Fans, Films, and Franchises: An Interview with Starlight Runner’s Jeff Gomez

If the global pandemic’s impact on Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that producers need to think about different ways to get IP out there. We’ve seen streaming services skyrocket in use, with most of the world in lockdown. The windows system is currently shattered with the closure of theaters, and an increasing socio-political awareness across media. So, who better to talk to about transmedia in a post-pandemic world than Starlight Runner CEO, Jeff Gomez?

Jeff is a leading expert in the fields of brand narrative, storyworld development, creative franchise design, and transmedia storytelling. He specializes in the expansion of entertainment properties, premium brands, and socio-political themes into highly successful multi-platform communications and international campaigns. His work has impacted the successes of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, James Cameron’s Avatar, Hasbro’s Transformers, Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man and Men in Black, Microsoft’s Halo, and Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The interview is below:

To begin, you speak a lot about relationships between fans, studios, and franchises. I was just wondering if you could explain how important you think fans are for the success of a franchise.

JEFF:    Back when I started Starlight Runner in the early ‘00s, I would speak with studios, studio executives, with marketing people, even publicists. At that time, their interest was purely in numbers. It was box office. The fans were not terribly well considered at all – they were a nuisance. They were demanding. They wanted something the studio wasn’t in the mood to give them.

There was this tone of slight distain, and I knew that was something that could not possibly last very long because of the growing power of fan voices. Social media was evolving in the ‘00s. It was becoming Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, Reddit – all these other locations – YouTube. This was where fans wouldn’t just have a voice, but they would be able to create compelling content based on the intellectual property of these studios, or critical of those properties; and that’s what happened.

I think the studios didn’t really have a smooth transition in terms of developing that positive relationship with the fans. More often, individual storytellers have. Kevin Feige has a great relationship with the fans. He understands who these people are, what they want, and how to surprise and delight them. On the other hand, sometimes Disney has a difficult time with fans. We’ve seen this with Star Wars. It’s vital now that there be an architecture for dialogue between storytellers and their audiences.

Now there’s also been this idea about the “Toxic Fan” or “Toxic Fandom.” Is there a way for studios and storytellers to mitigate those issues?

JEFF:    Absolutely! I don’t see toxic fandom as a difficult problem to solve. First, fans want a good storyteller, and not all the storytelling that’s come out of the studios has been good. Good storytelling, especially in entertainment franchises, requires a vision that implements some kind of long-term narrative design – like Feige’s.

When you don’t have that, and you’re relying on individual artists who are basically freelance work for hire, you are placing your multi-billion-dollar child with an individual who has a “take” without an enormous amount of regard for what happened before or what happens after.

We’ve entered an age of long-form storytelling for these franchises – these are mythologies that unfold over the course of years. If someone walks in and is basically guessing at what happens next, or making it up as they go along, the chances for failure rise steadily. You’re going to upset the fandom. If someone walks in with a political agenda, with an opinion that’s going to be imposed on the audience, which isn’t necessarily developed to reflect the core values of the IP, you’re going to have problems. Fans pick up on that. Toxic fans, air their grievances in divisive and destructive ways.

My advice to Disney is to stop being moved by the nastiness. Stop being moved by the antagonism and start understanding why they’re feeling this way. What’s the underlying issue? Chances are, there’s a misunderstanding or misalignment between the values of the property and the way those values are being communicated to the audience.

You mentioned Star Wars, and I think you’re hinting strongly at what happened with The Last Jedi.

JEFF:    Absolutely.

Now, I don’t want to press too hard on that because there’ve been many other op-eds and videos done on that topic already. But are there other franchises you have in mind specifically which have a “Last Jedi” issue?

JEFF:    Let’s look at Harry Potter. It’s fascinating, because we have a visionary, a driving force behind the books, and the films were a replication of those books. Now there was obviously significant pressure from the studio to keep it going, and this resulted in perhaps not as careful and fully realized a creative approach in the Fantastic Beasts films. Those movies have not been nearly as resonant with the core Harry Potter fanbase, or the greater worldwide audience. The results are that the studio engaged in this not-necessarily-perfected long-term planning for the franchise, which turned out not to put its finger on what made that first story so special.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald remains the lowest rated Wizarding World movie to date.

I wanted to touch on that with Harry Potter; because it felt like seven books with a beginning, middle, and end – and each with their own complete story. I was wanting to talk about a transmedia approach, and if there’s a better way to engage with fans and mitigate these issues.

JEFF:    Absolutely. There are three things that are happening here; there’s narrative design, there’s transmedia storytelling, and there’s an architecture for dialogue – all three of which have faltered in recent years for Harry Potter.

Rowling developed the Potter novel series with exceptional narrative design. She had notebooks filled with database-like information about her world and the interweaving of dozens or hundreds of narrative threads. There was a schematic to it not just of incident but of theme. Every character, creature, object, and locale were fully realized and moved forward and backward in time and space, serving a central set of messages, themes, and deeply emotional resonances.

Those were a rock-solid foundation upon which to build the movies, even though many elements had to be removed in the interest of time. On the other hand, witness the progression of the Fantastic Beasts films and while you’ll see a continued reverence for the lore of the Wizarding World, the narrative falters because the same work, done with the same depth of passion, was clearly lacking.

Rowling was fantastic at maintaining a dialogue with her fanbase, and cultivating adoration between the fans, her property, and herself as a storyteller. Now I’ve advised Rowling’s team on transmedia, and they weren’t that interested. They weren’t interested in expanding the universe of Harry Potter or turning the Pottermore website into a fertile ground for new transmedia content. She wanted to clamp down and lock the Wizarding World narrative into being her sole, specific take.

Some of that turned out quite nicely. Cursed Child, the theatrical play was gorgeous. But then there was her own communication, the way she spoke to her fans and to the rest of the world, which became more and more heavily opinionated – which is obviously her right – but her calculations felt a bit off to me.

In a time when there’s such incredible cultural sensitivity, LGBTQ sensitivity worldwide, she chose an odd hill to wage war on. This created disturbances that are having an impact on how her story world is perceived, and on the way the franchise (at least in the immediate future) can unfold.

I was going to say, that sounds like a difficult situation to mitigate. Especially for those in the Harry Potter generation who loved those books and find themselves at odds with her current values. Big question, but how do you manage that?

JEFF:    In the universe of Harry Potter, Rowling makes clear that a person is defined not by their station, their history, or even their identity, but by their actions. My advice to Rowling would be to speak to fans—and everyone else for that matter—in the same way that the wisest characters spoke to Harry in the novels. When the author embraces the values and ethos of this great work, she is far better able to apply their lessons in the way she communicates.

Kathleen Kennedy has feelings about feminism and the roles of women in society, and they are not out of alignment with the values of the Jedi in Star Wars. But the way in which she communicated those feelings, and the ways some of the actors communicated those feelings felt heavily antagonistic to a significant number of fans. What if she’d spoken more like Yoda or Obi-Wan? What if she’d let the track record of the franchise itself do the talking?

So, by espousing the core values of Harry Potter, Star Trek, and Star Wars, and by communicating your ideas through the lens of those values, you will have a civil conversation – even if the person coming at you is antagonistic, angry, or disappointed.

You know, if I’m Spock and I’m having a discussion with you, and you’re a fierce alien who’s angry about something my starship has done, I’m going to consider the philosophy of infinite diversity in infinite combinations (the IDIC way of being followed by the Vulcans), and I’ll talk to you reasonably, always understanding that you are entitled to your opinion, and point you to what the Federation stands for. And in doing so, the fan would be more likely to get it, not just because they’re being spoken to more reasonably, but because they’re being listened to. When we feel genuinely heard, we come to value the listener even if we don’t always agree with them.

“What is your concern? Talk to us? We want to hear it?” Not “Oh my god you people are morons! I’m not going to listen to you because you’re deplorable!” People attack out of fear, out of anxiety, out of a mentality of scarcity. The great pop culture myths of our time are successful because they assuage us of these feelings. Their storytellers and corporate owners must do the same, or there will be a dissonance between storyteller and story. That foments mistrust—and that leaves action-figures piled in the bargain bins at big box stores.

You don’t fight with your customer. In no business would you be encouraged to wage war with the people paying money for your content and goods. If you do that, it’s short-sighted. If you do that, a parent walking through a Target store and thinks about buying the Star Wars toys will think, “Y’know what? They called my kid a racist.”

So, it has a trickle-down effect on all aspects of the industry, not just the films?

JEFF:    It’s more than a trickle effect: it’s direct impact. There’s no question that Star Wars licensing and merchandising were directly impacted by the civil war between the fans and the IP.

Of course, to this day you still see more Luke Skywalker figures being sold than any newer characters that you’d expect younger generations to gravitate towards.

You touched on something I wanted to pick back up on. You mentioned presenting a philosophy or an idea – like with Kathleen Kennedy on feminism for example, or LGBTQ rights. How do you think big franchises can incorporate many different, contrasting, viewpoints to create an engaging story? I was thinking that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has avoided this sort of toxicity, at least until recently.

JEFF:    I’m the first to admit that mass media storytelling has become a tricky feat to pull off. The challenge faced by Feige is that the grand narrative of the MCU is so vast, its audience so global, that theme and variation will always generate concern amongst some segment of the fan base. Feige has chosen to use his power and influence to introduce variation with Phase 4 of his super-story. He is experimenting with his storytelling with films like Eternals and series like Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel. He’s providing validity to the infinitely varied perspectives of his characters. That’s going to alienate some of the fans, but it’s also bringing a whole lot of new fans on board.

To me, great entertainment franchises – not just cinematic, but video games, graphic novels, and so on, need to succeed globally. We are in a worldwide distribution network. We have streaming services which are television channels for the entire planet – that’s never happened before – and so the content that we’re generating needs to portray different voices; diverse voices; perspectives that aren’t necessarily about simple good versus evil. They need to reflect an array of viewpoints, because there are all kinds of people and cultures and perspectives in the world, and we want to see those reflected in our content.

My only qualm would be for Feige, his company, his filmmakers, and stars, to speak to the greater universal values of this work and not necessarily to attack or belittle critics (no matter how corrosive their language). Stronger and more lasting progress has been made through reconciliation rather than war.

I was going to say, on that topic, the one film that really springs to mind is Captain America: Civil War. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that film?

JEFF:    Oh, absolutely. Well in Civil War you have a philosophical distinction that was made between two of the most beloved characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Captain America and Iron Man – and it was not about Good and Evil, it was about Liberty vs. Security, and the balance that must be weighed in a universe that is really dangerous!

A nuanced conflict from the MCU – Captain America: Civil War

And we see in the movies that play out after Civil War that both sides had very important points and were better off by reconciling the two – which does of course happen in Infinity War and Endgame not just to maintain our freedom but also to be able to stand against a terrible tyranny that can attack us.

I believe the conveyance of those diverse perspectives truly resonated with a planetary audience, but more importantly the story illustrated how those differences can be reconciled in a constructive and emotionally satisfying manner.

Do you think that storytelling approach you’ve described is something you can use in Star Wars, or any other franchises?

JEFF:    With regard to how Lucasfilm can move forward, I think the Star Wars franchise can learn to reconcile with itself and reengage fans on a massive scale. I think it’s starting to do that. What happened was there was a person directly trained by George Lucas – Dave Filoni – who was working on the animated television series; Clone Wars and then Rebels. If you were watching those shows, you realized they truly and deeply understood the Star Wars universe and the way that the Force worked, what the Jedi ethos was, and why some of the things that happened in the movies happened.

The problem with Dave Filoni was that television animation wasn’t very revered in Hollywood. Even though he got it right, Lucasfilm and Disney wouldn’t really acknowledge that. So, Filoni wasn’t given any jurisdiction over movies or anything – he was “cartoon boy.”

Jon Favreau, who was making The Mandalorian knew that the way that the current Star Wars movies were being made from a creative standpoint, were too random. They were not a cohesive work of art. But he knew, somehow, that Filoni was doing what was needed to be done in animation, and he invited Filoni to help him with The Mandalorian and magic happened.

That elevation of Filoni, and fan response to it, bought him to the attention of the higher-ups at Lucasfilm and Disney and he became respected – finally – and the attitude and approach that he took with the animation is finally being taken seriously in terms of the long-term transmedia narrative.

You asked about the future of Star Wars and what I believe what you’ll see is an epic narrative approach, that will build itself around the central ethos of balance and the Force – not just Luke Skywalker and his hierarchical family lineage – but of what the Force is about, who the Jedi are, and what the greater universe is about.

We’ve started to see this in The High Republic as a transmedia story, and certainly the Disney+ Star Wars content of The Mandalorian and Obi Wan Kenobi, and I believe these will inform the future films which have been put off a while as they reconsider their approach. There may have been some missteps, but I believe the franchise is righting itself.

Dave Filoni: Producer on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars: Rebels, and The Mandalorian

It’s fascinating that you mention that franchise hierarchy, where it was clearly feature films at the top, and animation, graphic novels, and other media down at the bottom. Is that changing now?

JEFF:    You’re right. What the pandemic did was chase people out of movie theaters and off network television. If you look at the Fall TV network ratings — which should be the highest of the year — those ratings are at the lowest ebb of all time.

What happened was we all hit input select on our remotes to get to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, or Disney+ and we never figured out how to get back! There was nothing to draw us back to ordinary network television! So, this is where we’re going to be – streaming; no more network, far fewer prominent theatrical films for the foreseeable future. Streaming narratives will inevitably become the driving engines of these franchises.

But do you think we’ll ever return to theaters at pre-COVID levels?

JEFF:    We will. COVID is not forever, and there is a driving human need for a collective response to narrative – whether it’s a rock concert, a dance club, or a movie theatre, we have a need to be physically together. Some of it I think is psychosexual.

But whatever it is, we’ll need to be there. And so, the punctuation marks on these franchises – the major events, the big turning points are going to happen in theatrical feature films.

Now, you’ve spoken a lot about listening to fans, and the power of social, streaming, and online media. I just have a final question. Do you have any advice for aspiring producers to get into the industry?

JEFF:    Sure. One of the first things to understand is what a producer does. A lot of people are under the impression that a producer dreams up a story and then sends a herd of creative and physical production people to go off and make it – that very rarely happens.

Understanding that a producer is someone who looks at a vast array of tools and puzzle pieces and uses the tools to assemble the those pieces into this operating, functional, piece of content, is a major step forward for any young person to become one.

The other thing is to get the experience, whether that’s in college, or as a production assistant, to get on set, and observe how content is physically produced. You have to understand the components of physical production. In my opinion you’re ahead of the game if you can understand how production is done across multiple media.

What is the difference between producing a video game versus a feature film? Or a streaming series versus a YouTube series? There are similarities, but there are also tremendous differences, and it pays to understand those differences as a producer.

Do you think that modern producers need to be aware of the production processes behind all these platforms?

JEFF:    I think modern producers distinguish themselves by being aware. And we’re running into more and more of these producers, and they’re fantastic to work with by the way, because so many projects are transmedia. It pays to know what you’re doing, so that you can do things like share assets and coordinate timing between your production and the video game people, and the YouTube people.

Then there are organizations like the Producers Guild of America who offer internships. You would need to have a portfolio of productions to get them to consider you, but it’s not impossible – so, y’know, do it.

And for young people who get into those programs, a lot of them really do become producers. So, it’s very advisable.

Jeff Gomez, thank you very much for speaking about your work, and your thoughts on big franchises and transmedia production.

“Never Surrender”

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