What the Success of Rogue One: a Star Wars Story Tells Us About Storytelling

The force is strong with Rogue One: a Star Wars story and the figures are impressive, most impressive. According to data from boxofficemojo.com after just two weeks of its release the first spinoff of the Star Wars series has already earned gross more than $340m towards the end of 2016 and is poised to overcome Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith ($380m) in total and will probably be close to Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace ($431m). Still a far cry from 2015 Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($960m), but the J.J. Abrams movie was never a commercial benchmark for Rogue One, the second Star Wars movie done under Disney.

So what are the sources of success of the latest episode of the Star Wars franchise? And what are the lessons that can be learnt from the movie about storytelling in general? Here are my picks for Rogue One with relevant traits, trends and features that are important from communication industry perspective.

1. Making drastic changes to a nearly finished story can be a difference between a commercial success or failure

Rewrite, reshot and reedit the film by altering the ending to a non-Disney style. This appears to be the winning formula of Rogue One. In a commercial universe worth billions of dollars (if you add franchise business model, perfected by Disney) and with millions of fans waiting for the next instalment can you go wrong with another Star Wars movie? Well, you can as reportedly Disney decided to reshot up to 40% of it. Judging by the vast amount of footage and catch phrases (including my favorite by Jyn Erso: “This is a rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel”) that never made it to the final version from numerous trailers, it appears that these changes were dramatic and must have add up to the costs of production substantially. However, it proved to be a good decision as the end result is a blockbuster. Disney was bold enough to do it, took the risk and eventually it paid off.

2. Bringing back characters played by deceased actors is a game-changer

With a little help of latest CGI Rogue One shows that every actor can now reappear on screen, thus giving a whole new spectrum of possibilities to storytelling. Sure, the longer you look at CGI version of Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, who died in 1994), the more you think it is virtually enhanced. But sooner or later with computer aided technological advancement, the difference between real and digital actors will be negligible. Yes, it’s been done before back in 1994 with the reappearance of Brandon Lee in The Crow movie, but never before has this been so close to reality with a human character played from A to Z by computers. This means you can now think of contemporary movies or clips with Marlon Brando or Marilyn Monroe.

3. The power of continuity is immeasurable

When George Lucas established Star Wars in late 70’s it was already a complete universe with complexity similar to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle earth. The fictional world in a galaxy far, far away has its own lore, species, languages, planets, mythology and religion (the Force). You can easily immerse yourself into this world and you will always find something familiar no matter which instalment or spin-off story you’re currently watching, playing or reading. Rogue One takes advantage of this brilliantly by including links with characters (the obvious Darth Vader, Saw Gerrera from the Clone Wars animated series or Red and Gold Leader), food (Blue Milk in Jyn Erso house) or starships (Hammerhead corvette from the Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic computer games), to name just a few. And there are some completely new components to the Star Wars universe. Thus, the story of Rogue One is kept alive and transforms into its success. Fans have no choice but to discuss some of the following topics:

  • Are Death Troopers (hint: these are the tall dark-armored bad guys who are really good at shooting blasters) augmented Clone Troopers or maybe reanimated Storm Troopers?
  • What were Doctor Cornelius Evazan and Ponda Baba doing on Jeddah (the only thing we know for sure is they must have left for Tatooine just before the Death Star destroyed the city, right?)

But even if you’re not a devoted Star Wars fan and you can’t tell a difference between a Death Trooper and a Storm Trooper, the ending of Rogue One really makes you want to jump straight to Star Wars: A New Hope. And that’s even if you’ve seen the latter movie.

Well done, Disney.

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