Star Wars Celebration Anaheim…
You will never find a more devoted flock of fans and family.
“Family” is a loaded word, but one that proved omnipresent throughout the four-day Star Wars event. At the Anaheim Convention Center, over 150,000 fans united in their love for a galaxy far, far away. Stars and creatives presided over a weekend of shocking media reveals, insightful panels, and fan events.
This wasn’t my first trench run with Celebration. I’d attended the 2010 Orlando event, but it was nothing like this. The schism between prequel apologists and original trilogy truthers was mended, attendance had quintupled, and genuine excitement crackled in the air for creators and fans alike. It can’t be overstated: Lucasfilm’s sale to Disney changed everything.
Ahead, you’ll find an exhaustive report that details (mostly) the entire weekend. To assist in your reading, we’ve broken down the whole hunk of junk into 10 informative sections. May the Force be with you:
IV. Special Editions
VII. Spark of Rebellion
I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing
I grew up on Star Wars and Indiana Jones. In a fourth grade assignment, I cited George Lucas as my personal hero. The prequels changed all that. I can still clearly remember leaving the theater after seeing Episode I: The Phantom Menace and my mom, a fair-weather follower of pop culture but devoted enough to Star Wars and Indy to read the novels, saying, “That wasn’t very good.” I felt the same way, but swallowed that sinking feeling and protested: “No, it was great.” Maybe if I watched it again I’d like it more.
That was the beginning of the end. Episodes II and III each got a single viewing in theaters, but only served to reinforce my negativity. Lucas was a hack, and for all the visionary innovations and funky pulpy ideas he’d brought to the big screen, when left to his own devices, he’d run the most luminous ship in cinema straight into the ground. Only years later, when Red Letter Media‘s murderous senior citizen persona Mr. Plinkett deftly picked apart the prequel trilogy, did the healing start.
Plinkett helped myself and many other burned Star Wars fans come to terms with the wrongness of the new trilogy. Yes, the prequels were still alive and well on TV via the CG Clone Wars animated series, but the damage had been done, the dust had settled. As long as we could track down rips of the widescreen laserdiscs, we’d always have the Star Wars that we loved. We didn’t, however, expect to be excited for something new.
Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm and the promise of new movies was transformative in every conceivable way. It was as though millions of voices suddenly cried out in celebration and kept on partying. Myself and my co-hosts on the podcast Nerdy Show were so floored by the news that within 12 hours we recorded and released an impromptu episode discussing the implications. Our minds reeled with possibilities.
The lot of us had settled into a post-Plinkett status quo, but overnight our passion for Star Wars was reignited at the promise of what a liberated Star Wars could be. In less than a month following the announcement, we launched an ongoing news and rumors podcast series: State of the Empire, where we “look for news in Alderaan places.” Ask any of us prior to the announcement if we saw ourselves devoting a whole show to Star Wars and we’d have said no.
The Force Awakens
The original Star Wars trilogy is easily the dominant mythological text of the latter 20th century. The archetypes and outlines of superheroes will stand the test of time, but A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi‘s Joseph Campbell-fueled sci-fi narrative could survive intact until the campfires of the post-apocalypse. For me, it’s a story that has always existed. Luke Skywalker and co.’s journey in cinema ended the year before I was born. The promise of Star Wars beyond Jedi was good on paper, but for all my enthusiasm, I underestimated how dream-like the prospect of a new film still was. Even after over two years of scavenging the Star Wars rumor mill, I was unprepared – and I wasn’t alone.
Not a single Star Wars fan I spoke with could deny tears at the sight of Han Solo and Chewbacca. Whether they caught the reveal of the second Force Awakens teaser in person or online; as soon as that charming, silver-haired smuggler grinned, we awoke from a child-like “what if” to an overwhelming reality. Together, an arena of 9,000 people teared up at the joy of Han Solo walking back into their lives.
“Chewie, we’re home.”
The line couldn’t be more on the nose, but the effect is just as potent on every re-watch. I recognize the sensation immediately: dreams where dead friends are miraculously alive again. It’s a beautiful shock. After all this time, after over a decade of prequel griping, a few seconds of Han Solo on screen completely disarms me.
It’s one step further for Nerdy Show‘s resident holocron, Matt Spill. “In ’99, Chewbacca died in Vector Prime (an Expanded Universe novel) and I processed his death like a normal human being processes the death of a loved one. His roar at the end of that teaser – I absolutely teared up. He committed a heroic act and gave his life, but now he’s suddenly alive… he’s home.”
On State of the Empire, we try to keep things objective. Our fan love is carefully armored with journalistic scrutiny and playful cynicism. Leave it to Disney to deftly cut though all that. All it took was some flashy sequences and the return of some old friends to break us down.
Consume. Obey. Conform.
As much as the new Force Awakens teaser got touchy-feely with our heart strings, the opening ceremony that preceded its reveal drew a stark line between the creators and the consumer audience.
Long-time Celebration hype man Mark Daniel warmed up the crowd for the Star Wars “royalty” that would take the stage: Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy and director J.J. Abrams. (The stars of The Force Awakens and the original trilogy were surprise guests later in the ceremony.) Within moments of seating herself, Kennedy shared an unsolicited anecdote:
“I just have to say last night, I was so excited as we were walking through [the convention hall], that I ran in before anyone got inside and I bought this t-shirt.” She proudly displayed a pastel Star Wars logo shirt by Her Universe that debuted at the show.
The event’s emcee, EW‘s Anthony Breznican, stated the obvious — certainly she could have been comped a shirt.
“I know, but it’s so much more important to pick things up here at Celebration, because it isn’t anywhere else. I had to have it first.” As with many moments throughout the opening ceremony, this one feels somewhat rehearsed, but the sudden and unmasked consumer message was jarring.
No one has any delusions that we, as fans, aren’t here to consume. Star Wars, artful blockbusters though they are, are indelibly tethered to merchandising – from Kenner’s original line of action figures, to that freaky lollypop of Jar Jar’s tongue. The last thing a Star Wars fan needs to be told is to go out and buy some cool branded merchandise; especially after throwing down $40-$155 just to get into the show.
Likely, the message wasn’t intended for the fans in the audience, but the millions more watching online. For the first time ever, major presentations at Celebration were streaming for anyone to tune in. It makes a lot of sense, especially at this pivotal juncture with so many announcements. But in some ways, it devalued the experience of being at the show.
However, despite this shakeup and knowledge, thousands of ticketed Star Wars fans waited overnight anyhow, just to be in the arena. The line to get into the 10 a.m. opening ceremony had formed the afternoon prior. My seat in the nosebleeds was the result of a 5 a.m. arrival. So, don’t you wish you were in Anaheim, where you could have filed into an hour-long cattle corral to pick up that exclusive Max Rebo plush?
“Nothing is more important than the fans,” Kennedy insisted. Of course not; they’re where the money lives.
Nerd culture is based around passion. Passion for niche interests and nuanced stories. It’s a passion that lends itself to creation and consumption. Nerds are good for business because we’ll invest ourselves in things we love. Companies have learned to feed off this investment. Fortunately for us, they’ve also learned that passion isn’t always blind. While some might become slaves to a given franchise, come hell or high water, most nerds have made it plainly clear that the content we consume has to be good. If it sucks, we’ll jump ship.
Case in point: how heavily Disney/ Lucasfilm has invested in the era the original trilogy. The reign of the prequels has ended. At the opening ceremony, the excitement of a fully mobile BB-8 ball droid was only dwarfed by the extended cheering for the upcoming film’s use of practical effects. It’s a beautiful moment, one that gives Abrams pause. And although moments like Kennedy’s T-shirt announcement pigeonhole us as a consumer class, the passion of the fanbase is mirrored in the revitalized Star Wars‘ creative teams.
The Lucasfilm Story Group, the committee that now manages the brand and development of the entire Star Wars Universe, is helmed by living Star Wars lexicons. Kennedy and Abrams brought fan droid builders they met at the previous Celebration onto the staff of The Force Awakens. Writer/producer powerhouse Simon Kinberg cited his first memory of seeing A New Hope in theaters as a defining moment that prompted him to devote his life to film.
That fandom was shared by many others on new creative teams, especially Gareth Edwards. During his panel about the new Anthology films, the Rogue One director flashed his Star Wars cred by sharing photos from his 30th birthday, where he traveled to Tunisia to visit sets from Star Wars, sip blue milk, and gaze wistfully into the sunset beyond a desert igloo. Yes, the force is strong with them, and that’s a very good feeling to have again.
The main convention hall is a modest size for a convention with this many attendees. Large scale dioramas and booths for major licensors intermingle with mom and pop collectable stalls. There’s only so much variety you can squeeze out of a single property, even one as pervasive as Star Wars. Contrary to the hype surrounding exclusive merch, this isn’t the be-all end-all of Celebration. The real heart of Celebration is in the panels, most of which aren’t being streamed. In some cases, the information and opportunities offered therein is more exclusive than anything in the Celebration Store.
In “Secrets of the Mos Eisley Cantina”, Story Group member Pablo Hidalgo teamed up with mask and prop master Tom Spina to dig deep behind the scenes of one of the saga’s most memorable sequences. Even with access to the Lucasfilm archives, there’s still much about the dank and smokey wateringhole that’s shrouded in mystery. Who played what characters? Where did the masks come from? The tales of the shoot’s history is as complex and unusual as the cantina itself. The panel offered a wealth of cool insight for fans, but didn’t stop at slide shows and anecdotes. Spina brought out three of the original masks from the shoot – lovingly restored by his studio, and Hidalgo raffled off a chance for a fan to officially name one of the cantina background characters. Now, the barfly affectionately nicknamed “Little Aunt Beru” will forever be known as Damono Deomaley.
Elsewhere at the convention, Carrie Fisher closed her panel by making out with a fan who only wanted a selfie with her. His adolescent fantasies manifested in front of a crowd of thousands and one flabbergasted host:
Nestled in between panel stages was The Force Awakens Exhibit – an unassuming room where several people at a time were able to come face to face with various props and costumes from the forthcoming film. Among the cases were costumes for a redesigned Snowtrooper and the all-new Flametrooper as well as the film’s presumed villain, Kylo Ren. Seeing Ren up close is an incredible thing. The mask is sleek but worn, the vest is made of braided basket weave, and the infamous tri-blade lightsaber looks to be cobbled together out of spare parts. The entire exhibit was filled with subtle clues about the nature of the new characters and what’s to come in the film.
Among the bigger events not to be streamed was the aforementioned discussion with Gareth Edwards. During the Sunday panel, which once again packed the arena, the first real info about 2016’s Rogue One was revealed. Separate from the Star Wars episodes, the spinoff takes place prior to A New Hope and is a grim war film about the Rebels’ theft of the original Death Star plans. Edwards revealed that the film is staffed by alumni of some of the best war films of the past two decades and is grounded in a sense of realism. “God is not coming to save us,” he added – referring to the film’s decided lack of any Force-wielders. The news was punctuated by a stunning, though short, teaser trailer depicting the Death Star hovering in the orbit of a jungle world and a transmission of scrambled, panicking voices.
Between the Lines
Throughout the weekend, fans were treated to a multitude of panels relating to the Lucasfilm animation division – giving equal focus to the former series The Clone Wars and the current, era-bridging series, Star Wars Rebels. Within these panels was a surprising narrative that revealed both the incredible challenges the team faced in starting up the new show, as well as how the series have mutually influenced the new canon of Star Wars.
Many who tuned out during the prequels might be surprised to know that since 2008 there’s been a canonical Star Wars show on TV. The CG animated series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, debuted with a feature film (the lowest-grossing Star Wars film of all time) that led into a television show on Cartoon Network. The series was set between Episodes II and III, chronicling the adventures of Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Ahsoka Tano, aka Anakin’s young padawan trainee, never mentioned in any prior media. The series ran until 2013, when it was abruptly canceled along with many other Lucasfilm projects following the Disney purchase.
When The Clone Wars debuted, it was far more geared to kids than an all-ages audience, highlighting the groan-inducing characterization and childish comedy that turned longtime fans away from the newer films. This childishness was punctuated by Ahsoka, a 14 year-old Togruta with a spunky personality and a penchant for giving things nicknames (read: annoying). Over its six seasons the writing varied drastically – ranging from horrible to downright cool – and in many cases actually served to retroactively improve, Revenge of the Sith, by providing added significance to the people and places tied up in the Clone Wars conflict.
The series was essentially masterminded by Lucas whose concepts were then cobbled together by showrunner Dave Filoni. For all the strength that Filoni brought to the series, he still had to incorporate eye-rollers like Darth Maul’s brother Savage Opress and delicately decide how to navigate Lucas’ disregard of previously published Star Wars material. This proved to be a point of further contention for fans as well as authors working in Star Wars when, over its 100+ episodes, Clone Wars contradicted many aspects of the known Expanded Universe. This continuity upheaval made some authors quit their jobs and fans, who’d devotedly followed any and all Star Wars storytelling, become skeptical about the landscape of the world they loved.
By the time of the Disney purchase, Lucasfilm had six tiers of canon encompassing all Star Wars properties. Any kind of unification was virtually impossible … which is why it all had to be scrapped.
Enter the Story Group
The Lucasfilm Story Group was founded by Kathleen Kennedy and Star Wars Development Lead Kiri Hart. It’s a group of four to six people devoted to keeping all of Star Wars unified under one canon. To do so, they had to slash and burn; effectively starting from scratch. The only prior stories still canon are tales that Lucas himself was directly involved with: Episodes I-VI and The Clone Wars. Since that initial announcement of the Expanded Universe’s demise, all new novels, comics, and television have been approved by the Story Group and are 100% canon.
The history beyond Return of the Jedi, however, is now a blank slate, waiting for The Force Awakens, Marvel’s Shattered Empire comic, DICE Studio’s Star Wars Battlefront DLC, and the Del Rey novel Aftermath to set the stage for what’s to come. All prior history is now part of “Star Wars Legends” — tall tales that may or may not have happened. As per the “One Big Story” panel at Celebration, the Story Group has admitted that Legends are a viable source for information and fan favorite characters will be reintroduced into canon. When and how this will happen is anyone’s guess.
Sound like a sticky situation? It is. But, perhaps surprisingly, most fans are welcome to the change. Lucas was no longer the visionary storyteller, but instead an impediment to the galaxy he’d birthed. The Clone Wars, for all its successes, was a sore reminder of just how disconnected the prequel-era had become. Instead of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith being compelling standalone films, most of the real drama of that time period was happening in a kid’s show with several major characters being shoehorned into existence – their fates following the films unknown. According to Filoni at the “Untold Tales of Clone Wars” panel, the show was intended to run up to Revenge of the Sith and just beyond, placing the characters in a context that would have led into the original trilogy.
To date, several unaired Clone Wars episodes have been released on Netflix, where the series is gaining a new following. At Celebration, several unfinished but canonical episodes were shown, along with clips from partially completed story arcs. Some of these stories have become Story Group-authorized releases in other mediums, including the comic Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir and the forthcoming novel, Dark Disciple. While the storylines of Clone Wars abruptly ended, it’s not destined to become an awkward footnote in the Star Wars timeline. In fact, The Clone Wars is on its way to becoming a major contributing factor in bridging the dubious gap between the much-maligned prequel era and A New Hope.
Spark of Rebellion
A major aspect of post-Lucas Star Wars has been a back-to-basics approach and a conscious return to the characters and aesthetics of the most celebrated era of Star Wars: the original trilogy. Like them or not, the negativity surrounding Episodes I-III can’t be ignored and so far Kennedy’s guidance in returning to the era and aesthetics of Episodes IV-VI has been right on the money. There’s no doubt about it, to make the transition complete – Clone Wars had to have the plug pulled. But as soon as one door closed, another opened and Filoni and his animation team were given a new assignment: Star Wars Rebels.
Rebels was designed to be a stepping stone between the two trilogies, taking place in between Episode III and IV with an all-new cast of characters. It was clear that the advent of the show happened quickly, but over the course of Celebration’s animation-themed panels, a narrative emerged of a shockingly rushed production that miraculously pulled itself together. The basic premise of the new show, as well as core character designs and overall aesthetics, were completed in a “mad dash” – a paltry two months. Rebels had to be on track to debut in a timely slot that would stimulate the new Star Wars hype; also, Hasbro had to get started on action figure designs. As such, the voice cast was decided within a week.
The series’ first season does a fair job of establishing fun characters and an intriguing status quo before finally thrusting them into a larger world in a climactic season finale. At Celebration, fans were treated to not just a trailer for the second season, but for those lucky enough to make it in, a screening of the two-part premiere of season two. In the premiere, any remaining childishness of Rebels is swept away. The crew of The Ghost now find themselves dealing with their own version of Empire Strikes Back level shake-ups, punctuated by their first encounter with Darth Vader, voiced by James Earl Jones. Season Two is anticipated to debut this summer and features not just everyone’s favorite Sith Lord, but also characters from The Clone Wars.
The Last of the Jedi Will You Be
While many fans, myself included, had no interest whatsoever in prequel-era stories; new fans were growing up with Clone Wars characters and, in many cases, the show grew with them. Over the series’ six seasons, the writing, though still varied, had matured. Ahsoka was 16, the Clone Wars were drawing to a close, characters created in the show had devoted followings, and the ominous question lingered: if Luke was the last Jedi, then what happened to Ahsoka? Did Anakin kill his apprentice?
Ashoka’s ultimate fate is still a mystery, but her whereabouts at the time of Rebels (five years before A New Hope) are now known. She’s alive and well, playing an instrumental part in the formation of the Rebel Alliance. While in line for “Untold Tales of Clone Wars” I spoke with Bianca, a fan of the show. I was curious what her take was on Ahsoka’s inevitable meeting with her former master, Darth Vader, and how she felt about the likelihood of the Jedi’s death. It wasn’t long before tears welled up in her eyes.
“It was great [to see Ahsoka] ’cause you can finally get some closure. But then … dread ’cause you know what’s going to happen. She lost Anakin’s trust and by the time he actually believed her … it was too late. When they eventually do meet … it’s gonna kill me.”
With the debut of the second season of Rebels, the desperate elements of the original trilogy and the prequels at last converge. I’m surprised to say it’s exciting. Much as I don’t like them, the prequels are a reality. But now we’re fortunate enough to have a group of clever-minded people finding the good within what was left over and folding it gracefully into what came before. It’s been a hard road, but thanks to the Story Group, it’s not just the trilogies that are united, it’s the fans too.
The Force Runs Strong in My Family
I opened this article championing the “family” of Star Wars fans. It’s a very real thing. One hundred and fifty thousand of us traveled near and far and spent big money for the mutual love of Star Wars. Sith and Jedi, Rebel and Imperial – ultimately we’re all on the same side. Though that sense of family was real, it was also heavily marketed. The concept of fans as family was hammered home by big stage presenters and brandished across the con’s welcome banner, “Join the Worldwide Star Wars Family”.
From up on the convention center’s third floor balcony, we had a perfect view of the show’s social epicenter. Below us, four male Slave Dancer Leias posed for a picture. Several Disney princesses reimagined as Jedi congregated, including, much to our surprise, a fully vulpine Maid Marian. Troopers of every sort scattered the landscape. Some picketed the now ubiquitous Holy Bible Evangelicals with their own home made “Holy Trilogy” signs. My co-host, Doug, mentioned the reoccurring use of “family” to describe the fan population.
“Family,” I asked, channeling Elias’ Koteas indignant, De Niro-esque Casey Jones in 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “You call this … up here … and that … down there … family?”
Doug and I had a good laugh, but it was true. There’s nothing but love and respect in our hearts for the Clockwork Orange Stormtrooper or the flock of Willrow Hood impersonators running amok with their ice cream makers/ memory cores. Earlier that day, we’d been in line with a four-year-old dressed as Luke on Dagobah, sitting on his dad’s shoulders, singing the opening notes of “The Imperial March” on repeat. It wasn’t just adorable — that could’ve been either of us in another place and time.
Does our bond to Star Wars make us a cult? Or a church? The same rhetoric applies and it would seem the Godhead of Disney has no qualms about walking that line. Perhaps the difference is that for most of us, we’re not that desperate to belong – we just do. Star Wars is ours. Ironically, now that it belongs to an impossibly huge megacorp, Star Wars is more ours than ever. Fans run the company, fans act in the films — it’s a passion that surrounds us and unites us.
Of all the presenters to use the family rhetoric, there’s one whose intentions I don’t doubt for a second: Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker himself. During the Celebration opening ceremony, alongside Peter Mayhew, Carrie Fisher, and Anthony Daniels, he reflected on the fandom and how far our passion has taken us all. “Over the years, my entire adult life, I’ve felt such love from you and … you’re more than just fans, you’re family.”
That sentiment is echoed in his voiceover for the teaser that debuted that day. “The force is strong in my family. My father has it, I have it, my sister has it … now you have it, too.” Luke’s monologue doesn’t just pass the torch to the new cast, but to the entire Star Wars fandom. We’re no longer limited by Lucas’ midi-chlorians. The force is ours and ours to shape.