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Is the Force still with cinema in the battle with TV's Death Star?

15 Dec 2015  |  Richard Marks 
Is the Force still with cinema in the battle with TV's Death Star?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be released into a very different media landscape to that encountered by the original film in 1977. It's now a broadband world in which TV is in its Imperial phase but, wonders Richard Marks, is it really as different as we like to think?

As I type there are just two days to go until the premiere of the most eagerly anticipated film in box office history. Well, since the last one anyway.

It's 38 years since Episode IV: A New Hope. What would those of us queuing to see that original film have expected cinema to be like in this sci-fi year of 2015? Well, in some aspects 'The Force Awakens' premieres in a completely different world to 1977, but in many other respects things really are not as different as we may have expected.

My own first memories of the original Star Wars are not the film itself, but actually the 'novelisation' of the movie by 'George Lucas' (actually written by Alan Dean Foster, the go-to-guy for 70s film novelisations). I devoured it twice for the simple reason that there was a six-month gap between Star Wars being released in the US and the UK, a not uncommon phenomenon, with TV shows often having an even longer gap.

So when I eventually sat in the Hammersmith Odeon at Christmas '77, I could virtually lipsync along with the dialogue. We now live in a world of near simultaneous global releases. The whole world gets The Force Awakens this Thursday. Our feelings of elation or deflation will be simultaneous. So that's a significant change.

However, we will be going to see the new film in a cinema, paying money to sit on a seat at a specified time, much like 1977. For most it will be at a multiplex showing the film on multiple screens at the same time, but the cinema-going experience itself remains largely the same.

At the recent asi TV conference in Venice, Jeffrey Cole of the Centre For The Digital Future predicted that new movies would increasingly be released 'day and date' straight to VOD streaming. This would be cheaper for cinema-goers and more cost-effective for the industry not having to maintain cinemas. However it would mean that to all extents and purposes Television has 'won'.

Put simply, the original Star Wars trilogy helped to ensure that the film industry still exists in 2015. "

Depressingly, it is also a development that could play into people's increasing fears of attending public places together. Just last week Cineworld cinemas sent a warning email to those with a ticket asking them not to bring replica firearms or costumes that obscure faces (Yoda mask back in the drawer then). Watching a film premiere in 'the safety of your own home' clearly has an appeal, even if it is a sad reflection of our troubled times.

Cole suggested that The Force Awakens could have been the one film with the pulling power needed to kick-start a new era of 'day and date' releases, but the film will indeed have a release much like that in 1977. That revolution is postponed. However it will live on in 'home entertainment', a phrase that in the pre-VHS world of 1977 was confined to just linear TV and the new ABBA album.

Meanwhile the queues to accompany the new film's release have already formed in LA, much to the delight of TV news crews. However, the fans queuing now are doing so out of nostalgia and to forge community as opposed to necessity. In most cases they already have a ticket waiting for them - The Force Awakens having the highest pre-sale of any film yet.

The film will be a box-office hit, of that there can be no doubt - the only question is whether it will actually be any good. I was (un)lucky enough to attend the Phantom Menace premiere at Leicester Square back in 1999. My enthusiasm was dented by an opening onscreen crawl detailing negotiations about trade route taxation and was beaten to a pulp when Jar Jar Binks appeared.

However, this time the signs are positive, largely because two aspects of the film's production reflect a back-to-basics approach that again mirrors the 1977 release.

Firstly, director JJ Abrams has taken the film's production back to primarily physical sets and actual actors, pulling back from the CGI virtual sets and 'characters' of the three prequel films. The way those films were produced - actors in front of green screens - was probably what the 1977 audience might have predicted from the future, but actually that future felt alienating and cold.

The actors didn't like it and the audience didn't connect. Meanwhile in the CGI era TV can easily compete on digital SFX, so where the budget can show through for the cinema industry is in the use of impressive real sets, whether it is Bond hopping from capital to capital, or the new Star Wars crew heading to the desert, just as they did in 1977.

The original Star Wars featured holograms at key plot points ("Help Me Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope") so it would have been a logical assumption that in 38 years' time that is how we would be watching video, no doubt having parked our hover jets outside the cinema.

However, the post-Avatar 3D hype has abated, 3DTV stalled and whilst some screens will be showing 3D versions of The Force Awakens, most will be in good old 2D. The films will be digitally created and edited, but the original Star Wars was shot on high grade film - the original HD. Unless you are planning to see Episode 7 in an IMAX, the actual cinema experience - popcorn in the foyer, bums on seats and a 2D two hour experience - would not seem alien to a time traveller from the seventies.

Cinema execs are lamenting the drain of talent from film to TV."

Meanwhile, the main leads in the film are unknown actors, just as they were in 1977. This means the audience can immediately accept them in their roles as opposed to spotting the near obligatory Sherlock or Game Of Thrones cast member.

An obvious difference to 1977 is the relative strength of TV and film. In the Seventies, film was clearly the pinnacle of every actor and directors' ambition: Hooray for Hollywood. Whilst Star Wars IV was judged in a competitive set of A Space Odyssey, Jaws and Logan's Run, once the hype settles down the new Star Wars franchise will be fighting for attention with Game Of Thrones, Doctor Who and the cinema/TV hybrid that is the Marvel Universe.

Cinema execs are concerned about the drain of talent from film to TV. Some of that is due to new business models in TV, but it's also due to a trend set in place by Star Wars itself. The 1970s were a critical golden age for cinema; the era of Annie Hall, Raging Bull and The Godfather. Star Wars changed the film industry for good, and now returns to an industry made largely in its own image. An industry dependent on big blockbuster franchises (Potter, Hunger Games, Bond).

Some have argued that Star Wars presaged the 'infantilisation' of film. As more than one film-maker has lamented, if you want to make a movie that isn't a superhero summer blockbuster or a gross-out rom com, then a TV series may well now be your best bet nowadays.

Put simply, the original Star Wars trilogy helped to ensure that the film industry still exists in 2015. It heralded the era of the movie itself being the Death Star at the heart of an empire of merchandising and spin-offs. George Lucas cannily kept the merchandising rights, which back then were not seen as a major revenue stream!

So whilst the production and initial viewing of the film would be familiar to those 1977 film-goers, in 2015 the movie premiere itself is simply the tip of a complex multi-media iceberg: Thursday heralds a new hope for a multi-media franchise. After all, that's why Disney coughed up $4bn to buy Lucasfilm in the first place.

Richard Marks is managing director of Research the Media.

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05 Aug 2020 

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