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Saturday, 23 June 2018

Casting about to begin for THE WITCHER TV series

According to showrunner/writer Lauren S. Hissrich, casting is about to get underway for Netflix's Witcher TV series.


To protect from spoilers, the production team has written all-new scenes for the characters that won't be part of the TV series itself. However, the notes confirm that Geralt, Yennefer and Jaskier will be among the roles being cast. Also of interest is that Geralt's bard companion will be called "Jaskier" rather than the more frequent English translation of "Dandelion," the name by which he is known in the video games and some of the English translations of the books.

The casting process will be international, meaning that actors from numerous countries will be looked at rather than just the United States (where the show is in pre-production) or Poland (where it will be filmed). This ties in with production expected to get underway towards the end of this year for an early 2020 debut on Netflix.

There's a lot of "dream choices" for actors for the role of Geralt floating around the Internet, most of which are surprisingly good. Here's a few of the more popular options:


Geralt of Rivia

The titular Witcher is many decades old, but looks to be somewhere from his late thirties to early fifties, thanks to his Witcher training and use of drugs that has extended his lifespan considerably. He is a skilled swordsman,


Mads Mikkelsen

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is best-known for his titular role in the TV show Hannibal. His recent appearances include as the villain Kaecillius in Doctor Strange and as Galen Erso in Rogue One. At 52 he is at the upper end of being the right age for Galen, and it should be remembered that (due to the typical 18-month gap between Netflix seasons) that if the show lasts for 5+ seasons, he may be in his sixties by the time it ends, which may be an issue given the physicality of the role. That said, Mikkelsen is in great shape, looks the part down to a tee and has a lot of star power. Mikkelsen is also now highly in demand for film work and may be less keen on committing to another TV show, although with only 8 episodes in its first season the actual filming time for the show may be relatively modest.

Mikkelsen is also the traditional choice of Witcher creator Andrzej Sapkowski to play the role, which may be influential.


Zach McGowan

American actor Zach McGowan has made a name for himself playing brooding and slightly growly athletic men with charisma and impressive combat prowess. He is best-known for playing Charles Vane in Black Sails and Roan in The 100, but has a long and impressive list of credits. At 38 he is at the younger end of the Geralt age spectrum (but this may be beneficial due to how long the show has to run) and has immense fighting experience from his previous roles.

McGowan has also expressed an interest in the role, exchanging Tweets with Hissrich and fans making it clear he'd be up for consideration.


Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau will need no introduction, having spent the last eight years playing the role of Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, which has given him impressive experience in riding horses and sword-fighting. He's a very fine actor and at 47 is in the right age bracket. The question would be if he was willing to spend potentially another decade riding horses and hitting people with swords, and if the producers would be interested in casting such a recognisable role from another and superficially very similar show in theirs.


Marcin Dorociński

If you're going to be making a TV show based on a high-profile Polish work of literature, you'd do well to at least consider some Polish actors for the role. Marcin Dorociński is a highly experienced Polish actor who's the right age (he turned 45 yesterday, actually) and has experience filming shows in English, recently appearing in British drama Spies of Warsaw and German-South African production Cape Town.


Bubbling Under

Other popular fan choices include Josh Holloway (best-known for player Sawyer on Lost) and Richard Armitage (best-known for playing Thorin in the Hobbit movies). However, both actors are tied in with long-running American TV Shows (Holloway on Colony and Armitage on Berlin Station) which means they are likely unavailable.


Other Roles

There's much more to The Witcher than just the Witcher, of course. For the role of the sorceress Yennefer, Eva Green seems to be overwhelmingly the favourite choice, although Evangeline Lily has some traction (the latter is less likely due to her commitment to the Marvel movies going forward).

Amanda Seyfried seems to be a popular choice for the role of Triss Merigold, although since the TV show is following the books rather than the games, Triss is likely to much less of a key player. Deborah Ann Woll has also been suggested for the role, which is interesting given that she has worked with Hissrich before on Daredevil and The Defenders.

For the role of Jaskier/Dandelion, David Tennant seems to be a very popular choice, although the producers may want to cast younger, in which case Aneurin Barnard would fit the role to a tee.

For the role of Vesemir, no less weighty an icon than Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker!) has thrown his hat into the ring. When fans repeatedly suggested him for the role on Twitter, he expressed an interest in learning more about the character and role. That'd be some impressive casting, especially given Hamill's relative absence from live-action roles in recent years before his return in The Last Jedi.

Casting will likely be completed and confirmed later this year.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Disney put STAR WARS spin-off movies on hold

According to Collider, Lucasfilm have put the two Star Wars spin-off movies they have in active development - one focusing on Obi-Wan Kenobi and another about Boba Fett - on indefinite hold, apparently in response to the disappointing box office of Solo: A Star Wars Story.


Solo launched a month ago to stronger-than-expected reviews (given the film's troubled and expensive production history), with especially strong notices given for man-of-the-moment Donald Glover's performance as Lando Calrissian. However, these failed to convince an audience that appeared to be sceptical of the need for a Han Solo origin story and was blockbustered out, having been hit by The Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2 in just the preceding few weeks. With Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi only hitting cinemas five months earlier, there was also talk of "franchise fatigue" setting in.

Cinema chain owners have blamed the May release date, several apparently having urged Disney to move the film to December. It is possible that Disney deliberately targeted this movie for May as an early test to see if audiences would be prepared to see multiple Star Wars movies in a year, as they do with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in preparation for a future increase in production cycles. If that test was the goal, clearly it has failed.

Whatever the explanation, the effects have been sobering for Disney's bottom line: in its first month on release, Solo has garnered a spectacularly low $350 million. This has meant that the film has broken even with its production budget, but has not come close to making back its marketing budget (for comparison's sake, all three previous Star Wars movies needed to make back triple their production budget before becoming profitable) and will now need healthy media sales and streamings to become profitable, which may take another year or so.

The Obi-Wan and Boba Fett movies are on hold now whilst Lucasfilm reassess the appeal of those movies: although fans seemed keen to see Ewan McGregor take on the role of Obi-Wan in a competently-directed and written film, news of a Boba Fett film was greeted with utter apathy when it was revealed last month. There also appears to be a strong blowback amongst even casual fans against the endless parade of prequels being announced. A key difference between the Star Wars and Marvel franchises is that the Marvel movies all take place in the same timeline and continuity, with characters crossing over from one to another and each contributing to a larger whole (people who loved Black Panther, for example, were thrilled to see those characters and storylines continuing just a few weeks later in Infinity War). Star Wars has not been doing that, with the prequel side-movies being seen as disposable compared to the main saga films.

Perhaps with this in mind, Disney and Lucasfilm are refocusing their attention on Star Wars Episode IX, which is shooting now with J.J. Abrams wrapping up the story of Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren that he began in The Force Awakens and is due to hit cinemas in December 2019. Rian Johnson is also developing a new Star Wars trilogy and Game of Thrones producer-writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are also developing ideas for a new multi-film series. These two projects remain in active development (although neither is formally greenlit yet).

Whatever the situation, Disney recently turned a profit on their overall Lucasfilm deal, so the $4 billion investment they made in the franchise in 2012 has now come good, but there may be some at Disney who were expecting a much bigger success from the franchise. As some fans have indicated, maybe the golden goose has been squeezed dry and Lucasfilm may be advised to let the franchise rest for a few years after Episode IX?

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

Two great empires have dominated the east of Embria, the fall of the great subterranean empire of the urds heralding the rise of Ossia, protected by the Ember Blade and the sacred order of Dawnwardens. But thirty years ago Ossia was invaded in turn by Kroda, a kingdom of order, logic and science. Declaring itself the Third Empire, Kroda sees its destiny is to unite the continent through the Sword and the Word.


Although it is a land under occupation, life is good for many Ossians. The Krodans keep the bandits in check and the roads maintained. For young Aren, an Ossian noble son born into happy fortune, he sees his nation's destiny is in alliance with Kroda. That dream dies when he is betrayed by the empire he believes in. Left to rot in a prison camp, he is given an opportunity to strike back against his enemies...and help reclaim the Ember Blade.

Chris Wooding has been one of science fiction and fantasy's most interesting and restless voices for a long time now, moving from writing cracking YA reads to mature, thoughtful works of science fantasy like The Fade. His work in adult fantasy is mostly contained in the excellent Braided Path series, rooted in Asian mythology and influences, and the rollicking Tales of the Ketty Jay, a dieselpunk saga of airships, fighters, rampaging titans, surly cats and heroes whose buckles are, indeed, swashed.

The Darkwater Legacy is Wooding's back-to-basics take on the traditional fantasy saga (even the title feels like it was copyrighted in 1985). Ossia is a land under the grip of a cruel empire, a heroic band of freedom fighters are trying to save the day and a young man finds himself touched by destiny. It's like David Eddings, Margaret Weis, Tracey Hickman and Terry Brooks had a brainstorming session over a power lunch. If they did, though, then Wooding stole their notes, drank their beer and set about skewing everything slightly away from the way you think it's going to go.

The Ember Blade introduces us to Aren, the son of an Ossian noble who thinks himself destined for great things, unable to accept that his blood means that he will never be taken seriously by the Krodans. His best friend is Cade, a carpenter's son. They are separated by class and their feelings about the Krodan invaders, but they are soon bound together by profound misfortune. Along the way they meet up with a highly dubious warrior, thief and scoundrel, Grub the Skarl (master of the boastful non-sequitur), and a bunch of rebels led by the enigmatic "Hollow Man", before they find themselves on the run from supernatural trackers and gradually realise more is going on than it first appears. So far, so Lord of the Rings meets The Eye of the World. When our characters join forces with a druidess searching for a hero who is the fulfilment of prophecy and reach Skavenhald, a terrible ruin inhabited by a profound supernatural evil (Moria by way of Shadar Logoth, with a name that nods at Warhammer), you may be trying to keep your eyes from rolling. Wooding writes with skill but there's the feeling that maybe the traditional fantasy archetypes are being assembled a bit too familiarly here, as if assembled from an IKEA flatpack.

But then things get a lot more interesting. Skavenhald is weird and a distinctly Lovecraftian tone creeps in as screeching horrible things from other realms threaten to break through the skein of reality. It's more Dark Souls than Balrog Retirement Village, and all the better for it. After this the book becomes more engrossing as Wooding strips back the psychology of his characters, revealing them to be less the Fellowship of the Ring and more the Companions of Utter Dysfunction. One late-emerging main character is fascinating, a middle-aged teacher and patriot whose ruthlessness and resourcefulness dwarfs that of almost any of the other characters. The story takes several extremely unexpected swings (complete with a few shocking dispatches of characters you thought were around for the duration) before we reach the appropriately epic conclusion and the inevitably-frustrating wait for Book 2.

The Ember Blade is Wooding's longest novel to date - just under 800 pages in tradeback - but has more story in it than most entire trilogies. We have a prison break narrative, a horror story, a war story and an urban fantasy adventure. There's pirates, wolves, dodgy Viking warriors and some discomforting WWII allegories. One sequence feels like it's come out of Moby Dick, another out of Baldur's Gate. Wooding has had a frankly unseemly amount of fun in assembling his Big Fat Fantasy Saga and is keen to share that with the reader. The pages rattle by, the worldbuilding becomes more well-rounded and intriguing and the characters never stop growing and changing. It would be easy to condemn the author for writing "just" another throwback fantasy here, but it's also easy to forget that writing a good epic fantasy is still very difficult, and Wooding does it with aplomb.

The Ember Blade (****½) is great fun, a classic epic fantasy which, after a perhaps slightly too-traditional opening, avoids becoming too predictable. The characters are memorable and charismatic, but also flawed, with their darker moments that give them more edge than the one-note heroes of yesteryear. The tone is light and fun to start with, but matures throughout, with a few moments of real darkness at the end as things get real. The novel will be published on 20 September 2018 in the UK (and will be available on import in the USA).

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Atlanta: Season 1

Earnest "Earn" Marks is a man who feels his life is drifting aimlessly, with an unrewarding job and difficulties in supporting his young daughter and his on-off again girlfriend Van. When his cousin Alfred starts a rapping career under the stage name "Paper Boi", Earn convinces him to take him on as his manager. And then life gets even more complicated.


Atlanta is a very hard TV show to pin down. Created and partly written by Donald Glover (Community, Star Wars: Solo), who also stars as Earn, it's a strange show that moves between different tones with assured ease. It's a comedy about an intelligent young man who constantly feels let down by society and his idiotic peers, but who also makes plenty of his own mistakes. But it can also go quite dark: the first two episodes see Alfred shooting a man after a parking lot altercation and both him and Earn ending up in the police station, where Earn endures a stark and uncomfortable night alongside drug-dealers, violent criminals and brutal cops.

Later episodes go out-and-out surreal. An entire episode is spent with Alfred as a guest on a strange Atlanta talk show, whilst another is set in a nightclub with secret doors and a lunatic rich guy who apparently drives an invisible car. Another episode revolves entirely around a search for a missing jacket, and another feels like the prototype for the movie Get Out, with Earn enduring the increasingly disturbing attention of a middle-aged white man who is crawling with inappropriately over-earnest guilt for slavery (co-star Lakeith Stanfield also has a prominent role in Get Out, which feels appropriate).

Atlanta is weird and fluid, flowing from being a show about one thing into a show about another. At first it's difficult to know if you even like the show or not: is it a comedy? A drama? A surrealistic visual tone poem? But the final analysis is that Atlanta is meant to represent Earn's life, which for all of its specific elements is a life pretty much like anyone else's, which moves from being funny to sad to being busy to being boring and back again.

What Atlanta remains throughout, however, is both entertaining and compelling. The direction (some of it by Glover himself) is remarkable, drawing the viewer into each episode's unique set-up. The writing is always sharp, the dialogue often joyously clever (especially when Earn gets up to speed and starts cutting down other people's idiocies with withering contempt), the characters immensely interesting even when they're not the most likeable. Earn may be (most of the time) our viewpoint character, but it's his long-suffering sort-of girlfriend Vanessa (an assured performance by Zazie Beetz) who emerges as one of the strongest characters, someone with drive and ambition but lacking the resources to fully achieve her goals.

Atlanta may not always be a comedy (despite its billing as a comedy-drama), but when it is it's the funniest show on television. Lakeith Stanfield's performance as philosopher-stoner Darius, master of the non sequitur, provides some of the show's best moments, but all of the cast have their moment in the sun.

Atlanta's first season (****½) is smart, engaging and endlessly inventive television. A second season aired earlier this year and a third season has been commissioned.

CBS planning multiple new STAR TREK TV projects

CBS is planning multiple new Star Trek TV projects after inking a $25 million deal with producer Alex Kurtzman to effectively take control of the TV arm of the franchise.


First up, Kurtzman has become Star Trek: Discovery's sole showrunner after writer-producers Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts were fired for alleged bullying and unprofessional behaviour in the writer's room. This shouldn't affect production of Discovery, which has filmed five episodes of its second season with the bulk of the writing for the season already complete. Discovery is due to return to CBS All Access at the start of 2019.

CBS are also considering four additional projects. Already in development is a fresh take on the long-mooted Starfleet Academy idea, this time fronted by Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz (Runaways). Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) is also developing a mini-series which will focus on the life of iconic Star Trek villain Khan Noonian Singh.

An animated series is also under consideration, but more interesting is another live action mini-series is planned, which is rumoured will be a sequel to the Next Generation/Deep Space Nine/Voyager era and may focus on Jean-Luc Picard, with Patrick Stewart being courted to return to the role. Stewart has never ruled out returning to the franchise and may be open to the idea, depending on the script. Stewart's last appearance as Picard was in the 2002 movie Star Trek: Nemesis, although he did return in 2006 to voice an appearance in the video game Star Trek: Legacy.

It's possible that some of these projects may air on CBS All Access and others on CBS itself.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

A board game catch-up

My home town of Colchester recently opened its first-ever board game cafe, Dice and a Slice, which allows people to try out board games whilst drinking copious amounts of tea or coffee with food. This has provided me with a fine way of trying out lots of board games without having to spend hundreds of pounds, which has been very handy. So here's a look at some of the games I've tried out recently:


Barbarians: The Invasion
Tabula Games

Barbarians: The Invasion can be best described as a death metal version of Settlers of Catan. Each player controls a tribe of barbarians competing for resources (such as iron, treasure and wood) which they can use to muster troops to pillage and ransack nearby civilised kingdoms. The tribes never fight one another, instead competing in a friendly manner to see who can cause the most murder, death and mayhem among civilised folk. Technically it's possible to win by going for economic bonuses, but the victory points you amass from this approach are minuscule compared to those resulting from carnage.

The game's big selling point is the volcano, a three-dimensional model of which accompanies the game. Each player places a figure on each ring of the volcano which determines which actions they are going to to attempt that turn. They can only place figures in a certain linked relationship to the first figure, meaning each player has to carefully plan where they are going to place their figures and what they can do to disrupt their rivals' objectives. In a nice twist, players can sometimes spin the levels of the volcano to throw enemies onto unwanted paths or achieve better outcomes. Each tribe can also build structures for bonuses, worship gods for more benefits and employ a chief with certain skills. If a tribe tires of a chief, they can sacrifice him to the volcano to get even more stuff.


After each go, the players have to either 1) appease a demon who will otherwise rain hellfire down on the tribe in its furious wrath, or 2) go to the pub and chill.

Barbarians: The Invasion is a flat-out insane game which is over-engineered past the point of lunacy and won't use one token when it can use fifteen and three cards instead. I certainly wouldn't recommend buying it - it's very expensive and fiddly - but I'd be happy to play it again if someone busted it out on a games night. Despite its intimidating size, it's a relatively fast and fun game, and worthwhile for someone who likes Settlers of Catan but feels it would be improved by having demons periodically show up.


Survive: Escape from Atlantis
Stronghold Games

Survive: Escape from Atlantis is a reprint of a game that I received as a Christmas present about thirty years ago. It's a very straightforward, fast-paced and fun game. Each player controls a tribe of refugees who are trying to escape from the island of Atlantis before it disintegrates completely. They have to escape by boat to nearby, secure islands, dodging sea monsters along the way.

It's a great game which can be surprisingly ruthless, with players unable to harm one another but they can very easily screw one another over by smashing their boats, or stealing a boat out from under the eyes of another player and so on. It may be the most fun passive-aggressive game ever made.

Taken on its own merits, this edition of the game is very enjoyable and a lot of fun. When you compare it to previous editions, particularly the 1980s original version, it does start to feel a bit skimpy. The original Escape from Atlantis had very well-detailed 3D plastic island pieces and a larger variety of sea creatures (including dolphins and octopuses) as well as allowing for more players. Survive replaces the plastic pieces with flat cardboard hexagons which feels and looks a lot cheaper. It also pulls out the dolphins and octopuses and puts them in an expansion, along with the pieces necessary to take the game to six players, which definitely feels like a price-gouging move given that this is a perfect party game or a game to play with younger players.

If you can overlook this slight cheapness (and to be fair the game is a lot more environmentally-friendly and it is a lot less expensive than other board games), this is a fun, enjoyable game.


The War of the Ring
Ares Games

The War of the Ring is, obviously, a game based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novels. The game attempts to retell the entire story of the War of the Ring, with one player taking command of the free nations (Gondor, Rohan, Dwarves, Elves, the North/Shire and the Fellowship of the Ring) and the other taking command of the forces of evil (Mordor, Isengard and Rhun/Harad).

Both sides are looking to score victory points, the easiest way of acquiring such is by conquering strongholds and cities, which is rather easier for the bad guys (whose armies are huge and regenerate after battle) than the good guys (whose armies are smaller and cannot be replenished once their initial forces and reinforcement pool have been depleted). Complicating things further is that the "good guys" are not a monolithic bloc and at the start of the game are actually very reluctant to go into open war against Sauron. Instead the good player has to expend diplomacy actions to bring the various factions into battle, which is easier said than done.


The trump card for the good player is the Fellowship. Each turn the good player can move the Fellowship secretly closer to Mordor with a very clever hidden movement mechanic. The evil player can expend resources to search for the Ring, but these are resources which will not be available for battles elsewhere. If the evil player does nothing, the Fellowship will eventually reach Mount Doom and destroy the Ring and thus Sauron, winning the game no matter how many victory points the evil player has amassed.

This gives rise to an interesting asymmetric game of choice and consequence. Both players have to decide how much effort to expand on either moving the Fellowship or hunting them down, as the actions expanded on this may also be sorely needed to move reinforcements to Helm's Deep or Minas Tirith, or rally the elves of the Grey Havens to reinforce the Shire against an orc army out of Angmar. This is all somewhat familiar, and indeed a similar system was later used by Fantasy Flight Games for the excellent Star Wars: Rebellion.


There is additional complexity to the game as well: both players have access to Characters (aka "Leaders" as seen in Rebellion) who have powerful abilities. Gimli can rally the Dwarves - arguably the good faction least likely to get involved in the war - to battle, whilst both Strider and Gandalf the Grey can level up (to Aragorn and Gandalf the White, respectively), becoming more powerful and adding new abilities to the fray. Evil has access to characters like Wormtongue, who can effectively paralyse Rohan with his poisoning of the king's ear, and the Witch-King of Angmar, who is a powerful general and opponent, but whose very arrival will rally all of the neutral nations to war.

The War of the Ring is a long and deep game, and I wouldn't want to review it further until I have a few more games under my belt. But so far it's a fascinating game with a lot of different strategies, presented with phenomenal artwork and amazingly detailed miniatures. The main negatives I'd say so far is that the miniatures need to be much more clearly differentiated from one another: finding a reinforcement unit for a particular nation in the heat of the moment can be far too difficult.


Memoir 44
Days of Wonder

I've spoken previously of my enduring enjoyment of Axis & Allies, which tackles WWII from a grand strategy perspective. Memoir 44 takes the opposite approach, tackling a single battle from the conflict at a time. Each battle has different terrain, objectives and forces available to both sides, both in terms of units (usually infantry, tanks and artillery) and command cards.

Memoir 44 uses the "command and colours" system used by Battlecry, Battlelore and numerous other titles, and is very simple. On each turn, each player can play a single card. This card will allow for a certain number of units to be moved in a certain part of the battlefield (either of the flanks or in the centre), usually allowing them to move and attack. For each enemy unit completely destroyed, the winner gains a victory point. Depending on the scenario, 4 to 6 points are needed to win. Additional points can be gained from seizing and holding strategically important chokepoints on the map, like villages or bridges.

The result is a game of strategic punch and counter-punch, with units taking damage and pulling back (to avoid total destruction and giving the enemy a victory point), or sometimes brave charges being mounted to allow your troops to rush into pointblank range to inflict heavier damage on the enemy. The focus here is a fast-moving game - the game has a faster turn-around than almost any other modern board I've played - where you can get battles done in under 20 minutes. The game is so fast to set up and comes with so many battle scenarios that you'll find yourself usually playing 3-4 battles in a single session, and you can string your battles together into campaigns.

Memoir 44 hits that sweet spot of being both streamlined and elegant, but allowing for an immense amount of complexity and depth (resembling that other Days of Wonder classic, Ticket to Ride). There are enormous numbers of expansions for theatres like North Africa and Russia (availability is spotty at the moment, though, with even the base game out of stock on Amazon UK but still available in shops) and optional rules for aerial bombardment and naval assaults, but generally speaking the game is fast, fluid and easy to understand, whilst being tricky to fully master. In that sense, it's the perfect board game, and definitely one of the strongest games I've played.



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SF&F Questions: Has Disney turned a profit on its Lucasfilm purchase yet?


The Basics
In 2012 Disney bought Lucasfilm from founder George Lucas, paying $4.05 billion for the company, all of its assets and sub-divisions (including special effects company Industrial Light and Magic), and all of its franchises, most notably Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

A common question that's often been asked recently is if Disney has made back the money on this deal in the last four years, which has seen multiple Star Wars TV shows and video games made, along with dozens of novels and comics and, of course, four feature films (with many more coming).

The answer is that this is difficult to answer definitively - Disney are not exactly releasing detailed financials to the public - but we do have significant evidence to go on.


Profit from the Films: $1.5 billion
Disney, of course, have not just spent $4 billion on buying Lucasfilm, but have also spent significant money on producing the new movies and materials. For that reason we are not interested in the total gross of the movies, but the profit alone (as each film - with the possible exception of the underperforming Solo - has made a profit on an individual basis).

Fortunately, we have figures confirming the profit made from the new movies. This confirms that The Force Awakens made $780 million in pure profit for Disney and The Last Jedi made $415.5 million. That's around 1/3 of the total gross in each case (The Force Awakens' box office total was $2.06 billion and The Last Jedi was $1.3 billion). Extrapolating, Rogue One likely made around $300 million profit from its box office of $1.06 billion. Solo, at this rate, will struggle to break even at the box office and will likely rely on future home media and streaming releases to carry it across the line, so that can be disregarded for now.


Profit from Media Releases: $1 billion
These figures are harder to come by, but it has been confirmed that The Force Awakens has made $151 million in Blu-Ray sales in the USA alone, followed by Rogue One at $66 million and The Last Jedi at $56 million. Worldwide figures can comfortably double this and DVD sales (as DVD remains, bizarrely, a strong-selling format) can double that again. This is also not including media releases from The Clone Wars and Rebels, and Disney's legacy re-release of the original six movies in multiple formats.

Streaming rights to different channels worldwide is also a significant income. I would bet that the home media releases in varying formats match the $1.5 billion made by the films (matching the profitability of the original franchise at the moment Disney bought it in 2012, where home media and box office were at parity), but certainly well in excess of $1 billion.


Profit from the Toys: $300 million
Star Wars has been a phenomenon in toy sales, with combined action figure, vehicle, playset, Lego and costume sales exceeding an astonishing $14 billion by 2012. Sales since then have been more modest (a reflection of kids spending more time and money on video games and mobile devices than physical toys), but Star Wars was still the biggest-selling toy franchise in 2015 and 2016 before falling to second place in 2017. Star Wars toy sales exceeded $700 million in fiscal year 2015-16, did slightly less in 2016-17 and a lot less in 2017-18 (so far), the latter surprising as it's the first fiscal year to see two Star Wars movies released.

Thanks to Netflix documentary series The Toys That Made Us, we know that Lucasfilm's deal with Hasbro (inherited by Disney) gives them 16% of the income from the toys. Assuming $1.75 billion from toy income since 2015, this takes us up to around $280 million conservative.

These figures doesn't appear to include the adult collectable market (which is small in overall numbers but huge in margin), books, comic books, collected graphic novels and the adult-oriented board games and miniature games from Fantasy Flight. Crucially, this figure also doesn't include early sales from 2012-15 as well. On this basis, Disney's merchandising sales likely far exceed $300 million in terms of pure profit.

The total sales and profits of the Star Wars franchise between 1977 and 2012.


Video Games: $500 million
There have been two major video game releases since Disney took over the franchise: Star Wars Battlefront (2015) and Star Wars Battlefront II (2017), along with several spin-off Lego video games and legacy sales of earlier titles. Many classic Star Wars games have recently been released on the GoG store and have cumulatively sold hundreds of thousands of new copies. The MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic has also generated significant income ($140 million in 2013 alone, for example).

We are predominantly interested in the performance of the two Battlefront games. Together, the two titles have sold 22 million copies, Battlefront accounting for 14 million copies sold and Battlefront II about 8 million. This would generate almost $1.5 billion in revenue. Disney's cut is rumoured to be around 30% (which would certainly explain Electronic Arts' bizarre claims about the games "disappointing" in their performance, since their cut is significantly reduced), which gives us an approximate figure of $500 million in profit to Disney. This figure does not include Disney's cut of microtransactions or income from mobile games and services, which are also significant.


Industrial Light and Magic: $1 billion
When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, they also acquired Industrial Light and Magic, a division of Lucasfilm that provides visual effects to the film industry. Since the 1980s, ILM has consistently been the largest and most successful provider of visual effects to the global film industry, despite challenges from the likes of Weta Digital and Framestore.

We know that ILM made over $180 million per year in the late 1990s, at a time when the global effects market was small fraction of its present day size. As a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lucasfilm and in turn Disney, ILM's profits are a mystery, but they appear to be significant, and certainly far higher than in 1997. The company is the largest employer of digital effects specialists in Hollywood, it has the largest render farm in the industry and it is capable of tackling half a dozen large movies simultaneously. As well as the Star Wars movies, it works on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Disney's new live-action division, as well as providing visual effects for the Transformers franchise.

A reasonable and massively conservative estimate of ILM's profits would be $200 million per year, every year, in 2013-17. This is likely a gross underestimate, not accounting for the sheer magnitude of ILM's global operations and work on dozens of films in multiple countries and franchises. As ILM charges a flat market fee (which is not dependent on the film's final performance, so they still get paid regardless of the film's performance), this gives them a commanding presence in the industry.


Final Tally: $4.3 billion
The final and highly conservative tally falls somewhere around $4.3 billion in pure profit garnered by Disney since 2012. There are significant shortfalls in these figures, however. We don't know what revenues the TV series Star Wars: Rebels have brought in, or the novels or comics (it should be noted that the novels and comics were highly profitable in the pre-2012 era, cumulatively bringing in over $2 billion in profit), nor the amusement park rides and attractions.

The final figure will be somewhat higher than this.


Answer: Since the takeover by Disney, Lucasfilm's franchises and divisions have brought in well over $4 billion in profit alone. George Lucas may have even significantly underestimated the value of the company when he sold. Disney are now comfortably in profit on the overall deal.

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Friday, 15 June 2018

Sense8: The Finale

Wolfgang is a prisoner of BPO, but his fellow sensates have taken the enigmatic "Whispers" prisoner in turn. The two sides arrange a prisoner swap in Paris, but both are eager to double-cross the other and gain the upper hand in their clandestine war. For BPO, the sensates are a weapon and a resource to be exploited. All the sensates want is freedom. The two sides are poised for a final confrontation.


Sense8 is one of the oddest shows on television, an anthology show with eight main characters in which the central character of each story can call upon the skills and advice of the other seven, despite each story being very different in tone and ideas. It's also a show that is fairly over-brimming with positivity about humanity and about life. If the relentless cynicism of the likes of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead gets too much for you, than Sense8 is the antidote, a show in which the characters can escape murderous torture, gun down some bad guys, and then get together with their cluster for a telepathically-communicated musical throwdown to Depeche Mode. As you do.

When Sense8 was cancelled after its second season, it was the raucous reception by the fans that saw Netflix agree to commission a TV movie to round off the story. This presented Lana Wachowski with a difficult choice to make. Sense8 was envisaged as a five-season project. With more than half of that material remaining, should she chuck all of that out and craft a simpler resolution to the story, or try to cram in another 36-odd episodes worth of plot into a single special? Her conclusion was to try to do a bit of both. So the central struggle of this finale is firmly on the sensates vs. BPO, with Whispers as the key in that conflict. That's fine and focused, but Wachowski also brings in a huge number of other elements which there is simply no time to develop, such as a neutral council of sensates who have so far stayed out of the struggle but are now willing to support one side and then don't do very much. Some of this excess baggage should have been dropped.

Sense8's finale gives fans a lot more of what they've seen so far: our characters swapping skills, having emotional heart-to-hearts and a couple of musical numbers and party scenes, along with the show's standard, fantastic location filming (the use of Naples is excellent, but the actual use of the real Eiffel Tower for the grand finale is jaw-dropping). However, it also drops the characters' individual storylines to focus on the grand mystery. This is possibly unwise, as the show's central storyline of shadowy government or trans-national organisations and mysteries dating back decades always felt a bit undercooked and took too much time away from the characters (a similar problem to Orphan Black and latter-day Lost). Still, at least the finale straightens out the show's mythology and resolves it with admirable efficiency.

Possibly less successful is the decision to pay off every single character in the show. And I mean every single character. Sylvester McCoy's elderly sensate has a part to play, as does Wolfgang's Conan the Barbarian-quoting best friend, and Kala's eternally confused husband and Capheus's political team and Will's cop partner from Chicago and Riley's chill hippy dad and Nomi's transphobic/homophobic mother and Sun's Korean cop nemesis/boyfriend and that bald girl from the second season and Angelica and her cluster (despite them all being dead) and pretty much everyone who hasn't been killed off. Jamming all of these characters into the special is nice, but unwieldy, massively self-indulgent and not very logical. Even worse, the proliferation of characters beyond the central eight means that some of the main cast of characters, most notably Capheus and Lito, don't really get much to do.

The finale also has some decidedly undercooked action scenes. Sense8's action scenes have always been phenomenal, the Wachowskis relishing their relatively low budget to get back to the ground-level tricks for shooting gunfights and martial arts they haven't had to employ since the original Matrix. For the finale, they clearly had much less money and time available than normal. The fight scenes feel perfunctory and the CG in the gunfights (to simulate bullet sparks) is poorly integrated with the live action. Given there's quite a few action scenes in the finale, this is definitely a bit of an issue, but ultimately a minor one.

But these questions of logistics and over-indulgence and logic are perhaps the wrong ones to address. Sense8 was a show about eight well-drawn characters from completely different backgrounds coming together and finding commonality despite their very different origins, and overcoming the obstacles in the way. The show wasn't perfect - bum dialogue and a tendency to schmaltz dogged it from early on - but its flaws were often endearing, its characters resolutely human and its message determinedly hopeful. Hopefully we will see its like again.

Sense8's finale (****) is available to watch on Netflix worldwide now, along with the rest of the series.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

CD Projekt spill the beans on CYBERPUNK 2077

CD Projekt have revealed a lot more information about their epic, upcoming CRPG Cyberpunk 2077.

The action takes place in Night City, a new conurbation on the California coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Click to embiggen. This map was taken from here.

Cyberpunk 2077 is an epic roleplaying game set in Night City, California in the year 2077. The player plays a character of their own creation. Everything about the character is customisable: their gender, appearance, "life-path" (backstory) and cybernetic enhancements. What is fixed is their handle or nickname, "V", which was chosen to make dialogue more naturalistic. All dialogue in the game has been recorded by male and female actors.


Unlike CD Projekt Red's previous game, The Witcher 3, Cyberpunk 2077 will be played primarily from a first-person perspective. You will see your character in certain circumstances (most notably cut-scenes and dialogue), but the game will be predominantly played from first-person, so more like Fallout or Deus Ex.


Although the game will be set in 2077, it's an alternative timeline that diverged from our own in the 1980s. The Cyberpunk pen-and-paper game history and timeline, which began in 2013 and became most popular through the Cyberpunk 2020 game, will remain intact. Characters from established Cyberpunk lore will appear in Cyberpunk 2077, as will corporations and factions.


Night City has six distinct regions: Watson, Westbrook, Santo Domingo, Heywood, City Centre and Pacifica. Pacifica is a dangerous, lawless slum area (see the map above). Other areas are incredibly rich. The city is very vertical in orientation. The game has a full day/night cycle and numerous weather conditions.
 
Night City has several megatowers, which are basically Judge Dredd blocks. Each one of these blocks extends for many levels and has its own shops, gangs, factions and a multitude of NPCs and stuff to do, as well as the areas outside and around the city.


You can get around the city on foot, by subway, by car and by motorbike along with other vehicles that haven't been shown yet (but may include taxis, hovercars and ambulances).

There will be ranged combat, focusing on the use of guns, as well as melee. You can also hack other character's cybernetic enhancements, and use stealth to take people down. The game will include weapons that can fire through walls or fire "smart" ammo that can track targets. Combat in the game has been designed so people who enjoy "twitch" combat can dive in with ranged combat and those who are more interested in roleplaying can use smart weapons or even stealth to avoid head-on combat altogether.


There will be three very rough "classes" you can follow: netrunner, techie and solo. However, these classes are highly fluid, allowing you to mix and match skills, attributes and cyber-enhancements as you like. Other Cyberpunk classes and archetypes, like rockerboys and corporate, will appear as other characters.

Advancement will come in two formats: standard EXP is gained from completing the main story quests. Streetcred is gained from doing side missions, killing tough bad guys and even things like wearing a fashionable jacket. Improving your streetcred will unlock new vendors, fixers and contacts who can give you access to new jobs.



As you gain levels, you can improve your skills and cyberware, as well as gaining perks, special abilities you can use in and out of combat.

As with most cyberpunk narratives, the main story will focus on the inequality between the poor people in the streets and the rich people in the towers above.

Cyberpunk 2077 will be released on PS4, XB1 and PC. No release date has yet been announced.