Messing with a Classic

March 12, 2018 Pivotal Software

Howard Roffman, Former EVP of Lucasfilm talks about transformation for the Star Wars Franchise: the gap between the original trilogy and the prequels, and the how the merchandise became omnipresent.

“Star Wars was a phenomenon the likes of which certainly the entertainment industry had never seen.” —Howard Roffman


Michal Lev-Ram: I don’t start every interview with going back to the ’80s, I promise, but in this case it’s applicable. So you started in 1980 at Lucasfilm, just very quickly give us a brief overview of how your career trajectory went with the company, and you recently retired, so good timing for us.

Howard Roffman: Yeah, two months into retirement now.

Michal Lev-Ram: So far, so good?

Howard Roffman: So far it’s great. I’m loving it. Yeah, my career took a severe left turn when I got recruited to Lucasfilm. I had gone to school to be an attorney, I was practicing law in Washington D.C., minding my own business. Not terribly happy about it, but I wasn’t at the point of making a big life choice, and one night I got a call from a friend of mine who said, “How would you like to go to work for George Lucas?” The first question I had was, “What would George Lucas want with somebody like me?” There was no connection, but it turned out that there was a mutual friend, who was the general counsel of Lucasfilm, they were looking for a smart young attorney —

Michal Lev-Ram: Were you a Star Wars fan?

Howard Roffman: No, actually I wasn’t at that point. I was a George Lucas fan ’cause I liked American Graffiti very much, but Star Wars I didn’t quite get at that point. Things would change, but they flew me out to Los Angeles at the time, interviewed me, made me an offer on the spot, and all of a sudden I was in a very different —

Michal Lev-Ram: Galaxy far, far away?

Howard Roffman: Yeah.

Michal Lev-Ram: How were those early years? What was the culture like? What was the—it’s early on to have even started thinking about expanding from the core, right?

Howard Roffman: It was an amazing time for a lot of reasons. We were the kings of the mountain. Star Wars was a phenomenon the likes of which certainly the entertainment industry had never seen. I started the week that The Empire Strikes Back came out. There was a lot of doubt about will a sequel to that movie work? Everybody knew how successful Star Wars was, but it worked in spades, and then Return of the Jedi. We had the sense of not being able to do no wrong, so there was this beautiful myopic culture of infallibility, but it was also a very small company at that time.

Michal Lev-Ram: About how many people?

Howard Roffman: For the corporate part of it, there were about 70–75 people and then there was Industrial Light of Magic, which was our special effects house that had a couple hundred people at that point, so it was very small. George Lucas was somebody who was not reluctant to shake things up. He really understood that change was a way of life, and that he needed to be a change agent. Very shortly after I started, he fired the entire senior management, which was a good thing for the company, and a great thing for me. It changed my life.

Michal Lev-Ram: What was your mandate early on at the company?

Howard Roffman: The official mandate was just to do contracts. I was doing merchandise agreements, I did Harrison Ford’s agreement for Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was all these little things, but I was getting pulled into the general management of the company, so in a lot of ways my mandate became keeping things together while we are going through this tumultuous period.

Michal Lev-Ram: Then after, when was the decision made because at some point even the company went through a phase where the vast majority of revenue was actually on the licensing front, so when did that evolution happen?

Howard Roffman: For that initial period of the original trilogy, we were doing great, but in 1983, when Return of the Jedi came out, George also announced that he was getting divorced and going out of the Star Wars business, that he wasn’t gonna make any Star Wars movies, and that ground things to a halt.

Obviously the world didn’t stop. Our original audience was getting older, so much of our business was built around kids at that time, and kids grow up. The new generation was moving in, there was a lot of competition in the marketplace all of a sudden, syndicated television was coming on board, and that’s where kids were gravitating to, and Star Wars sales just plummeted at that point.

By 1985, you couldn’t give away Star Wars merchandise, and we had to make a decision to go underground, just turn things down, not try to drive the market so much. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that we really started to look at how do we bring Star Wars back. That was the pivotal time where we evolved into something that was 100% driven by theatrical movies to something that was driven more by consumer products.

“We had to recognize that our audience evolved.” —Howard Roffman

Michal Lev-Ram: Okay, so walk us through the process, if you had a process, for once that got up and going. Did you have some kind of system for what you would do, what you didn’t do?

Howard Roffman: In retrospect, I had a brilliant process. When it was happening at the time, it was live and evolving, but the basic framework was that we had to recognize that our audience evolved, so if you were a 10 year old in 1977 when you saw the film originally, and that was the core audience, certainly the audience that was buying product. By 1990, you’re either finishing college, starting your career, starting a family, you’re at a very different life stage, and we started thinking, if people are still interested in Star Wars, what would interest them at that stage of their life? That’s when we started to think about things like continuing some of the stories of the characters in the films through novels ’cause we, at that point, we were out of the theatrical film business. So we looked at publishing as a very important way of reengaging the audience at this new life stage.

Michal Lev-Ram: Were there things you said no to?

Howard Roffman: There have always been things we’ve said no to. We get so many proposals for different things. One of the temptations of something as ubiquitous and powerful as Star Wars is that everybody wants a piece of it, so there’s a lot of greed at work and over enthusiasm and maybe things that just aren’t right for the ground.

Michal Lev-Ram: Maybe a more interesting question is what’s one thing that something that you said yes to, which you regret later…

Howard Roffman: I’m not sure that I can think of something … A specific thing that I regretted, there were definitely some partners that we went into business with that we regret going into business with because they just weren’t … Either they didn’t get Star Wars enough, or they didn’t really have the wherewithal to serve the consumer in the way that we needed for a brand like Star Wars.

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Michal Lev-Ram: So I think we tend to think of creative innovative companies as companies who move quickly, but putting together a movie, especially one with so many special effects and huge production teams, and everything that goes … Huge budgets, of course, takes a few years, and as we’ve seen especially recently, sometimes it takes even longer than was originally intended, so how do you guys … How did you internally balance that need to constantly innovate, and be creative, and give something new to this really loyal fan base?

Howard Roffman: You definitely have to look at the pre-Disney acquisition and the post-Disney acquisition because pre-Disney, we had the luxury of being a completely private company. We had one shareholder named George Lucas and that was it. So we served him, we weren’t driven by quarterly results or any of the things that drive public companies. It was very clear in the scheme of things that George was the person who was driving, making the films. So he worked according to his own schedule, and we had to work around that.

Michal Lev-Ram: Were there any downsides to that by the way?

Howard Roffman: There’s always downsides to everything. The original plan when George said he was going back to make the prequel trilogy was that the first one would be released in 1997, and that got moved to 1998, and then finally got moved to 1999. It completely wreaked havoc with all of our plans, with most of my life at that point, but it also forced us to come up with other ideas for what do you do to keep the plate spinning? What do you do to keep the audience engaged? Because we were very conscious of moving from this period that was driven by consumer products into a period that was once again gonna be driven by theatrical films, and the prospect of engaging, deeply engaging a new generation.

“We wanted it to be one universe, we really felt strongly that that is what it needed to be.” —Howard Roffman

Michal Lev-Ram: Okay, so you brought up Disney as you guys probably know, Lucasfilm was bought … Was it 2013?

Howard Roffman: 2012.

Michal Lev-Ram: 2012, so just a few years back, and now there’s a movie coming out every year. In your experience, in the last few years at the company, how has that changed things? I’m sure there have been massive changes, but the schedule that you guys are now on …

Howard Roffman: It was funny to hear Michael Dell talking about how speed is a factor because that definitely happened when Disney acquired us. We were on a very constricted production schedule before, and as you say we went to one film a year. In addition to that, the creative center of the company completely changed.

Before it was George Lucas, George exited the company, all of a sudden you had Kathy Kennedy who was a very talented filmmaker and producer, but she’s not George Lucas. She understood that she was playing a different role, so she had to assemble a creative bench in a way that we never had before. So you have a lot of people weighing in, not always people who have the same deep understanding of what the Star Wars saga is about, particularly mythologically, and some of the reasons that it appeals so deeply to people. It was a little bit more filmmaking by committee, and then because of the amount of content, there were a lot of questions about where should the content go.

Up to that point, Star Wars had pretty much been a space soap opera where you had a certain group of characters that you were invested in, and you were following their continuing adventures. But now we’re in this paradigm of some of those, but also spinoff movies that tell ancillary stories. So what it’s meant is that everything that’s done with Star Wars right now, is a never been done before. What’s the amount of consumer products that should be out there? What’s the frequency of the movies? What should they cover? You’re getting new learning experiences every year. It’s really dynamic, it’s really interesting, it’s a bit scary especially for an old timer like me.

Michal Lev-Ram: So you were like I’m outta here?

Howard Roffman: No, no, no, no, no. I enjoyed the ride a lot, but after 37 years of doing it, there were other things I wanted to do with my life, so yeah. I have the highest respect for Disney and for all the filmmakers that are involved in this. It’s an amazing group of people.

Michal Lev-Ram: Any questions? It can be related to what you do, or it can be purely a Star Wars question. Yes.

Audience #1: Hi, I’m asking purely Star Wars question. I’m Enrique with the Defense Innovation Unit down in Silicon Valley. So okay, so you have a brand that has a massively rapid fan base, including people here wearing Star Wars socks, which I’m not wearing mine today, but —

Michal Lev-Ram: Wow.

Howard Roffman: Oh wow. Very good.

Audience #1: You got a rapid fan base, it seems like nowadays the way Disney handles Star Wars canon, very well controlled, very tight, but back in the ’90s when it’s a blueprint of books and games and other things, how did … Do you internally manage —

Howard Roffman: Yes.

Audience #1: True, or did you let the fans dictate? How do you guys —

Howard Roffman: No, no, no. We controlled it very tightly, and that was one of my mandates ’cause when I began the spinoff publishing program, it was a sacrosanct rule that everything had to relate to each other, be consistent to each other, and of course be consistent with the movies, which were canon. That was different from the way that Star Trek had done things, and we were pretty religious about doing that. Our biggest problem was a guy named George Lucas because he didn’t buy into … Necessarily buy into the spinoff fiction and game program, and all the alternate universal that we were creating.

We wanted it to be one universe, we really felt strongly that that is what it needed to be, but George as the filmmaker didn’t want to be beholden to somebody else’s creative vision. So we would have very interesting skirmishes ’cause we had a bunch of stuff that became, for the fans, pretty much canon about what happened after Return of the Jedi, what different places in the galaxy were called, and lots of different things, and if he was proposing to do something in the prequels that contradicted that, we would have long debates that usually ended, at least in the first session, with “I don’t care, this is what I’m doing,” and maybe in the fourth or fifth session it’ll be, “Well, alright, we could change it this way.” That was how it operated. Now that everything is controlled by one central committee, we can have cannon that applies across everything, so don’t judge us too harshly, please.

“Who shot first? I think it’s really clear.” —Howard Roffman

Michal Lev-Ram: Other questions? Yes.

Audience #2: I have a regular question. Who shot first?

Howard Roffman: Who shot first? I think it’s really clear. Now look…that was a very unpleasant controversy. Clearly, Han shot first because he understood that if he didn’t he was gonna be shot first, and that was … that would be the end of things. And George went through this little moment in the course of doing the special edition in 1997 where he questioned the morality of that. Maybe without too … Maybe he should’ve questioned more what Han Solo’s character was, but he came to a conclusion that he then wasn’t that comfortable with, and it’s been changed several times since. I don’t know if you followed the frame counts around that little cut there, but it has gotten way more attention than it deserves.

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Audience #3: Can you walk us through … How did Jar Jar Binks actually come out and become a thing?

Howard Roffman: That’s a very neutral way of describing it. Well George … When he was writing episode one, was definitely enamored with the idea that you could create living creatures through CG, that could do things, and have appearances that could not be created in the practical world. So he put a lot of CG characters into that movie, and he was kind of looking at the antecedent of R2D2 and C3PO as comic relief, and feeling that he needed a new comic relief in the movie, and he came up with that character.

We were all … It was interesting ’cause when the movie was being shot, you didn’t really quite know what the character was gonna be. We knew what the physical look was … The guy who played him on set, Ahmed Best was literally wearing a stationary mask that was about a foot over his head, so the people would have the right eye lines, and Ahmed spoke in that voice, but George kept saying “Oh we’re gonna replace the voice. We’ll have Robin Williams record it,” or something like that, and much like with C3PO, where he was intending to replace the voice. When it came to post producing the film, he tried a bunch of different voices and finally decided that Ahmed’s voice was the perfect Jar Jar and had that kind of patois that Jar Jar has, and he really liked it.

Within the company, we had screened the film obviously way before it came out, there were some diametrically opposed camps as to whether Jar Jar was a great thing or whether Jar Jar was gonna be a PR disaster for us and not particularly embraced by people. Of course, it was George’s company, and he won out, so the film went out with Jar Jar.

I have to say, we were pretty surprised by the intensity of the reaction against him. It has … In some ways it’s tempered with time, and the thing that was very important to understand even back then was the … Where the polarization occurred ’cause the people that really hated him were fans of the original trilogy. That … You just wouldn’t of seen anything like that in the original trilogy. Kids liked him a lot until it became not cool to do it, which was one of the effects of a lot of people in the culture saying, “No, that’s not cool.” So probably more information than you wanted to know.

Michal Lev-Ram: Do you ever do an interview where Jar Jar doesn’t come up?

Howard Roffman: Yeah. So far we have two very outlying questions that are really interesting, though. Thank you.

Michal Lev-Ram: Thank you so much, Howard.

Howard Roffman: Thank you, Michal.

This video was filmed at the Built to Adapt conference in Sausalito, California. The transcript was edited for clarity.

Messing with a Classic was originally published in Built to Adapt on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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