Why ‘The Mandalorian’ Saved ‘Star Wars’: Starlight Runner CEO on Building Buzz Around a Story

“We all want that Baby Yoda toy because we all have built that relationship with that character and love that character,” Jeff Gomez tells TheWrap

Jeff Gomez, co-founder and CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment in New York, has been a key player in shaping the digital future of entertainment for decades.  He helped push the Producers Guild of America to recognize a new credit for “transmedia producer” in 2010, and since founding his company in 2000 has helped major franchises — including “Halo,” “Men in Black,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Sesame Street,” “Transformers” and “Avatar” — grapple with telling stories across multiple platforms. Stories and characters — once siloed in films, television or comic books — now have lives and narratives that extend across all platforms, including video games and social. While 20 years ago this sort of storytelling was tertiary to tentpole films, it’s increasingly the starting point for major franchises, such as Star Wars, The Avengers and X-Men, as well as smaller properties ranging from Angry Birds to Magic: The Gathering. Gomez has been intensely focused on this sort of storytelling since before there was a word for it. He grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons in New York in the 1970s and found his way into the comic book industry, responsible for one of the first successful crossovers to the video game industry with the creation of 1997’s Nintendo 64 game “Turok: Dinosaur Hunter.”  More recently, in addition to his work with major film franchises, Gomez consulted with Disney Parks during the early stages of development for “Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge,” is leading the reintroduction of Ultraman to the U.S. market on behalf of Tsuburaya Productions, and has written extensively on the effects of social media on narrative structure. TheWrap caught up with Gomez to talk about Netflix, Star Wars and Baby Yoda. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.) Let’s start with “Ultraman.” The new Netflix anime reboot dropped earlier in 2019, and there’s Marvel comics content slated for 2020. What excites you about this? I became interested in how things that were looked at cynically, such as merchandising and licensing, could be additive to a story world, and that they could add things that could be considered canonical. We had this property — Ultraman — that was basically Japan’s Superman, a beloved character. The idea of taking that and helping to reintroduce the character to the West in a way that leveraged not just the media, not just the Marvel comics, but also leveraged the licensing and the merchandising to help build that story world was really intriguing to me. In practice, what does that mean? What are you helping them to do? We’re functioning as transmedia producers helping Tsuburaya Productions think about the creative content in such a way that the unique properties of the franchise resonate with the rest of the world. Ultraman is a very Japanese concept — what he does and so forth — and a lot of the aspects of that have been lifted and introduced into various properties in the U.S. such as “Power Rangers” and “Pacific Rim.” So what’s special about this character that hasn’t been lifted and infused into various other properties? We have to get at that essence and then make sure that anything that’s made here in the West with Ultraman is infused with it. The Netflix show is based on an Ultraman manga, and there has been a lot of chatter recently about anime being a competitive edge for the company. How true is this? Netflix has just started to understand the potential and the impact of story worlds and narrative universes. So they’ve gone out and made an effort to acquire properties that have vast mythologies to them. In recent months, Netflix acquired the work of C.S. Lewis. They’ve done the same with Roald Dahl, and then there’s Dr. Seuss. What this does is it offers not just a single show to be rolled out at any given time. It affords Netflix the opportunity to do multiple shows, some that will have the same flavor and aesthetic as one another, like the Dr. Seuss stuff, or others that are set within the same narrative universe, like Narnia. In the streaming model, your goal isn’t necessarily for your series to run forever. After two to three years, everyone that was going to jump on board because of that specific series is on. They’re done. You’ve got them. You’re more likely to end a series but overlap it with a second series, one that wasn’t necessarily a direct sequel, but also took place in the same universe. This is something comic books and Disney have done for decades. It’s something new for Netflix, the notion that they can be more than simply a global television network. They’re recently taking on people who are responsible for licensing Netflix content, not just the shows per se, but things like toys and games. The idea that the story worlds, that the content on “Stranger Things,” can be extended into novels and comic books where fans are learning more about the universe is still very new to them. The ability to do that masterfully — like the way Disney does it — has not been fully grasped by Netflix yet. You’ve been watching the “Star Wars” franchise closely for years, consulted with Disney Parks, and wrote extensively about the struggles with the recent films. How are things looking for the franchise, now with “The Mandalorian” and the final Skywalker film? Look at how stunning the global response to “The Mandalorian” has been. Disney chose to roll it out one week at a time, one episode per week, and the world is building a powerful relationship with the characters. Wisely, Disney didn’t put out that Baby Yoda toy because we would have learned about that immediately and gotten the chance to be cynical about that action in the first place. But guess what: We all want that Baby Yoda toy because we all have built that relationship with that character and love that character. We want that toy. That’s going to be a bonanza for the Walt Disney Company. So “The Mandalorian” and Baby Yoda have been a success. What about the tentpole films? It’s very interesting. This might seem a bit controversial, but a part of what I do and a part of what my company does, is we track fan response. We’re very interested in the fact that whether you like it or not, there is an architecture for dialogue between the audience and the storyteller, and in this case, Disney and Lucasfilm. I wrote about the deconstruction of “Star Wars” (in 2017’s “The Last Jedi”), which I thought was a creatively very interesting thing to do, to prepare the world for a vast expansion beyond the Skywalker narrative. (If you look at the audience after “The Last Jedi”), a good portion — at first it was small — didn’t like it. They were responding against what they felt was a sort of forced political perspective on the narrative. And they didn’t like it. Then what happened? The problem ensued when the Disney executives and even some of the characters in the film became antagonistic against those people, those fans. I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to get into a fight with your customers. What that did in the ensuing months was it fanned the flames of this conflict, kind of doubling down and reinforcing the fact that there was a significant political agenda driving the feature films. Instead of opening an authentic dialogue and letting all fans know that what they have to say is being considered and some good points are being made and to just give them a forum, and then respond with an explanation and a statement of the fundamental values and ideologies, the brand essence, they didn’t do that. Are there real-world consequences to the breakdown of communication with fans? I do feel this ultimately impacted things like licensing and merchandising. There are a lot of people who go to Target who live in between the coasts. If they get a whiff of this, they don’t even have to understand fully what’s going on, their decisions can be swayed. Licensing and merchandising after “The Last Jedi” took a hit, and then we saw “Solo” underperform, and then suddenly we have all these feature films that were in development being cancelled and a reassessment of “Star Wars” being made. It’s not the way to have gone about it. We don’t have to fight with our audience. There are different methodologies, some of which are the collective journey model, that would have been a better way to go. It still would not necessarily have compromised the moral or political statements of the feature films.