”Star Wars’ Isn’t A Movie, It’s a Religion,’ JJ Abrams Says

Abrams and Jon Favreau also touched on video on demand and technology in a conversation at the Milken Global Conference

JJ Abrams Jon Favreau Eddy Cue Milken
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Writer-producer-directors JJ Abrams and Jon Favreau have been in charge of some of Hollywood’s iconic franchises, from “Star Wars” to “Iron Man” to “The Jungle Book.” And the key to doing right by those storied names — and their rabid fans: attention to detail.

In a dinner conversation with Apple senior vice president of internet software and services Eddy Cue at the Milken Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Favreau and Abrams talked about what goes into that stewardship — and the sometimes unreasonable expectations that come with it.

“‘Star Wars’ isn’t a movie, it’s a religion,” Abrams said. “But this religion people have — they don’t always know how fungible these things are.”

Abrams told a story about Harrison Ford sitting in the Millennium Falcon while filming “The Force Awakens” and immediately noticing that two yokes on the dashboard weren’t there on the original “Star Wars” spaceship. Abrams said that was because the first movie was made on such a low budget, they couldn’t afford actual yokes with springs that stayed put — which the “Force Awakens” production budget could now accommodate. So the lack of authenticity was actually an improvement.

Abrams, the director of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the third movie ever to gross $2 billion worldwide, and executive producer of HBO hit “Westworld,” also touched on one of Hollywood’s hottest topics: the possibly changing theatrical window. In his comments, Abrams called premium video on demand, a la Sean Parker’s Screening Room, something that looks almost certain to happen.

“People do want to see movies, and can’t always get to the theater,” he said. “It seems like an inevitable thing that movies become available at a premium.”

Somewhat ironically for a conversation with an Apple exec, Abrams said that technology doesn’t always make things better, giving an example of a “pre-visualization” on “The Force Awakens” that resulted in a set being constructed exactly in accordance with video renderings — and not real enough looking. Also, and not entirely surprisingly, Abrams  said the creative process can be hampered by the presence of people overly focused on the bottom line.

“We’ve all been in a meeting with guys in a room with numbers and the result of the film doesn’t feel inspired,” Abrams said.

In response to Cue introducing Favreau with a nod to one of his characters on “Friends,” the writer, actor and director said he isn’t surprised at being recognized for a role he played decades ago — thanks to a surge in on-demand viewing made possible by the proliferation of streaming services like Netflix.

“Now there’s a new platform with every streaming service,” Favreau, who is directing Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of “The Lion King,” told Cue. “There are people being introduced to works we did a decade ago that we thought were lost to history.”

Favreau touched on the second life so many non-tentpole films and TV shows find as cult classic on video — and now streaming services — mentioning how important the non-theatrical audience was to “Swingers,” the 1996 film that put him on the map.

“We opened to great per-screen numbers, but when we tried to widen out, it just nosedived,” Favreau said. “It was really on video where it found its audience. It was a harbinger of things to come.”

One person the film clearly made an impression on was Abrams.

“That movie’s one of the great indies ever,” he said. “‘Swingers’ is incredible.”

Favreau also talked about his film “Chef,” the idea of which he said came to him out of a love of cooking shows — and came with some side benefits.

“[It] was a great excuse to go to the best chefs in the world and learn about cooking,” Favreau said. “I don’t know what it is about being 50, but I want to learn everything. In college, I didn’t want to learn anything.”

And with Hollywood writers potentially striking as soon as midnight tonight, Abrams shared a relevant anecdote from his earliest days in Hollywood. He entered the industry as a screenwriter right after his senior year of college, when he wrote a treatment with Jill Mazursky that would eventually be the basis of “Taking Care of Business.” But in 1988, he was just a guy with a new job facing down a strike.

“I got to be a working writer and was immediately on the picket line,” Abrams said.