When the critically disastrous final season of Game of Thrones came out, people were calling for David Benioff and D.B. Weiss‘s heads. Not just hardcore fans were doing this–even infrequent viewers were extremely disappointed. The series is estimated to have made $3.1 billion in subscriber memberships alone, so it won’t go down as a money-making disappointment, however, which is good news for Benioff and Weiss.
So it’s curious why Kathleen Kennedy, the head of Lucasfilm, and Benioff and Weiss decided to part ways just this past week. Benioff and Weiss will no longer be making the next Star Wars trilogy, made official in May by Disney CEO Bob Iger. It was a mutual decision—Kennedy even opened the possibility of allowing them back in her statement. She said: “David Benioff and Dan Weiss are incredible storytellers. We hope to include them in the journey forward when they are able to step away from their busy schedule to focus on ‘Star Wars.'”
But why is she keeping that door so open for Benioff and Weiss? What does Star Wars and Lucasfilm have to gain from two tarnished filmmakers? Make no doubt about it, they are tarnished, with many fans surprised that they even kept hold of their planned Star Wars trilogy for this long. This announcement came after their announced nine-figure Netflixdeal in August. Their Star Wars departure was placed at the feet of their relationship with Netflix, with the two saying a statement: “There are only so many hours in the day, and we felt we could not do justice to both ‘Star Wars’ and our Netflix projects…”
However, this announcement also came hot on the heels of their joint panel at the Austin Film Festival, their first real interactions with fans since the end of Game of Thrones. (They skipped their San Diego Comic-Con panel appearance this year.) The AFF panel was decisive for many fans, proving all their worst fears dead right. The whole panel was live-tweeted by a dedicated fan, @ForArya. Read the thread for all the details, but there were some particularly odious highlights.
One, the two admitted that when they went to both HBO and George R.R. Martin, they really didn’t know what they were doing. Neither of them had ever written for TV before–they were novelists and screenwriters. They approached the project as massive fanboys. While it’s never bad to be a fan of the work you are adapting, maybe don’t make such a massive, complicated series your first venture into the murky world of premium TV? Weiss even admitted that Game of Thrones was a film school for him and Benioff.
Of course, the question must also be posed: why did HBO give them a second chance at another pilot? The first pilot, which they admitted at the panel was disastrous, had problems in every way possible, apparently. There were more reveals: the actors led the characters, for example, not the other way around, when it came to actually writing characterization. They didn’t want it to be too fantasy—despite the fact that the first book literally opens with an Other confronting members of the Night Watch, who live on a Wall that is partially held together by magic. Oh, and unlike nearly every other television show on the air (especially genre shows) they didn’t have a writers’ room. That seemed to cause the most outrage, among fans and professionals alike. Writers’ rooms are such a key part of television that the phrase has entered everyday vernacular.
Maybe after witnessing all this, Kathleen Kennedy threw up her hands and said “take it away from these two,” but there’s, of course, another aspect to all of this. Kennedy has fired more than a few filmmakers in the past for not committing to what she and the team behind the whole franchise thinks of as Star Wars. Phil Lord and Chris Miller were and still are the most notable examples: Solo was taken away from them, given to Ron Howard and massively re-shot and re-edited before release. The reasons given were many. For one, the two (who work improvisationally often) were taking too long and they weren’t shooting the precise lines in the script, like screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan wanted.
Rogue One had its share of difficulties as well—and while The Last Jedi was a smooth shoot, the fan reaction was anything but. That’s actually one of the reasons that’s come out in recent days for why Benioff and Weiss decided to leave: the fanbase was too toxic, in their minds. Maybe after coming off the harsh fan reaction to the final season of Game of Thrones, one can find sympathy for this attitude…and maybe not. Also, there’s another thing in play that makes the divisive reaction to The Last Jedi (and even dating back to the prequels) that differs from Game of Thrones. Neither the Star Wars fans or the creatives behind the scenes can agree upon what Star Wars is supposed to be.
The Force Awakens was decried for being too similar to A New Hope, and The Last Jedi was yelled at for being too alternative to the established Star Wars brand. That, too, was the problem many had with the prequels. Where the original trilogy was significantly more focused on good vs. evil, some argued, and the prequels’ morality was murky, and they were generally less fun than the trilogy that started it all. Fans seem to forget the charred corpses/skeletons of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, incestual kissing, mass sentient teddy bear deaths, and Han Solo’s own murky morality.
Maybe with Rian Johnson still in Lucasfilm’s stable, Kennedy decided she didn’t two filmmakers who were also probably going to tell darker stories. Maybe their dislike of fantastical elements also played into it (Star Wars, is, after all, a space fantasy). At the same time, Benioff and Weiss, while toxic, also presented an enormous financial opportunity for Star Wars, Lucasfilm and Disney. If they could harness the appeal of Game of Thrones again, maybe people would flock to the movie theatres in droves.
But maybe they couldn’t. And they probably couldn’t. Besides, Netflix can afford to take creative and financial risks—they do so all the time. They have no qualms about sinking money into series and canceling them abruptly when they don’t do so hot. Netflix also has no content restrictions, which Benioff and Weiss would certainly run into on the mostly family-friendly Star Wars. Was their vision of the Jedi’s origins too racy and violent for the Mouse?
It’s also notable the HBO seems to have its doubts about the brand Benioff and Weiss created, too. While the Targaryen prequel series is moving ahead, the Naomi Watts-led Game of Thrones spin-off series is decidedly not. HBO executives have implied, however, that milking the franchise for all its worth isn’t what they want–they don’t want to tarnish the brand. This was said before the final season finished its run, however. Now, HBO might be desperate to cut ties with the franchise entirely before it tarnishes their brand.
That’s all speculation, though. And really, that’s what every story after the news broke of Benioff and Weiss’s Star Wars departure has been–speculation. Oh, there’s been insider, anonymous quotes and analysis from the best and the brightest. But we’ll probably never know the true story until someone, a long way down the line, writes a book about the whole mess. It could be called Star Wars: A Game of Thrones.
Or maybe: A Song of Disney and Netflix.