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Will Saturation Ever Sink ‘Star Wars’?

Disney, the new steward of the galaxy’s most valuable IP, is putting out ‘Star Wars’ films at an unprecedented pace. Has the company learned from the franchise’s past excesses?

A collage of ‘Star Wars’ characters against a purple background Lucasfilm/Ringer illustration

The day before The Force Awakens premiered in December 2015, I hosted a Star Wars movie marathon. My high school friends — who, like me, had still been high school students the last time we’d seen a new Star Wars movie — met at my house at 11 a.m., and together we watched about 10 hours of Star Wars: every previous movie except for The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, which we swapped out in favor of the hour-long Clone Wars cartoon. (We’re nerds, not sadists.) We were careful to build in a buffer for food, bathroom breaks, and transportation to the theater in time for the post-midnight screening of Episode VII that we’d bought tickets for the second they went on sale.

This Thursday, I’m seeing The Last Jedi with most of the same people. But this time, there won’t be a pre-movie marathon; I’m meeting my friends at the theater. We’re excited, of course, not least because The Last Jedi evidently delivers. But our hype has limits. It’s partly a logistical thing: There are now eight existing movies, which means an unabridged marathon would take about two-thirds of a day. And it’s partly a scarcity thing: Whereas Episode VII was the first new Star Wars movie in more than 10 years, Episode VIII is only the first since last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and the last for all of six months, when Solo: A Star Wars Story will follow hot on its heels. Even though the demand for new Star Wars installments has stayed strong, the supply has increased: We’ve now received three new Star Wars films in a third of the time it took for the original and prequel trilogies to unfold. Each new Star Wars movie raises the sum of Star Wars in the world by a smaller percentage than the film before, and anticipation isn’t a perfectly renewable resource. Instead of spending months looking for leaks, spoilers, and speculation, as I did during the buildup to TFA, all I want to know before the film arrives can be said in one sentence.

The scaling back of my friend group’s pre–Star Wars ritual mirrors that of this site. Last year at this time, readers of The Ringer could have been forgiven for thinking we were starting a Star Wars vertical. In the days before and after the release of Rogue One, we published close to 20 pieces of Rogue One–related content (including podcasts and videos), the products of a package that was in the works for weeks. This month, we’re taking more of a piecemeal approach to the third Star Wars movie in as many Decembers. Star Wars still matters, but individual pieces of Star Wars don’t matter as much, because the Star Wars assembly line never stops.

Even before director Rian Johnson’s first Star Wars work reached theaters, we learned that he’d be making three more. That news followed regular rumors about Lucasfilm’s plans for future stand-alone films, which will supposedly feature Obi-Wan, Boba Fett, Yoda, and Jabba the Hutt (or at least some of the above). Beyond the annual movie — and the teasers-to-trailers-to-press-tour choreography that precedes its release — there’s the growing infrastructure of supplementary Star Wars: TV series (the expiring Star Wars Rebels and an upcoming live-action show), dozens of books and comics, and video games such as the recently released Battlefront II, which features the first original story in a post-Disney Star Wars game (and, naturally, ties in to the latest theatrical trilogy).

We’ve entered a new phase of Disney’s Star Wars stewardship: Star Wars saturation. Thus far, the Mouse has been mindful of the risk of oversaturation; Star Wars is always with us, but it hasn’t yet worn out its welcome. With two well-received, lucrative movies under Disney’s belt and another opening now, its goals for the franchise have changed from restoring Star Wars’ tarnished reputation after the much-derided, disappointing prequels and establishing that one-off Star Wars installments could work to ensure that the galactic gravy train runs on schedule and maintains a consistent quality — even if that means firing the directors of the next two films slated to follow Episode VIII. At 40, Star Wars has settled into a dependable and productive middle age, where the greatest challenge facing the franchise isn’t finding new Star Wars stories to tell, but resisting the temptation to tell too many.

Star Wars has been here before. Over the past four decades, the series’ success has been cyclical, waxing and waning along with the earlier trilogy rollouts and the ensuing enthusiasm of new generations of fans. But Disney, which acquired the rights to the franchise from creator George Lucas for $4 billion in 2012, seems determined to make Star Wars slump-proof. And the key to constructing a consistent, sustainable Star Wars is learning from previous eras’ excesses.

Roughly 30 years ago, Star Wars was at its lowest ebb. With the franchise largely dormant in the years after 1983’s Return of the Jedi and Lucas silent on any plans for further films, Star Wars was withering on the vine, forsaking and forsaken by the fans who’d been swept away by the series in the late ’70s. “I, in common with a lot of kids that age at that time, just kind of packed my Star Wars toys away and went, ‘Well, OK, I guess that story’s done now,’” says Chris Taylor, the author of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, who (in addition to other sources in this story) will also appear on an upcoming Ringer podcast about that period. “I completely moved on to a degree that seems shocking to me now. It doesn’t seem possible in this day and age to put Star Wars down, but that was very much my mood.”

Publisher Lou Aronica was one of the fans who’d seen his sense of Star Wars engagement dwindle. Unlike most fans, though, Aronica hoped he could help revitalize the series and profit in the process. As the founder of Bantam Spectra, the science-fiction division of Random House subsidiary Bantam Books, he saw what looked like a glaring market inefficiency. “My feeling was as much as I adored Star Wars, that there had to be an enormous group of people that were just like me and would pay for books since they couldn’t get movies,” Aronica says.

In the fall of 1988, Aronica sent a pitch letter to Lucasfilm, proposing a new line of books bearing the Star Wars name — which would be the first to debut since the original movie trilogy ended. So strong was the period’s prevailing apathy about Star Wars that the letter went unanswered for a year; according to Taylor, Lucas believed that no one would buy new Star Wars books — and Aronica says that booksellers were skeptical too. Eventually, though, he got the green light, since Star Wars was stagnant and Lucas had little to lose. And although the prolific series of Star Trek novels that Pocket Books had been pumping out twice a month gave Aronica confidence that an audience for Star Wars books would be there, he didn’t want to replicate that pace. He wanted each Star Wars book to seem special.

“It was critical that a book program not be like the Star Trek program but it rather be a really ambitious, well-thought-out, serious piece of science fiction,” Aronica says. “So the idea of publishing two books a month or something like that was never what I had in mind. What I wanted was, ‘Have the next movie be a book.’”

The result of Aronica’s carefully curated blueprint was the first Star Wars book in eight years: 1991’s Heir to the Empire, by Nebula Award–winning author Timothy Zahn, who’d just been signed by Bantam. Everything about Heir, from its title to its movie-poster-style cover, was designed to evoke the grandeur of the original trilogy. The book, which picked up five years after Return of the Jedi and introduced popular villains Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade, was a massive success, eventually rising to the no. 1 slot on the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list.

Originally, Aronica planned to publish only one “wildly ambitious” hardcover novel a year. After Heir’s success — following an initial order of 70,000 copies, the book received four additional print runs in 1991 alone — he made one concession to commerce, agreeing to add a “sidebar hardcover” to the annual release schedule, akin to the stand-alone movies that Disney is making between trilogy films. As much money as there was to be made, though, Aronica resisted the impulse to flood the market, determined to preserve the pace of sales. “Our feeling was that we could only really maintain that if we kept every book special,” Aronica says. “If we stopped doing that, then slowly it would be less of an event. It would be less of a big deal, and the audience would start picking and choosing which books they wanted.”

Aronica soon discovered that even adding the “sidebar” books had stolen some of the series’ luster, diluting the attention that each rollout received. And after Aronica left Bantam in 1993, his successors altered the deal. Twenty-two Star Wars books were published in 1997 alone, and sales predictably tanked along with the books’ quality and reputation. Taylor’s written account notes that the most successful Star Wars books from later years (including some by Zahn) “sometimes nudge the bottom of the best-seller list for a week or so,” placing them nowhere near Heir and its million-plus copies sold to date.

“The audience wasn’t nearly as interested in sidebars, and they definitely weren’t interested in lighthearted stories,” Aronica says. “We published one really lighthearted book that was surprisingly unsuccessful, and we published a couple of small books, in terms of their scale, that didn’t do nearly as well. And I think what became clear is that this audience wants the galaxy-spanning scope of Star Wars. When they think Star Wars, they’re thinking enormous scale, they’re not thinking little stories.”

A similar process played out several years later, when the release of the prequels (beginning in 1999) prompted another explosion in ancillary Star Wars content. This time, the need for more material led to a strategic realignment at LucasArts, the Lucasfilm-owned video-game developer. In the years after Heir to the Empire but prior to the prequels, LucasArts had maintained a modest Star Wars game release schedule and a high hit rate, publishing beloved classics such as TIE Fighter, X-Wing, Dark Forces and Dark Forces II, Shadows of the Empire, and Rogue Squadron. After the prequels, the studio largely shifted into movie-capitalization mode, churning out uninspired video-game versions of Episodes I, II, and III as well as mostly mediocre titles that tied into the trilogy: podracing games (Racer, Racer Revenge, and Super Bombad Racing); starfighter games (Battle for Naboo, Starfighter, and Jedi Starfighter); and on-foot adventures (Obi-Wan and Bounty Hunter). Few of the prequel-era releases approached the artistic heights or lasting legacies of LucasArts’ earlier efforts.

“One of the real problems that happened with Star Wars is that the new movies … forced the company in so many ways to do really too much Star Wars [video game] product because of the overall global demand for hitting every kind of genre and every topic,” says Jack Sorensen, a former president of LucasArts who worked for the company from 1991 to 2000. “It definitely was a real setback for what had been the tradition of LucasArts as a company.”

For fans who lived through the late-’80s lean years, Star Wars’ current cultural reemergence — not only as an ultra-mainstream reference point and the linchpin of an ever-expanding universe, but as a critically acclaimed property — provokes conflicting feelings. “Back in the day when I was doing the Fan Club during those lean years, it was a niche community,” says Dan Madsen, whom Lucasfilm recruited to run the Lucasfilm Fan Club in 1987 and who later published the Star Wars Insider magazine, organized the first major Star Wars convention, and made a cameo in The Phantom Menace. “You wouldn’t run into people constantly that were die-hard Star Wars fans.” That sense of shared membership in a subculture that had fallen out of favor brought a kind of comradery that’s more difficult to forge today, when, as Madsen says, “there is no embarrassment about being called a Star Wars fan — you’re cool if you’re a Star Wars fan.”

Aside from experiencing the “I liked them before they got big” feeling that’s familiar to anyone who discovered a chart-topping act when it was still making mixtapes or moonlighting as a bar band, many Star Wars lifers lament the loss of the rush that accompanied any new speck of the franchise when fans were feeling withdrawal. “The magic of those lean years was that you had to use your imagination,” Madsen says. “You yearned for new Star Wars, and everybody just kept hoping that there would eventually be new Star Wars movies someday. You appreciated whatever you got.”

Of course, the weakening of the bonds between outsiders that once characterized the community has enabled a new, more inclusive fandom that’s made Star Wars a multigenerational touchstone. And few fans from earlier eras — Madsen included — would trade today’s rich Star Wars tapestry for the nearly blank slate of the late ’80s. To Star Wars fans old enough to remember the ’80s, any current concern about the oversaturation of Star Wars might seem like a first-world problem for the sweet summer children who’ve never known a time without a constant supply of Star Wars. But in light of the franchise’s previous problems with quick cash-ins, it’s an issue on which Lucasfilm is likely keeping a close eye.

To some extent, oversaturation of Star Wars is, as Sorensen puts it, “part and parcel of success.” Lucrative blockbusters beget sequels, because shareholders demand them. And often, those sequels minimize risk by retracing some of their predecessors’ steps, leading to a certain sameness — the most common criticism levied against The Force Awakens and Rogue One, both of which borrowed liberally from the original films’ structures, themes, and casts. Through three films, though, the formula has worked as well as anyone could have forecasted. All Disney has to do is keep doing what it’s done. And the secret to that might be as simple as heeding Han Solo: Don’t get cocky, kid. Keep playing the hits instead of risking an overreach on a smaller-scale story. “I think the bigger issue isn’t the frequency of release as much as the quality of the release,” Aronica says. “If you can keep doing Rogue One as the every-other-year thing, fantastic, you’ll probably keep the audience excited as long as possible. If those sidebar stories start to feel like sidebars, that might affect the whole franchise.” It’s probably a positive that movies aren’t as easy to mass produce as Aronica’s hardcovers.

Madsen, too, stresses the importance of maintaining momentum, because the first streak-snapping stumble for Star Wars in the wake of consecutive wins will turn the annual unveiling into a crapshoot instead of a guaranteed good time. “If they keep making great Star Wars movies, then things will be OK,” he says. “But if they start making mediocre Star Wars movies — and god forbid, bad Star Wars movies — then I think the ‘every year’ kind of thing is going to become passé, and people will start saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s another Star Wars movie.’”

Movie poster for ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Lucasfilm

From all appearances, Lucasfilm has already learned control. Although the list of Star Wars films rumored to be in development could take the franchise to 2025, we haven’t heard any talk of cramming multiple movies into one calendar year. “This once-a-year event seems to be a very good rhythm for Star Wars, and I think Lucasfilm is loath to put that off and come up with more movies every year,” Taylor says. “They recognize that that sort of Marvel timeline would diminish the value of what they have. So I think [Lucasfilm president] Kathleen Kennedy is now on the Lou Aronica timetable.”

Moreover, Kennedy hasn’t exactly flown casual in her oversight of the series. In ordering Rogue One reshoots, bringing back J.J. Abrams to replace Colin Trevorrow on Episode IX, and recruiting Ron Howard to finish Solo, she’s prioritized the future of the franchise over the individual directorial license that got Star Wars in trouble when Lucas called the shots. Both inside and outside of the movies, the company also has been more judicious about the settings and stories it selects and more diligent about creative coordination, funneling all of its efforts through the Star Wars authorities that make up the 11-member Story Group. “It’s a little bit more organized than it was around Heir to the Empire,” Taylor says. “There was no bunch of nerds sitting in a room whose job it is to figure out where this entire saga is going. So I think the Story Group is the secret sauce that will keep Star Wars going for another few decades.”

Even so, no creative company can keep a perfect game going forever. Someday, Star Wars will slip — and then, perhaps, the cycle will restart. “It will fade eventually,” Taylor says. “But I think if we know anything from the history of Star Wars, it’s that it always comes back.”