Contemporary popular film culture is marked by franchise practices and strategies. In the centre the production of often yet another prequel, sequel, spin-off, remake, or reboot. A seemingly more manageable risk compared to the alternative of Hollywood’s spec-script market. However, creating reiterations of stories already told still comes with risks of its own. As Variety’s Owen Gleiberman puts it, scaling the same mountaintop all over again leaves ‘the audience’ more self-consciously reflecting on their experience of the franchise than being empathically engaged with the movie itself.
Creating new forms of creative collaboration among different commercial sectors, movies themselves remain a focal, yet often only one among many aspects of the socio-economic form that is the franchise. They transcend and are materialized beyond the screen, creating new revenues streams beyond the box-office for the industry. However, doing so require the transformation of people’s short-lived attention into longstanding, sophisticated, and calculable interest.
Coming from the other side, fuelled by the emergence of digital media technologies, new forms of participatory culture and amateur film practices take shape, moving from self-documentation to aesthetic appropriation. Speaking back to the franchise and industry bottom-up, creating a new shared language of popular culture. A language that seeks to reclaim control over the way popular culture takes shape and shapes people’s lives. Control over the decision what parts and forms of culture are of value, now and in the future.
And movies like ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’, one of the many recent additions to the Lucasfilm produced and Disney owned Star Wars franchise, highlight the conjuncture of these developments with ease.
For did ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ not have an easy start since its first announcement. From unworkable script to creative differences in pre-production leading to Ron Howard stepping in as director to difficulties while shooting the movie. ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ looks kind of rough from the production side already. Yet additionally, it is part of the ongoing negotiation between community and Disney owned Lucasfilm about the future of the franchise, the way it is pursued and taken out. Some fans wanted ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ to fail and, well, at least financially it didn’t meet expectations for sure. People from within the industry commenting that something like a ‘Star Wars fatigue’ remains a myth whilst highlighting the avoidable creative mistakes Disney did in managing the franchise, creating a disappointed audience they’ll probably lose in the long run.
Looking not at the movie itself, but rather the means and sites along which people are sought to be engaged and their interest sparked, we may turn our attention to movie trailers. More particular, their distribution on social media platforms which have become ever more present and important sites of control, struggle, and negotiation between industry and community (whatever fixed and imagined entities these might be).
The official trailer can easily be interpreted along a franchising logic. It starts by introducing characters already known from earlier pieces of the Star Wars Saga; creating and reactivating narratives ties within the larger story universe. While speaking to those already familiar with it, it at the same time also features lots of broadly understandable encounters and humour. The edit being slow at the start, only gaining some kind of speed moving towards the end of the trailer. The music feeling like an awkwardly keyed version of the original Star Wars scores. The overall mood being one of a ‘fun movie’.
Looking at its distribution context, unsurprisingly YouTube’s algorithms have placed it within cluster 6 – a cluster that features lots of general and major media contents such as movie trailers, interviews, clips and bits from late-night tv, and other promotional media contents that promise more focused attention towards their subject.
Looking at a community trailer re-cut, we are confronted with a different view. The trailer is edited fast and features a continuous, rhythmic movement of images. Its focus is entirely on Hans Solo; no other characters are really introduced, no narrative ties made. There is a strong absence of language and signifying practices, but rather an emphasis on action and movement. The entire edit cut onto a piece of Bestie Boys’ Sabotage. The trailer, in its form, is made resistant to interpretation. There is nothing really new we learn from it. Rather, we are only reactivated a feeling already known. The overall mood communicated being one of an ‘adventurous movie’.
Looking at its position within the larger content traffic on YouTube, it’s being placed within cluster 0 – a cluster that features lots of upcoming and on-the-market major studio productions, covering a variety of genres, also featuring more general contents such as music videos and the likes. Broadly speaking, while not placed within the more focused attention that cluster 6 promises, the community trailer re-cut still is able to push towards the centre of the discussion and content traffic on the platform.
These two trailers showcase not only two different visions of the Star Wars franchise and its future – more fun and family-friendly vs. more action-laden and adventurous – but also show different structural positions and forces at work. For are in the context of digital media, formerly promised as ‘holy land’ of participatory culture, existing structural position largely reproduced, governing attention and legitimacy over how popular culture is shaped. And while there sure is a need for more research into the ways the companies operating these digital platforms have become a newly linked ecology within popular culture, an awareness of these forces is not absent from the discussion within the audience already.
Looking at comments on the official trailer, we especially are confronted with four major topics. Many people are suspicious of positive comments on the trailer, claiming they were bought or created by bots commissioned by Disney to better position the trailer and its online presence. Others are critical of the way movie trailers can function as means of engaging people or the capabilities of Disney and Lucasfilm to control the franchise. Yet in some sense opposing these three perspectives and their inherent critique, there also is a lot of people that come back after watching the movie, commenting that it wasn’t as bad as the trailer made it look like. Going further, being critical of all the buzz created by the community around it online.
Moving to the comments on the community trailer re-cut, we, however, can make a differently interesting observation. For are people here less concerned with the vision of the franchise in the sense of its contents and production context. They are less concerned with an alternate reading of the story. But rather do they express their desire to be engaged. Their desire for an immediate and present experience within a site of popular culture they’re invested in. A site that allows them to be attuned and affected, coordinate personal and communal being.
For does the community trailer re-cut highlight a desire for rest. It doesn’t seek to move forward but rather to be a movement that covers not distance. The official trailer seeks to be more than Han Solo. The community re-cut seeks to be just Han Solo. It wants to reactive a feeling once present and substantial to many people. Not through signification and interpretation, but through rhythmic and embodied experience. Not the be all and end all of what Star Wars franchise and popular culture should look like. Not ruling out critical capacity of the audience or the necessity of creative innovation within movie and story itself. But highlighting the meaningfulness of a restful experience of movies in particular and our human life in general that often is neglected today.
It is this dimension of meaningfulness, the value of immediate and present experiences, that the trailer re-cut brings to the centre of discussion. And maybe what’s to learn from this contribution is similar to what David Ehrlich finds reviewing ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’: “More fun than funny, more clever than smart, ‘LEGO Batman’ moves too fast to acclimate audiences to the world it so eagerly dismantles and rebuilds (and too fast to make them want to stay there for a minute longer), but it serves as a frenzied reminder that laughing at the things we love is sometimes the best way to remember why we love them. Can Batman ever be happy? It’s hard to say. But, for the first time in a long time, at least his fans can be.”
Parts of this piece were presented at the 24th International Film Studies Conference, Roma Tre University, Italy, November 2018.