SWCA: Reinventing the 'Star Wars' Universe With the Lucasfilm Story Group

Shortly after Disney’s $4.06 billion purchase of the company in 2012, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy assembled a “Jedi Council” of her own, The Lucasfilm Story Group, to manage continuity in all corners of the “Star Wars” Universe.

This was no easy task, even for a multifaceted corporation like Disney. Although “Star Wars” is viewed as a single saga, it has spawned an endless array of stories in other media, sustaining the franchise in the public consciousness for four decades.

At last weekend’s Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California, members of the group -- Creative Director John Siglain; Senior Editor of Lucasfilm and Disney Publishing Jennifer Heddle; Del Rey Books Publisher Shelly Shapiro; Editor of Marvel’s “Star Wars” titles Jordan D. White; Marvel Executive Editor C.B Cebulski; Managing Editor at DK Publishing Sadie Smith; and Lucasfilm continuity expert Leland Chee -- spoke to a packed hall about the challenges of working within “Star Wars” canon.

One of the bigger challenges the group faced is deciding how nearly 35 years of novels, comics, video games and animated series prior to Disney’s stewardship fit into the continuity established by the films. With different publishers, game developers and production companies working in relative isolation from each other in the past, elements in the Expanded Universe were “not as in synch as they could be,” Heddle said.

When asked what, at this point, is and isn’t canon, Hidalgo replied simply, “It’s not that hard: The new stuff is [canon] by default.”

However, Disney didn’t send the Death Star to destroy the Expanded Universe. Instead, much like Marvel’s original “Star Wars” comic book, the material will continue to be published -- in both digital and print formats -- but under a new banner, “Star Wars Legends.” While some die-hard fans look at it as throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it’s more of the new guard’s way of acknowledging what came before while righting continuity glitches and conceptual oddities introduced over the years.

For example, Hutt anatomy: Some may be disappointed to learn that Hutts are no longer hermaphroditic. Some questions, like the ultimate fate of Boba Fett, will remain unanswered. Hidalgo compared the Mandalorian bounty hunter to Schrodinger’s cat, “both simultaneously alive and dead, in that Sarlaac pit until a story pulls him out.”

To answer all questions about the state of the “Star Wars” Universe, Smith gave the crowd a sneak peak at DK’s upcoming “Ultimate Star Wars.” The 300-plus page hardcover encyclopedia promises to be a comprehensive guide to the characters, creatures, locations, significant events and technology in the new pre-Episode VII canon. Celebration attendees were able to purchase the book on site. It won’t be available in stores until next month.

However, the purpose of the Lucasfilm Story Group goes far deeper than simply streamlining canon. At its core, the group is much more about developing new stories, by coordinating efforts in all related media to create a more unified and satisfying meta-story, or as the title of the panel states, “One Big Story.” Still, after decades of stories that occasionally contradicted each other, (resulting in a five-tiered approach to canon, ranging from “established history” to “not real”) some fans were skeptical as to whether even a coordinated effort between Lucasfilm and Disney would eventually result in a similarly chaotic continuity. Also known as “Keeper of the Holocron” and Lucasfilm’s resident “Star Wars” expert, Chee merely said the group doesn‘t anticipate that problem. Hidalgo assured, “We won’t fall back into past practices.”

Although no plot points were discussed in any detail at the panel, the development process for 2016’s “Star Wars: Rogue One,” the first “anthology film,” provides a good illustration of what the story group actually does. After its purchase by Disney, one of Lucasfilm’s more ambitious goals was to release a “Star Wars” film every year. To that end, Kennedy began seeking original ideas for stories outside of the original cast of characters, their ancestors and descendants.

One such idea came from John Knoll, who after revolutionizing computer graphics by creating Photoshop, developed software for Industrial Light and Magic. With no full-length script written and a green light from Kennedy, the group not only helped to develop the story, but guided screenwriter Chris Weitz through the potential minefield of telling a tale that takes place just prior to “A New Hope,” but takes into account continuity established in the prequel films, “The Clone Wars” and “Star Wars Rebels” animated series, Marvel’s “Kanan: The Last Padawan” comic and the upcoming “Rebels” novel “A New Dawn.”

The discussion eventually turned to another concerted effort beginning in September: “The Journey to ‘The Force Awakens.’” More than 20 comics and novels will be published between early September and Dec. 18, all of which will fill the 30-year gap between the events of “Return of The Jedi” and “The Force Awakens.” One such project is Marvel’s “Shattered Empire,” by Greg Rucka and Marco Chechetto.

“The world has been wondering what happened after the fall of the Empire,” White said. “Now, on the dawn of the next chapter in the saga, we’re incredibly proud to be involved in revealing the events that happen immediately after ‘Return of the Jedi.’”

While the majority of the fans in attendance were satisfied that the Expanded Universe was at least being preserved through Marvel and Del Rey, you can’t say 30-plus years of stories in essence “don’t count” without drawing a little ire from longtime fans of the novels and the Dark Horse comics. For example, White and Cebulski had to break more than a couple of hearts by revealing that Mara Jade -- in the EU, she’s Luke Skywalker’s wife -- is not in the current version of Luke’s future. Hidalgo tried to answer the inevitable battery of “Is my character still a part of the SWU?” with a blanket statement of, “It’s not canon until it is.”

Still, not every character from the EU has been purged from the post-Disney canon. When asked about the fate of Jedi Master Quinlan Vos (by a cosplayer dressed as Vos, no less), Shapiro had good news for fans of the Order 66 survivor: Arriving in July, Del Rey’s “Dark Disciple” will see Vos paired with former Sith Acolyte Asajj Ventress to hunt down Count Dooku.

While cynics questioned how long it will be before the canon established by the newly anointed ‘Star Wars’ “think tank” is derailed, one hopeful fan asked, “Do you think the story will ever end?”

“There‘s always more story to tell,” Hiddle replied, “Just like real life. Will we ever finish? I hope not.”

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