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Star Wars Celebration: What Other Studios And Festivals Can Learn About Balancing Art And Fan Service

The annual event is mainly for fans, but that's not the only way a burgeoning franchise can market itself.

Star Wars Celebration 2016

Elie Kimbembe / @VisionElie

It’s called Celebration for a reason. Back in April 1999, when “The Phantom Menace” was about to become the first new “Star Wars” film to hit theaters in 16 years, Lucasfilm launched Star Wars Celebration to further stoke the fan fires (and to keep them rejoicing over a relaunched franchise). With over 20,000 attendees, the fan-facing convention was an immediate hit — but the popular event came and went, depending on what was then a very fickle “Star Wars” release schedule.

Today, with the “Star Wars” universe rapidly expanding with all the heat and mass of a black hole, the conventions have become annual affairs that bring fans together to celebrate their shared obsession with George Lucas’ decades-long creation. (Already, Star Wars Celebration Orlando is selling out tickets for 2017.)

What Is Celebration?

For the first time since 2007, the three-day event that is Star Wars Celebration Europe returned to London’s sprawling ExCel Exhibition Centre, the city’s largest venue and one that has hosted huge events like the Olympics and a G20 summit over the years. It’s a fitting home for an event that celebrates the crown jewel in the $4 billion Lucasfilm property, and helps ensure that the Walt Disney Company continues to see a profit on its investment.

READ MORE: Star Wars Celebration: Han Solo Standalone Directors Phil Lord And Chris Miller Offer An Update (And A Brand New Star)

Events like Celebration keep affection – and cash – flowing in ways that a single movie a year simply cannot.

Nearly every corner of “Star Wars” fandom jockeys for representation and attention at Celebration. Fans packed every inch of the ExCel’s second floor, which functioned as convention floor, marketplace, autograph hall, exhibition area and event space. Doors opened daily at 10AM, and the center was filled to bursting within its first half an hour. Eager attendees flooded the floor to browse for merchandise – the majority of which came from independent sellers, aside from the official Celebration store, which played home to some of the event’s longest lines – and to admire increasingly impressive cosplay participants.

Star Wars Celebration

Star Wars Celebration

Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios

A Celebration attendee might check out a panel with an original cast member, watch a Lucasfilm demo or buy a still-packaged action figure from 1978 in the space of an hour. If you want an autograph from the guy who played Greedo, he’s there to do just that. A purse shaped like BB-8? Yup. A high-powered drone fashioned after the Millennium Falcon? Over by the hot dogs.

Celebration Europe’s convention floor never reaches the intensity of a Comic-Con — these fans are awfully polite — but their passion is more concentrated. Panel queues are orderly and swift in a way that San Diego would never recognize. The wi-fi is pretty good, too.

Baby BB-8s, Chatty Fans And Jedi Masters, Oh My!

As for the fans, middle-aged white guys are the norm, but they came from everywhere — Australia, the U.S., Germany, Denmark, Canada, and just down the street. There were also a lot of children, even babies (and not all of them sported onesies crafted to make them look like baby BB-8s). It created a cheerful Tower of Babel — during the weekend’s last panel, three Danish teens chattered behind me, unable to hold in their glee, and Anthony Daniels’ panel was nearly upended by a middle-aged French fan pulled from the audience to participate in a dramatic restaging of a scene from the first “Star Wars.”

READ MORE: Star Wars Celebration: How ‘Rogue One’ Fits Into the ‘Star Wars’ Universe, According To Its Creators

From the business side, the Celebration offered a select group of VIP tickets (“Jedi Master”) at £350 each, with only 200 available, while most single-day tickets ran around £45 a pop. Disney estimates that this year’s Celebration was enjoyed by 60,000 individual fans, more than doubling the estimates from the last time the event was held in London (the ExCel Centre also played home to the event in 2007 for the thirtieth anniversary of “Star Wars” hitting the UK, where an estimated 29,000 fans came out for the event).

While Celebration may not offer the profit margin of a Comic-Con, it comes complete with something better: Full control. Disney and Lucasfilm’s profits extend beyond ticket sales to concessions and branded merchandise. And there’s nothing to distract fans from consuming that “Star Wars” culture.

Star Wars Celebration

Star Wars Celebration

Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios

That said, the Celebration kicked off mere hours after the Bastille Day attack in France. Before the “Rogue One” team took the stage during Friday’s biggest event, host Gwendoline Christie (“The Force Awakens”) took a break from her boundless energy to ask the audience to pause for thoughts and prayers to the people of France.

It was a small moment – and given the literal proximity to France, an entirely necessary one – and its impact was immediate. A group of attendees began humming the French national anthem in an act of solidarity and for one moment, a moment totally outside of a galaxy far, far away, an auditorium crammed with thousands of “Star Wars” fans was again bonded by a shared interest.

For Fans, By Fans

Like any large-scale, long-running franchise, “Star Wars” must continue to please old fans and earn new ones. Panels were tailored to appeal to classic fans (like an hour spent in conversation with vets like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels and Ray Park), while future-facing events included the “Rogue One” panel and a closing event focused on the “Future Filmmakers” of the franchise.

Wonkier picks, like a panel on “Star Wars Archeology” and a closer look at the creatures of “The Force Awakens,” rounded out the list of sit-down events, along with panels focused on ancillary properties like the popular animated series “Rebels” and the “LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens” video game.

More than anything, Celebration pushes the notion that “Star Wars” isn’t just for any and all fans, it’s made by them too. From Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy to “Rebels” co-creator Dave Filoni, the sentiment that everyone who works on every “Star Wars” property is a massive fan of the universe is a common refrain.

It was also a major theme of panel presentations featuring freshly minted directors like Gareth Edwards, Rian Johnson, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, all of whom shared stories about how much the original films meant to them. Johnson talked about going to see the first “Star Wars” film as a kid. Lord and Miller got starry-eyed when talking about the challenge of taking on Han Solo – their number-one iconic hero – for their new film.

READ MORE: ‘Rogue One’ Trailer: 5 Things We Saw In Brand New (And Still Unreleased) Star Wars Celebration Footage

Even Alden Ehrenreich, aka young Han Solo, showed off a picture of his childhood Han Solo figure to let the crowd know that they can trust his nostalgia credentials. He’s one of them.

John Boyega and Alden Ehrenreich at Star Wars Celebration

John Boyega and Alden Ehrenreich at Star Wars Celebration

Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios

But what of the next generation? If this year’s cosplayers are any indication, the future of “Star Wars” is decidedly female. Everywhere you looked, there was a newer, better, bigger Rey costume. Kid Reys talked to grownup Reys, scads of teenage girls walked the floor dressed in their own takes on the “Force Awakens” heroine, Han vest-clad dads carried baby Reys. Stormtroopers and X-Wing fighters and Lukes of every variation were still widely represented (and, yes, even a few scantily dressed slave Leias), but the franchise’s current breakout heroine reigned supreme.

The Rebellion Ends Here

However, one event that should have been a fascinating look at the culture that makes Lucasfilm tick had all the charm of an annual shareholders’ meeting. “Lucasfilm: The Art of Storytelling” assembled some of the company’s biggest names, including Filoni, ILM President Lynwen Brennan and Lucasfilm’s SVP of development Kiri Hart, but the panel eschewed actual storytelling in favor of an hour-long gabfest that was big on hype and short on information.

In the opening minutes, Brennan pointed to George Lucas’ vision when creating Lucasfilm as a guiding inspiration. “I always think of George as being the original rebel, and there’s a little bit of rebel in all of us,” she said. “That spirit of fearlessness is really in the DNA of all the Lucasfilm companies.”

While that’s a fine idea, it’s hard to buy this kind of outsiders’ narrative during an event that looked and felt so much like a highlight reel complete with buzzwords, chatter about the value of “product” and a table lined with cute water bottles wrapped to look like various “Star Wars” characters.

READ MORE: Star Wars Celebration: ‘Rogue One’ Created A New Planet That Looks Pretty Familiar

The “Star Wars”creators are no longer outsiders, the fanhood has entered the mainstream and being an admirer of the franchise is nothing like being a rebel fighting against the Empire.

Another sign that “Star Wars” fanhood no longer needs to exist within the confines of an event devoted to it was the lack of surprises. Last year’s Celebration was headlined by an eye-popping first look at “The Force Awakens;” this time, big announcements — the “official” casting of Alden Ehrenreich as young Han Solo, the “reveal” that “Episode VIII” would pick up immediately following “The Force Awakens” — had long been available to notoriously plugged-in fans via the media. The biggest shocker was the announcement that fan favorite Grand Admiral Thrawn was being retconned into “Rebels,” but that had been a rumor for weeks.

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Alden Ehrenreich, Phil Lord, Chris Miller, Rian Johnson, Kiri Hart, Kathleen Kennedy and Pablo Hidalgo on stage during Future Directors Panel at Star Wars Celebration

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Alden Ehrenreich, Phil Lord, Chris Miller, Rian Johnson, Kiri Hart, Kathleen Kennedy and Pablo Hidalgo on stage during Future Directors Panel at Star Wars Celebration

Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios

And still, the overwhelming tone of Celebration is one that’s well, celebratory.

During Friday’s “Rogue One” panel, Kennedy offered the packed house an exclusive poster, to be collected on the way out. Later, as she was leaving the stage, a lone fan yelled from the audience, “Thank you for the poster!” Kennedy didn’t seem to hear, but others did, whispering their agreement and clapping gently. They were just happy to be there, and very happy to take something from the experience.

READ MORE: ‘Star Wars: Episode VIII’ Director Rian Johnson Explains How He’s Put Aside Nostalgia To Make His Film

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