Dear J.J. Abrams: Why Yes, Coincidentally, I Am Available for Contract Work
The video “4 Rules to Make Star Wars Great Again,” which takes the format of an open letter to J.J. Abrams, who’s been tapped to direct the forthcoming seventh film in the Star Wars franchise, is bound to be familiar to anyone who has spent more than five minutes on the Internet since 1999. It uses animation and voice-over to make a case about why the original three Star Wars films were so good, namely:
- The setting is the frontier, not the bustling cityscapes of the prequel trilogy.
- The future is old and lived-in, not shiny and plastic.
- The Force is mysterious, not something that can be explained chemically.
- Star Wars isn’t cute, but rather a fictional universe populated by rogues and killers.
Leaving aside the cognitive dissonance of the fourth point (the clip’s makers having apparently chosen to ignore Return of the Jedi, in which a small army of trained soldiers is brought to its knees by teddy bears with well-placed traps), these observations are both accurate and unsurprising. Red Letter Media even assembled a 70-minute video investigation of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace that covered most of them, and that’s because the points are all about the same basic thing: great, crowd-pleasing entertainment that stands the test of time is usually a function of story, energy, and chemistry. By shifting from action-adventure stories based in the supernatural to politically motivated melodramas rooted in (very slightly) harder sci-fi, the prequels made for a tonal disconnect from the earlier movies.
When I saw the clip, I started to think not just about the points the video was making but about why it even wanted to make them in the first place. J.J. Abrams is several orders of magnitude removed from things like this, and — whatever you (and, now, he) may think about lens flares and the rebooted Star Trek — he’s a powerful writer, director, and producer humming along at the top of his game. He’s carved out his own little empire of action/sci-fi stories, and while he’s likely working with a stable of talented people to create the new Star Wars film, it does not seem realistic that he’d troll YouTube for tips. Open letters are never for their recipients, though; they’re for everyone else.
So why make it? Was it because Star Wars is special? The franchise’s massive success and its place in the pantheon of American pop culture is beyond doubt, and the number of jokes, complaints, rewrites, remixes, and general hand-wringing revolving around the prequel trilogy and almost every home video release far outweighs what you’d get for any other media property. Its longevity has created a sense of ownership across generations, and there’s an invisible yet very real sense that Star Wars is not just a film property but a kind of public trust that’s handed down from viewer to viewer, and (during the original films) from filmmaker to filmmaker. It’s not just that fans and viewers don’t want the thing to be messed up; they want to tell you exactly what to do or not do.
Those things are both true: Star Wars fans want to talk with other fans about the work, and they want to offer their own ideas about where the film franchise could/should go. But that’s not why the video was made.
The clip, which runs a little over two minutes, was produced by Sincerely Truman, a marketing agency based in Portland, Oregon. (At least I think they’re a marketing agency; their home page says “We are storytellers, designers, strategists, developers, and craftsmen,” which sounds like what you would say if you worked in marketing but needed a loftier way to sell it to your parents.) When you visit their site, you’re invited to view the case study that inspired their clip, which is replete with hand-scribbled art and notes explaining why the company designed an ad campaign they hoped would “get Disney’s attention” (Disney now being the owner of Lucasfilm, which originated the property). They made the video and promoted it to io9, and they’ve also launched the sister site Dear J.J. Abrams, where users can sign a digital petition that the agency plans to present to Disney at the studio’s Burbank headquarters if the petition can hit 1 million signatures. The end goal of this is less clear. Maybe Sincerely Truman wants to design posters or other key art for the new film? Maybe they want to do some contract work Disney in some other unspecified manner? Maybe they just want to raise a small stink and film themselves doing it?
I don’t know. It’s possible that the people at the agency really like Star Wars, but I have no way of knowing because they’re not talking about the film in any real or human way; they’re generating what looks like something heartfelt for as-yet-undetermined marketing purposes. Say what you will about their methods or observations, but something like the Red Letter Media videos feel much more earned — feel true — because there’s no ostensible motivation other than that they really had strong opinions about Star Wars and wanted to make a funny and insightful (if occasionally surreal) video essay about narrative theory. (They have many more, too.) But the “Dear J.J. Abrams” video doesn’t feel like that because the goal isn’t to critique work of art or even get to the guts of what makes a franchise into a successful business. It’s to trick people into thinking that a marketing campaign is real, and that a video made to get some people in Portland more graphic design work has noble intentions. It’s not a sin to want to work; it’s a problem, though, when you pretend that’s the last you’d want.
Maybe that’s the real point, though. It is weirdly appropriate that Star Wars — which started out the story of a young buck trying to save the world and became, through retrofitting, an opera about a man beaten down by the system — tracks a little with creator George Lucas’s own journey from pissy indie upstart to king of an empire. The first film in the series cost $11 million to make; Lucas’s net worth in September 2013 was $4.2 billion. If the movies have taught us nothing else, it’s to take your chances and grab the brass ring when you can. For some people, that looks like making a kids’ movie and cannily holding onto the merchandising rights. For others, it’s making a commercial and acting like it’s coming from the heart. Build your own empires while you can. But don’t be surprised if they — well, you know.