When you watch Lucasfilm announcements over a period of years, a pattern emerges: bad news is almost invariably drowned out by thrilling new details, which is something the makers of Star Wars always have up their sleeves.
In 2013, the company was particularly proud of this one: They had to announce that the first Force Awakens screenwriter, Michael Arndt, had left the movie; unsaid would be that George Lucas’ original script concept had pretty much gone with him. So Lucasfilm waited weeks, and wove it into an announcement that reverberated like a Death Star explosion: J.J. Abrams and Empire Strikes Back legend Lawrence Kasdan would write it instead. Arndt had done “a terrific job bringing us to this point,” Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said.
And so it was, by accident or design, that this week’s bombshell news was squeezed between the first official trailer for the highly-anticipated Star Wars live action TV show The Mandalorian Monday night and Tuesday’s first reviews of a licensed novel that picks up where The Last Jedi left off, advancing the story of Star Wars for the first time since 2017.
This time, however, the bombshell was unavoidably louder: David Benioff and Dan Weiss, producers of Game of Thrones, were “stepping away” from a planned “series” (note: not a trilogy, never a trilogy) of Star Wars movies.
On the surface, all seemed cordial enough. Benioff and Weiss had recently signed a deal to develop years’ worth of Netflix content; regretfully, they couldn’t do both. And yet there was such sorrow: “When George Lucas built Star Wars, he built us too,” the pair said in a parting statement.
Which raised the question: what self-described hardcore Star Wars fans would willingly step away from an incredibly sweet deal to make their own Star Wars movies, plural, in order to make yet more disposable Netflix dramas?
In fact, why had they taken the Netflix cash at all, less than 18 months after inking the Star Wars deal? Sure, it was a reported nine-figure Netflix payout, which likely outranks whatever Lucasfilm was offering. But it’s hard to put a price on risking ejection from the galaxy far, far away when you’re a fan, especially when you don’t really need the money.
Did they jump down the chute to Bespin voluntarily, prefering death to some Darth Vader-like form of control? Or could it be that they were really fired and being allowed to save face?
“We hope to include them in the journey forward when they are able to step away from their busy schedule to focus on Star Wars.” — K.K. pic.twitter.com/p2j4wiOtRA
— Chris Taylor (@FutureBoy) October 29, 2019
A note from Kennedy said the Thrones dudes were welcome back to the galaxy anytime. She was as gracious as she was with Arndt. Still, these lines didn’t need much reading between: “We hope to include them in the journey forward when they are able to step away from their busy schedule to focus on Star Wars.”
Ouch. You can almost see the D-minus next to that statement in their Star Wars report card.
What happened behind the scenes? There aren’t a lot of details leaking from the ever-tight Lucasfilm ship yet, but informed speculation drives us in one of three directions:
1. Culture Clash Theory
An eyebrow-raising number of students have flunked out of Kennedy’s Jedi academy since she took over from Lucas and the Star Wars sequel era began in 2012. Arndt was the first. Then Josh Trank (rumored to be developing a Boba Fett movie), then Colin Trevorrow (first writer-director of what has become The Rise of Skywalker) and co-writer Jack Thorne, then Solo directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and now Benioff and Weiss.
Many of these men share a number of characteristics we might put under the header “entitled dudebro.” They’re the kind of creatives who seem cool and edgy when they come in to pitch for a project, but that edge quickly wears off. They don’t realize the collaborative culture they’ve walked into, and do not develop reputations for being team players in a company that was perfectionist and content-controlling long before Kennedy came along. (A team player would be someone like Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, a lovely British chap who largely stepped aside while his movie was thoroughly re-edited — for the better.)
Worse, these dudes cultivate drama — something Kennedy seems to abhor with the heat of a thousand suns when it’s not on the screen. Trank reportedly trashed the house rented by the studio for whom he was making Fantastic Four; he would later publicly trash the movie. Lord and Miller had a private spat with Kennedy and Kasdan over the direction of Solo (the directors wanted more ad-libs, more comedy). It threatened to spill into the public sphere when Lord tweeted: “what’s so great about being reasonable?” They were gone within a month.
Under this theory, Benioff and Weiss’ dudebro-ish behavior would have been made abundantly clear this weekend by a talk at the Austin Film Festival that went viral on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. What may have seemed to them a hilarious recounting of how unprepared and unskilled they were during the series sounded to others like an ill-timed celebration of upward failure. The part where a baby boy was screaming on a block of ice while Weiss debated a shot of his penis is not easy to forget.
They are expressing regret about putting the baby on the block of ice and him screaming. The mother was not happy bc Dan just kept talking about a close-up of the baby’s penis.
*They are very granular in details of shots, admitting losing sight of the big picture.
— Needle & Pen (@ForArya) October 26, 2019
To be fair to these guys, you have to wonder: if they keep getting selected when they’re not a great fit for the culture, isn’t that on Lucasfilm’s leader too? Another detail I can’t forget: the time Kennedy testily responded to a question at the Rogue One press conference about why she wasn’t hiring any female directors.
Her argument, that almost no women had directed blockbusters, was circular logic. If she had for example taken a chance in 2014 on the then-blockbusterless Patty Jenkins, who went on to unleash Wonder Woman on the world, Kennedy could have had the same or greater box office returns while not having to suffer through quite so much dude-driven drama.
2. The ‘You Have Failed us for the Last Time’ Theory
In this universe, your reputation on set matters less than your latest numbers at the box office. Trank was dropped when Fantastic Four turned into a great steaming dud. Trevorrow was sunk by his profoundly weird and unloved Book of Henry; his firing came two months after its release. Last Jedi director Rian Johnson should feel secure about his forthcoming Star Wars trilogy, under this theory, because his Knives Out is gathering tremendous buzz as it closes in on its Thanksgiving release date.
And Benioff and Weiss? Well, clearly Game of Thrones was a mega hit. But the Season 8 backlash, overblown though it was, was hard to ignore. The abiding impression was that Benioff and Weiss were at least partly checked out, not interested in producing a full season, and starting to slip up on the details. If I’m Kathleen Kennedy and I’ve been diligently overseeing the minutiae of productions since Raiders of the Lost Ark, then the saga of the Starbucks cup — while Benioff and Weiss cavorted in costume in the same scene! — seems calculated to drive me bananas.
Kennedy may also have taken another look, in the cold light of day, at the rest of the duo’s track record. Benioff wrote the forgettable Wolverine. Weiss wrote a lot of unproduced scripts. Their first big pitch to HBO while riding high on Thrones, their big passion project, was for a show called “Confederate” set in an alternate history where the South won the Civil War and slavery still exists. This, especially in 2017, was remarkably tone deaf: we had no need to see more extreme forms of modern racism acted out on screen when it was all around us on the news and in social media.
The outrage was as great as you’d expect, yet the pair persisted in developing the show until their Netflix deal mercifully wiped “Confederate” off HBO’s books.
3. The Corporate War Theory
If Benioff and Weiss saw their Netflix deal as a golden parachute away from a failing Star Wars deal, perhaps seeking a creative freedom that Lucasfilm by design cannot provide, that’s one thing. But if the Netflix check was inked while the pair were still fully on the Disney payroll, it may count as one of the most self-destructive development deals in history.
After all, Disney and Netflix now stand astride the plains of streaming media like two great stags. Disney is weeks from launching its flagship Disney+ service — if not a Netflix killer, then certainly a Netflix hurter. What were Benioff and Weiss thinking, making an insanely large deal with Disney’s (and by extension, Lucasfilm’s) greatest competitor right after being feted by Disney CEO Bob Iger?
Maybe they were tired of Star Wars already and were intentionally showing the Mouse the bird, but that doesn’t seem this pair’s style. Could Benioff and Weiss actually be as oblivious now, still, as they apparently were during those self-confessed early Thrones mistakes?
In any case, let’s hope their Netflix ideas are worth it (and let’s further hope that Confederate isn’t one of them). It would be a tremendous irony, especially, if Lucasfilm’s forthcoming TV projects — like the Cassian Andor and Kenobi series — are released at the same time. Star Wars shows like that may have an unfortunate tendency to drown out everything else.