Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, President of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, stated that Star Wars was shifting its focus to “persistent storytelling,” which is a surreptitious way of saying that the corporate paradigm will be one of constant content generation for its established franchises, likely with the goal of having constant crossover between different media such as movies, television shows, books, comics, podcasts and so forth. While this may sound positive to investors and shareholders who are deluded into accepting unreasonable propositions like perpetual profit growth, philanthrocaptialism, or snake oil speculation like NFTs, to the audiences who enjoy and indulge in these properties, this announcement should be treated with skepticism at best. There are multiple stumbling blocks that can prevent this strategy from creating art and entertainment worth consuming.
If You Can’t Change the Product, Change the Packaging
Many people will see this move as putting a name on something media corporations already have been doing, leaving it as just a marketing ploy for the same cynical strategy of audience capture. Once consumers become invested in a particular property, they will stick with it because of the time and energy they have put into following that property. By twisting properties together, these corporations can also drag audiences into watching shows or movies they might not have otherwise. For instance, anyone who wants to watch the third season of The Mandalorian will also have to watch The Book of Boba Fett as central storylines from The Mandalorian are actually brought up and resolved and the latter show. In terms of narrative structuring, this move makes no sense, but it isn’t done for reasons of artistry or even basic plot coherence. This choice was made to force the audience to watch a second series in order to keep pace with the main plot of the first series.
Similarly, the increasing interconnectivity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe locks the audience into seeing multiple movies where the characters cross-over and streaming shows on Disney+ to be caught up on everything involving all these characters. At a certain point, viewing and reading all these media approaches something akin to homework, as audiences are expected to pay more and do more to remain current with properties that are ostensibly for their enjoyment. This idea also trades on the fear of missing out (FOMO), which is the contemporary equivalent of “keeping up with the Joneses.” Because of the aforementioned reasons the shift to persistent storytelling is a crass and cynical move as it attempts to milk more money and attention—which might have otherwise gone to a competitor—from audiences.
At a certain point, audience burn out becomes an issue. This weariness extends from the constant interaction and the effort to keep up with these properties, especially if it starts to feel less fun to be engaged. The other main source of audience apathy stems from the unending nature of this persistent storytelling. The content is generated and marketed with such speed that there is always a new show or movie that audiences need to watch. Because there is no downtime, audiences have no breathing space to reflect on what they’ve seen, and the properties become paradoxically necessary yet disposable. There are no less than half a dozen Marvel shows on Disney+, and while they are all essential to the current “Phase Four” audiences would be hard pressed to name necessary, stand-out moments from Falcon and Winter Soldier. The stories begin to blur together, yet WandaVision is a prerequisite for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
One danger in releasing so many linked properties in quick succession is that it puts tremendous pressure on the individuals and teams creating these works, which can create uneven quality or necessitate rapid change in the people in charge. Another problem is that if a casual audience no longer feels like putting in the effort to follow all the component parts, they’ll walk away from the property because it no longer seems to be for them. This is the same issue comic books and video games faced as they’re labeled “niche.” Disney, AT&T (owner of WarnerMedia), and Comcast are giant corporations whose primary motivation is ever-increasing profits and shareholder payouts. They are likely fine with audience apathy as long as the audience keeps paying to consume. Persistent storytelling, however, risks burning out and alienating audiences with its speed alone. Disney’s hasty release of Star Wars movies, some even just a few months apart, is linked to the relative commercial and critical failures of Solo and Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker, but it seems the company learned no lessons from it.
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Here Comes a New Challenger
With all this time and attention being given to making content in the same franchises, it is unlikely their owners—major corporations that are inherently risk-averse and conservative—will make any moves to create something new. After all, consumers often go with something they know they already like, so it’s a safer bet to give them more of the same. This strategy keeps investors and consumers relatively contented but ultimately stagnant. Breaking out of this requires creative minds not corporate bureaucrats. It seems to have escaped notice that many of these franchises—Star Wars, Game of Thrones, The Fast and the Furious, Toy Story, Indiana Jones—were once new, untested properties, often made by creators working outside or on the fringes of traditional media structures. Also overlooked is that the reason many of these properties catch on is because something positive about them stuck with the audience.
As pointed out in the problem with audience capture, the people invested in consuming these storylines are often there, watching characters they enjoy, and in some part looking for a pay-off with their investment. Part of this pay-off comes with seeing a satisfying resolution to the characters and their stories. The problem here, clearly, is that if content for these characters must be always generated, these stories cannot have an end. There will never be a traditional, narrative conclusion because short-term corporate demands require constant output for favorite characters. In this sense, audiences are doomed to never have that aspect of their investment satisfied. This is a serious problem not only risking the aforementioned audience burn out but also generating narrative incoherence. The massive tales that persistent storytelling attempts to emulate all come to an end. Without a conclusion, the audience has no place to stop and examine all that came before.
Has Persistent Storytelling Been Done Successfully?
Rather than engage in a futile attempt to craft an epic, coherent story that has no end, anyone who seriously wants to engage in persistent storytelling as a creative enterprise should instead look at similar models from the recent past. For decades, soap operas and telenovelas have used what is essentially persistent storytelling, usually by focusing on character melodrama. Doing so keeps production costs low and allows stories to extend almost indefinitely. The difficulties here are audience expectations, as even the slowest Star Wars or Marvel show has scenes of spectacular action. Adventures in space or of a masked vigilante require a different kind of focus and directing.
On a similar note, sitcoms, which dominated television for decades, are also episodic, open-ended story telling. The potential problems with using them as a model are that this type of writing can also become stale, since every episode is more-or-less self-contained, meaning there is rarely character growth or significant changes to the status quo. Also, sitcoms worked with far different television viewing habits, before the advent of streaming and binge watching. This formula could be successful, but it may be a question of if it can be successful enough in the current digital streaming landscape. Serialized dramas are also a close comparison and are capable of long form storytelling, but they also tend to have relatively small casts and have conclusions that bring the narrative to an end unless they risk the same status quo stagnation of sitcoms.
The obvious example might be comic books, which are open-ended, serialized storytelling with changes in creative teams over time, and there is a lot of cross-over events and appearances by characters from other storylines within the same set of properties. The pitfalls here are ones about the medium. Spider-Man can appear in six comics a month, but no actor could perform the same level of work and should not be expected to do so. Also, as any comic fan relate, the sheer number of “events,” can take its toll on readers, risking the same burn out because constantly having to read books to keep apprised of what is happening.
You Keep Using That Word. . .
Unfortunately, as long as Disney and other media corporations continue to make unreasonable amounts of money, it isn’t likely to matter much what audiences think of how these companies choose to tell stories with their properties. Amazon, Sony, and Apple are not any more interested in making art than Koch Industries, IBM, or Credit Suisse. What is unfortunate is the aim for disposable mediocrity while trying to trap audiences with persistent storytelling. It is possible that strong and evocative work that stands the test of time could come from it, but that result is more likely to be an outlier.
© 2022 Seth Tomko