Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Star Wars For the New Generation, Feminine Mystique, and The Land Before Time

Okay, who remembers where we were? That’s right, we were sitting down with the CEO and the Editorial Lead of Starlight Runner Entertainment, Mr. Jeff Gomez and Ms. Caitlin Burns, respectively, and they were telling us about how smart, creative geeks are forging new worlds in media for some of the biggest properties on the scene! In this installment, there will be more of that, as well as an insider’s take on some of the themes of Jim Cameron’s upcoming Avatar, and a geek out over animated dinosaurs.Of particular interest to us here at All Things Fangirl, however, is the deep investment on behalf of Starlight Runner’s creative heads in the development of balanced and exciting media that remembers and represents the ladies—and the little girls.

Jeff Gomez, CEO and Geek Dad: One of the things that is actually a fairly common thread in everything that we do, and this reaches back for me to my work previous to Starlight Runner: When I was in the comic book and videogame industry, we were often bought properties where the goal of the client is, “We want this to explode around the world, huge audience, help us make that happen.” And then you look at the property and it’s almost entirely from a male sensibility. That’s a problem. We were brought Hot Wheels. We examined the essence of the brand, we interviewed with Mattel and had talked about it at length and we started developing a bible, a kind of description of this universe—

Caitlin Burns, Editorial Lead and Geek Mom of one and ¼: It outlines canon and all the details of canon—

JG:The storylines, the characters and so forth, and we naturally started putting female characters into the stories. There was some resistance to our doing this, but we insisted. There was going to be hours and hours of entertainment based on this franchise, and we couldn’t imagine telling this massive story without significant female characters—even though this was a property for boys. It took some doing, but we got what we wanted.

Jeff and Caitlin’s daughters, both of whom are unreasonably adorable and bound to be either ginormous geeks or intensely dedicated jocks/cheerleaders when they’re older, provide the creative directors of Starlight Runner with yet another perspective to consider, to degrees they otherwise might not.

JG: One thing that I’m kind of re-geeking on is introducing my daughter, six years old, to the StarWars movies. She came home with the question that I’ve been waiting for all my life: “How did the Clone Wars start?” Because the cartoon is on the air and of course her friends at school are talking about it, and she doesn’t know. And I said, well, you know, there was a queen, Amidala, that this all kind of rotates around, and she goes, “Really?” And I said, “Let me show you!” We started watching the films. And to look at the films from the perspective of a child, first of all, and from the perspective of a child who is gravitating not to young Anakin but Padme, and watching her progress through the films trying to contend with the decisions Padme’s making, particularly about this “Ani” guy, who seems a little shifty, well it was fascinating. So when Anakin comes back form murdering all the Sand-People and he tells Padme what he’d done, I ask my daughter, “Well, what do you think? I mean, was it okay for him to do that? He killed women and children Sand-People.” And [my daughter] goes, “Well…” She’s trying to side with Amidala, who kind of overlooks this horrid massacre for the sake of her romance with Anakin. So my girl is like, “Well, if it was my mother, I’d have killed them all too.”

The force is strong with this one.

JG: But then I go, what do you make of Senator Palpatine? And she goes, “I don’t know about him, every time he promises Padme that he’s gonna fix her planet, he never does.” There’s no follow-through. So the forbidden movie is number three, because three is the game changer. Her friends aren’t allowed to watch number three. Because to a generation of children, Anakin Skywalker is a hero, they love him. And parents are funny, they’re not letting the kids watch that third film. They’ll let them see everything up to the Clone Wars. Now the animated series is airing, and there are rumors in the school yard starting to spread about something bad that happens to Ani.

CB: Is Darth Vader the new Santa Claus? I’ll tell you, though, I have a daughter who is two. I’ve been going back and trying to watch the movies I remember absolutely adoring, with her, as a kid. I cannot get through them without breaking into tears. First ten minutes of The Land Before Time? I’m done. I’m looking at these, and I’m thinking to myself, you know, strictly speaking there’s a lot harsher stuff going on in children’s movies than people want to give them credit for. And I loved The Land Before Time, I really did, just as an example, but it’s really tough stuff. I mean, I couldn’t even get to the point where the crises began. I was just like—Littlefoot! And he loves his mom!

EC: The scene where he’s like, in the foot print? With his tree star?

JG: (laughs)

CB: (sad noise)

EC: And it’s just like—I can’t handle it.

CB: But at the same time, there’s something wonderful about the fact that, looking back on it, people have always asked kids to process some really hard facts in storytelling, and you know, it’s going to be interesting to watch my own daughter going through and asking fantastic questions like Jeff’s daughter is asking. A big question for me, because I’m really into the Disney Fairies property and personally, I think Tinkerbell is a really cool movie. I like that there is more gender parity in that than in most other girl’s movies than I’ve seen. Fairies are judged on their talents, they are friends with both male and female fairies, they’re really neat, they’re all doing things they love, and being supported by a community doing that for a greater purpose. It’s a really fantastic movie, I’m glad my daughter likes it. But at the same time…what’s gonna happen? If you read Peter Pan you know that Tink is kind of the only one left. Will Disney address the great question of what happened to the fairies? I suspect Disney will probably not address that, but I know—I’m reading Peter Pan with my daughter. And she’s gonna ask me that question, what’s gonna happen next? Also, Dot and the Kangaroo is fantastic—

EC: Oh my God, you have that?

CB: I have the three DVDs that are released. Dot and the Kangaroo, Dot and the Bunny and Dot and the Whale are the three that are out in America. There are another six in the series, I think. I really wanna see the Dot and the Kangaroo series re-released.

EC: Because that’s on my list of “Shit I Watched When I Was A Kid That Messed Me Up In The Head.” And like, it’s Dot and the Kangaroo, The Last Unicorn, Unico and the Island of Magic

CB: I definitely forgot how condescending the kangaroo was, but at the same time she’s been through a lot. The songs are great…

EC: BUNYIP. Song. Messed me up. I would have to run to the top of my staircase, and my mom would have to wait for it to be over and call me down.

CB: Oh yeah. There were bunyips, in the closet. That door had to remain closed. But at the same time, it’s a fascinating piece of cultural anthropology that’s woven into the fabric of Dot and the Kangaroo.

[Geeky giggling while Jeff looks on, bemused…]

CB: I also have to do a lot more looking at it—is she going to want to sit through the MuppetMovie? And she likes muppets, but she doesn’t have the endurance, at two, to sit through TheMuppet Movie. So I have a DVD collection of movies I want to watch with her, but she’s not old enough!

JG: I had to sneak Poltergeist, with my daughter. But boy was it cool, watching it with her.“Look at that kid getting sucked into the television!”

CB: Well, that would teach her to stand away from the TV. Geek girls in recent years have been blessed with the likes of Joss Whedon and Brian K Vaughn, heavy hitters that produce works with strong, realistic female leads. We are also finally seeing female teams on comics, like Kathryn Immonen and Sara Pichelli on Marvel’s Runaways or, finally, the first ever female writer to helm Wonder Woman, Gail Simone. However, in the world of fantasy and science fiction, and most noticeably in the marketing of those worlds, there regularly seems to be a lack of consideration for us girls.

CB: I find myself a lot more interested in the relationship of media to girls. There aren’t a whole lot of franchises for girls out there that have strength of narrative. I mean you see Barbie, who has narrative, but there’s not the same through line. She’s a fascinating character, because she’s had a million jobs and is so loaded, but she doesn’t have a storyline.

JG: Well, she’s an anthology character. And that’s okay, but it doesn’t give you something to hold on to over the long haul in terms of a narrative through line. Barbie is often proactive but still more often locked up in a tower somewhere needing to be rescued. So it’s a big concern of ours. Given our own resources and our own future, we want to do something about it.

EC: I did a sit down with Bruce Timm and the gang who just put out the Wonder Woman animated movie, which is rated PG-13. It’s awesome that it exists, but it’s not necessarily accessible to girls who right now have things aimed at them more along the lines of Hannah Montana. And High School Musical.

CB: Something that has been very interesting and controversial is that Mattel is releasing a new, older Dora the Explorer. And it’s possible the story they’re going to be telling… Dora is not necessarily going to be exploring the mall. At the same time, if you look at the Dora franchise’s track record, you look at their consumer products, within the first twenty pages of searching for Dora the Explorer on Amazon.com you won’t find a compass. You won’t find a map. You won’t find binoculars, you won’t find things Dora actually carries on her in the animated series.

JG: You’ll find Princess Dora.

CB: You’ll find Princess Dora, you’ll find Princess Adventure Dora. You’ll find washing machines, kitchens…it’s a question that you have to ask [with] young girls and young children in general,[they] are playing less with a DVD or a doll and are playing more with an intellectual property. So playing Dora could mean going onto your Leapfrog and learning something with Dora or it could mean watching a video. But the question is, looking at the whole brand, what is the message that’s being sent. And while Dora’s initial thrust was very interesting, very engaging as a parent, you then have to ask the question, well, what is the rest of it saying, too? And that’s something we have to look at when we’re looking at properties to make sure the themes and messages are being carried forth effectively. And there wouldn’t be as much controversy about this new Dora if the parents didn’t feel somewhat let down by the consumer products.

JG: A lot of what we do here is sit down and correct lopsidedness. Let’s look at the work of James Cameron. Always a very strong female character in his work. No one can forget Ellen Ripley. And what we try to take care to remember in all of this is that there is going to be the temptation to look at Avatar and think guns and think monsters and military paraphernalia, as you see in lots of Cameron films, but there is also this very, very powerful feminine mystique to the film, and feminine power that needs to be remembered in order to make all the spin-offs and ancillary content as powerful as the experience of watching the film is going to be. So part of our job as kind of franchise stewards is to defend and protect those notions. Another thing that we have to keep in mind, that’s worked really well for us, is remembering that the Millennial generation, that’s just coming into power right now, everyone born from basically Star Wars forward, that they’re looking at the world in a slightly different way, this kind of Post-Post 9-11, the Obama thing, where we want our heroes to be powerful but we also want them to think, that we can’t run rough shod over our enemies—

CB: Or that there are consequences to running rough-shod over our enemies. It’s less black and white, for Millennials. There has to be more of an exploration of the full story, of the meanings and consequences for every action taken.

JG: Yes, and I’ve been wondering about the distinctions between some of the movies that have come out recently that have been big hits and something like Watchmen, which is kind of from a darker sensibility. The Millennials don’t seem to be connecting en masse to Watchmen as they did to Iron Man or even Dark Knight. So these are things we have to be careful of and inform our clients about. You know, if you go this way—it can be artistically full of integrity and really really well done—but you might lose some of your audience. So gauge what you’re gonna do based on that possibility. Keeping our fingers in the zeitgeist and monitoring everything is a big part of what we do here.

We would like to extend our sincerest thanks for the time Jeff and Caitlin took out of their considerably madcap schedules to talk with us, and are greatly looking forward to their continued expansion, both of their own company and of the worlds in their capable hands. We are also jealous as hell that they actually get paid to do this, I mean are you serious? Whatever. Fine. They’re nice people, so it’s okay. Check out http://www.starlightrunner.com to keep up with Starlight Runner’s latest doings, and follow Jeff on the tweeter at @Jeff_Gomez and Caitlin at @Caitlin_Burns.