Everything surrounding Star Wars: Episode VII has been the perfect storm for insanity. We’re coming off of a critically adored animated series (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) and beginning a new one (Star Wars: Rebel Force), George Lucas is no longer really involved thus removing the man most singularly blamed for the artistic failures of the prequel trilogy, and he’s been replaced by a producer (Kathleen Kennedy) and director (J.J. Abrams) who’ve previously given us things we loved like E.T., the Jurrassic Park films, and geektastic television (Alias, Lost, Fringe). Sure, you’d think that the franchise would have lost some of its luster after the prequel trilogy, but to this point Star Wars has generated $4.2 billion at the worldwide box office, close to $4 billion on home video and nearly $20 billion from merchandising (video games, books, toys, etc.) Now, Disney is going all in, giving us one new Star Wars film a year, a new trilogy whose installments will drop every odd year (2015,2017,2019) with two spin-offs coming in the even years (2016,2018). It all kicks off with Star Wars: The Force Awakens Christmas 2015.
But they’re telling us precious little because perish the thought that we might actually see a movie whose plot hasn’t been spoiled by the internet or ultra-revealing trailers beforehand. The problem is this is the first Star Wars movie to be filmed in the age of the movie spoiler-obsessed internet, and there is a rabid fanbase for anything and everything Star Wars, be they those nostalgic for the original trilogy, those who were young enough to enjoy The Phantom Menace as a kids movie, or those who simply know the franchise through its cartoons and games. The result is that The Force Awakens has consistently had to deal with fans who’ve behaved more like paparazzi than fans. Actually, according to The Hollywood Reporter it’s mostly been a case of bad luck.
For example, when Matthew Myatt snagged a photo of the Millenium Falcon from above the set he did so as a member of the Airbourne Aviation Flying Club who just happened to be flying over the Greenham Common parkland territory south of London. No one had any idea Episode VII was filming there. It actually filmed in locations like U.K.’s Pinewood Studios, Abu Dhabi and the Irish island Skellig Michael, largely because Abrams wants to anchor the film in as much practical and real locations as possible as opposed to George Lucas’ prequel trilogy which made extremely liberal use of soundstages with green screens. However, a by-product of that Christopher Nolan-esque ambition is that it exposed the shoot to the public, and it never occurred to them that a random amateur aviation club would just happen to not only fly over the set but that one of them might have a camera on hand. Myatt was high enough in the air that he didn’t even realize what he was taking a picture of until four days later when downloaded his pictures. He posted the picture online, figuring it was cool but that not big of a deal, and he awoke the next morning as the center of British media’s attention.
How did Disney respond to this seemingly innocent mistake? Swiftly and with uncommon power:
The day after Myatt’s photograph went viral, on Sept. 10, the British Civil Aviation authorities established a no-fly zone over Greenham Common. “It amazed me how much power the mouse has,” says Myatt. “Mickey Mouse — that they can call up the British government and shut down the airspace. There’s something wrong with that.”
Because of Myatt the secret was out, and Greenham Common was inundated with Star Wars fans. However, these weren’t just fans making a pilgrimage their Mecca, decked out in full stormtrooper gear, although that kind of thing did actually happen. No, these were fans with a plan. As it turns out, that no-fly zone Disney secured from the British Civil Aviation authorities did not include drone planes:
Pretty soon, shaky and not-so-shaky HD videos of the Greenham Common set, including the Millennium Falcon, an X-wing fighter and the clear outlines of an elaborately constructed planet were making their way around the web.
How did Disney respond this time? Not so swiftly, but again with uncommon power. They actually contracted with an Arlington, VA company called Drone Shield whose services primarily entail setting up an automated system which signals early warnings to users when a drone plane has been detected nearby. This is a service which has, according to Drone Shield, been used by “executives concerned about paparazzi,” corporations worried about intellectual property loss and “U.S. military and homeland security departments.” The only problem for Disney was that they needed an export license to use this American product on their UK set, and it does not appear as if that license had come through by the time they wrapped principal photography. So, they didn’t actually use it, but Disney did apply to guard Force Awakens spoilers via a military grade product designed to combat drone spy planes.
Why on Earth was Disney forced into such extreme action? Why can’t fans simply wait and let the dang movie delivers its own surprises on its own terms? Because being patient doesn’t pay. According to THR, a Millennium Falcon picture from the set could earn thousands of dollars, and anything from the even more secretive Abu Dhabi set could garner tens of thousands of dollars. So, when Mike Lawrence, who grew up near the Greenham Common area, was spotted taking pictures of the set from atop a nearby tree Disney’s people weren’t buying his line about simply being a curious fan. A video he’d captured of Adam Driver on the set gave away a potentially huge spoiler. When he came back days later and climbed back up the tree, he was flanked on all sides by members of the film crew within 30 minutes, but he refused to come down for three full hours.
It’s that kind of thing that caused J.J. Abrams to decorate the set “with a poster showing a Storm Trooper being choked by Darth Vader’s famous gloved hand, with the words, ‘Loose Lips Sink Starships.’” And, of course, that very poster instantly ended up on Twitter, posted by Kathleen Kennedy’s own husband who simply thought it was funny.
Other people involved with or rumored to be involved with the film have made similar mistakes, and their Twitter (or whatever offending social media app) accounts almost instantly disappeared afterward. The producers took to requiring that anyone who visited the set have a special sticker placed over the lens of their cell phone camera, the sticker acting like a security seal. If you tried to take it off the camera and sneak a quick photo the sticker wouldn’t actually re-stick to the lens meaning that upon inspection as you left the set it would be obvious that you had done something wrong.
I keep thinking, “This must be killing J.J. Abrams.” He is the master of the secretive marketing campaign, preferring as many of his film’s surprises to be kept secret for as long as possible, not an altogether unreasonable desire. He puts his projects into a mystery box, and will fight anyone who tries to pick up that box to shake it around like a little kid shaking a birthday present to see what it might be. Some of his mysteries work (the anti-marketing campaigns behind Cloverfield and Super 8), and some not so much (“No, seriously, Benedict Cumberbatch is playing a guy named John Harrison, not Khan, in Star Trek Into Darkness”). Some are just strange, like that mystery project which turned out to be an experimental book. It turns out, though, that not even he is up to the task of controlling every bit of information about a new Star Wars movie. However, to anyone who tries to do that you’d wish them good luck, “May the force be with them,” before joking, “Oh, they’re so screwed. Those fans are crazy!”* Or, in the case of Matthew Myatt, they just happened to be in the right exact place at the right exact time.
*I say that as someone who regularly reports superhero movie rumors on this site. So, yeah, like I’m really one to talk.