the three new movies mitigate much risk. A Mandalorian movie is about as safe as you can get — Grogu merchandise already lines retail shelves — and the character of Rey remains popular and would connect to the Skywalker saga without officially connecting to the saga. That leaves Mangold’s project, a biblical epic about the origins of the Force set 25,000 years before any of the current movies, as the one that really pushes the boundaries of what a Star Wars movie could be. (Its logline: “Telling the tale of the first Jedi to wield the Force and harness it as a liberating power in an era of chaos and oppression.”)

Lucasfilm chief Kennedy said the three movies seek to showcase the “past” (the Mangold film), “present” (the Filoni film), and “future” (the Rey film) of the canon chronology in the Star Wars Universe. But the company has struggled to forge paths with projects and visions from well-known directors and writers. Projects from Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss are among those in the Death Star trash compactor, while any features from Last Jedi helmer Rian Johnson are floating somewhere out in the Unknown Regions. Not to mention that the last two spinoff movies — Rogue One and Solo — both saw director ousters, while a third spinoff feature centering on Obi-Wan Kenobi was scrapped and revived as a Disney+ series.

The chronology of the <em>Star Wars</em> canon is shown displayed above Ali Plumb, Kathleen Kennedy, James Mangold, Dave Filoni, and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy onstage during the studio panel at Star Wars Celebration 2023 in London at ExCel on April 07, 2023, in London, England.
The chronology of the Star Wars canon is shown displayed above Ali Plumb, Kathleen Kennedy, James Mangold, Dave Filoni, and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy onstage during the studio panel at Star Wars Celebration 2023 in London at ExCel on April 07, 2023, in London, England.

“They don’t have a George,” says one producer with knowledge of the Lucasfilm bureaucracy, referring to a singular creative figure guiding the franchise. “Kathy is not George. Filoni is kinda the closest at this stage.” This source uses the original trilogy as an example: Even though Irvin Kershner helmed 1980’s Empire Strikes Back and Richard Marquand directed Return of the Jedi, both of those movies still had a single creative force in Lucas behind them. For an equivalent today, look no further than Lucasfilm’s sister unit, Marvel Studios, which has Kevin Feige overseeing all creative aspects of both film and TV series.

On some level, it goes back to the fans and the strength of their faith. Star Wars Celebration packed them in over four days, with attendance rising since the convention’s last appearance in London in 2016, drawing attendees from France, Italy, Germany, South America and beyond. It was the largest international Star Wars Celebration ever, according to insiders, with tens of thousands of daily visitors at the ExCel convention center. The franchise’s fans are so devoted that they don’t just dress like their favorites, they build working droids and life-size spaceships. Many are organized and do charity work. One man jogged on a treadmill in a Stormtrooper outfit raising money for Make-a-Wish.

“There’s problems in every Star Wars movie, but I’ve enjoyed them all,” said Kiefer Jenkins, who had just finished getting a Star Wars tattoo. He had traveled from Los Angeles with his wife to attend the convention and was wearing a Mandalorian costume. “I’m glad they are seemingly taking more risks,” he said. “Risks, good or bad, there is always something interesting that comes out of them. I’ll be there day one when the movies premiere.”

But that benevolence would wane if at least one of these movies doesn’t happen. “If they don’t make at least that Rey movie,” cautions a producer who has worked with the company, “Lucasfilm will burn whatever goodwill it has left with this fan base.”

A version of this story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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