“Psh, amateurs…” : The Future of The Star Wars Franchise and Monetizing Fan Cred

Few franchises have managed to maintain their cultural relevance in the same way that Star Wars has, from the release of the first installment of the series in 1977 (Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) to today’s new content (such as the various Clone Wars TV shows) – re-imagined for new audiences, and satirical re-imagined on such shows as Family Guy and Robot Chicken.

Part of this unique success stems from an active and wide-ranging fan base, whose engagement with materials (both narrative and physical) produced by the franchise create new opportunities for expansion. As I began to establish in my previous post, the amateur fan video – a largely collaborative and “profit-less” endeavor – has experienced an appropriation by “mainstream” media forms that both recognize their potential for monetization as well as their threat to the barrier of entry into (or around) the profit-making system. Monetizing fan film becomes a complex issue, since the amateur fan film cannot make money within the confines of traditional media, much in the same way that amateur YouTube videos are not in and of themselves, profit-generating.

The dynamic between the media industry and fans is always fraught with discontent; the line that fans cannot cross is blurry at best, as Jenkins says; “it depends on how seriously, if at all, we should take their [holders of intellectual property rights] rhetoric about enfranchising and empowering consumers as a means of building strong brand loyalties.” (Jenkins, 166) Indeed, the restrictive requirements for “enfranchisement” within the industry tend to be obscured by the content producer’s status as a fan, since fandom tends to be associated more closely with altruism and creative forms of consumption. The line for Star Wars is drawn where “Lucas wants to be ‘celebrated’ but not appropriated.” (Jenkins, 149). So, going forward, how does LucasFilms strike that balance, avoiding a handover of creative power to fans but still promoting the message that fans drive the franchise? The answer, of course, lies in Robot Chicken.

Seth Green was quoted as saying, “I’ve always been very loyal to that company even before we worked together. I’m just as much of a fanboy, and I’ve had all the same conversations that all the nerds have had. You see it reflected in the biting aspect of our comedy, but all that’s just jokes. When push comes to shove, we really care about that company and everything they’ve made – we love these movies and all the stuff that’s involved in it.”

As Jenkins puts it, today’s “story-tellers are developing a more collaborative model of authorship, co-creating content with artists with different visions and experiences at a time when few artists are equally at home in all media.” (96) Co-creators of Robot Chicken, Seth Green and Matt Sendrich, have established their status as “fans” simply through their show’s aesthetic, as well as their Star Wars Specials, dedicated to exploring comically mundane scenarios that take place in the Star Wars universe.  Specifically in these episodes, most vignettes tend to be quite “middle of the road” in terms of references to the Star Wars universe, where the audience does not need to be comprised on of die-hard fans to understand the humor. However, there are some more subtle gems, such as the vignette that shows Luke Skywalker at Tosche Station, throwing money at a group of strippers called “The Power Converters” (thus playing on Luke’s words to his uncle: “But I have to go to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” Yuck yuck). Apparently, such episodes caught George Lucas’s attention and dictated the direction of his next project.

“George likes what we do with the ‘Robot Chicken – Star Wars’ stuff,” Mr. Senreich said, “and thinks we’re funny people, so when he wanted to do a comedy, he looked at us.” (“I wasn’t going to be quite that cocky,” Mr. Green continued, “but it is in fact what happened.”) – Dave Itzoff

So it seems the future of the Star Wars franchise is indeed in the hands of fans, but perhaps not in the way we popularly understand fandom to work.

 

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