‘Star Wars Celebration Chicago 2019’ Reminded Me Why Fandom Matters

Introduction – My Star Wars Story

On December 18th, 2015, Star Wars awakened once again; a pivotal moment for the last decade of mainstream entertainment. And what made The Force Awakens a graceful, triumphant return was the fact that it was both a nostalgic trip back home for all those who were already invested in the Star Wars franchise, and also a call to people closer to my age to partake in its broad cinematic legacy.

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My photos from before the opening night of The Force Awakens on December 15th, 2015

I remember skipping a whole day of high school with my friends so that we could head straight to Disneyland in the morning, and then to AMC so that we could get the best seat possible in that bustling theater. I already had a history with Star Wars because of my family’s expansive DVD collection, but I was particularly eager to finally have a new trilogy of these films to call my own. I was wearing a quickly thrown together Han Solo costume, I got seated in the middle row, with only my friend and a bag of m&ms at my side when the projector lit up. My eyes gleamed up at the opening crawl, for I was ready to be transported once again to that galaxy far, far away– content with knowing that people like me had a place amongst those stars.

And when I came home from the cinema and fired up the Tumblr log in screen so I could write my first post about how much I loved the new Star Wars, I wasn’t aware of how that love would, in retrospect, become my first steps into a larger world of fandom.

A lot has happened since then. I joined Star Wars stan twitter circa-early-2016, admiring all those accounts with thousands of followers making funny posts about Oscar Isaac and FinnPoe. A couple of tweets of mine took off, and a few late night rabb.it streams and about four more Star Wars films later, those accounts I only knew from Poe Dameron profile pictures became some of my closest internet friends. For three years, through thick and thin of the franchise we’ve bonded over our love for the new movies, over gender and sexual identity, over twitter discourse, over our passions and dreams, and over our own insecurities. Our group chat, ‘Oscar 4 Real Justice’ started in the summer of 2016 and has stood the test of time, still active today.

I didn’t have the best high school experience, but I’ve always had a support group with me through my phone. And without the lines, “You need a pilot” and “I need a pilot”, perhaps none of it would have ever existed.

Skim through 2017/2018, after The Last Jedi released in cinemas to an overwhelming amount of controversy and Mad Online™, after Solo: A Star Wars Story drastically overwhelmed critics and audiences, after the rise of Disney+ and the Disney/Fox Merger, and it started to feel like Star Wars, Marvel, and Disney were becoming a little too oversaturated for their own good. Most of Oscar 4 Real Justice became invested in independent cinema, hence my current position here at Much Ado. Figuring out I desired a career in film journalism and realizing I was developing a niche taste in cinema created a conflict between my nostalgic love for these big franchises and what I personally believe needs to change within the film industry.

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Some of my friends from Star Wars twitter and I, all united next to an X-Wing at Celebration.

Soon, press information and ticket details were released concerning a Star Wars Celebration in Chicago, the biggest Star Wars Celebration yet, and the last one before Episode IX, the final instalment in the sequel trilogy. I rushed to apply for the media badge as soon as I could, and all my friends on Star Wars twitter created our SWC planning group chats.

And there we were. Star Wars Celebration Chicago 2019, an event of many personal ‘firsts’. My first real convention experience, my first time flying across the country and being in an unexplored area without my own family, my first time meeting half of my friends from Oscar 4 Real Justice and other sub-parts of Star Wars twitter. But most of all, SWCC was the first time in which my past four years with the Star Wars fandom, and my young professional career collided to show me what lies beyond. Perhaps it would be beginning of the end of these four years I spent in this fandom.

For my deep dive into Star Wars fan culture, I want to highlight the best moments of the celebration and the insight they brought to me regarding my experience of Star Wars fandom as a community.

The Exhibition Hall

A view of the exhibition hall at SWCC from the second floor. Taken by Tyler ‘Llewyn’ Taing.

On Thursday, the opening preview of SWCC was mainly dedicated to the Exhibition Hall; the centerpiece of the whole five days of the convention. Equal parts official brand booths and fan clubs/artists, the place was overrun with fans purchasing merch, people going to photo ops and cosplayers strutting their hard, immaculate work. Any doubts I might have had in my mind about how much Star Wars could sustain a convention hall as big as McCormick Place disappeared once I made my way up to the second floor and looked below. From then and there, it was truly clear to me how enormous and all-encompassing the scale of SWCC was.

Every single inch of the convention floor was packed with something to awe at. There were VR stations, Lego Star Wars toy exhibits, vintage merch collectors, pins and patch trading, and there was basically never a dull moment throughout the time I spent at SWCC thanks to The Star Wars Show stage which was broadcasting live on YouTube. I spent whole afternoons walking around this floor, and I still felt like I missed a lot of important developments there.

The Star Wars Celebration Chicago mural, standing high above the convention. Photo taken by Tyler ‘Llewyn’ Taing.

The main reason the Exhibition Hall is a wonder to behold is that Star Wars cosplayers are simply on another level. There were a wide array of individual cosplayers just enjoying themselves at the convention, from picture perfect recreations of stormtrooper armor to Jedi interpretations of Disney princesses. But, you really get to awe at the power of fandom as a uniting force once you witness the multiple cosplay groups marching through the floor, all with their own unique fandom traditions. To name just a few examples, the 501st Legion, the Rebel Legion, the Mandalorian Mercs, the Droid Builders, and even more attended, all officially supported by the event.

This includes my personal favorite Star Wars Celebration staple, the Running of the Hoods. This year, a record-breaking 114 cosplayers all dressed as one of the most obscure Empire Strikes Back characters, Wilrow Hood, all while sporting orange jumpsuits and ice cream makers, running through the floor chanting “ice cream!”, and generally spreading that signature Star Wars joy. The Running of the Hoods was an event that was both deeply hilarious but also a genuinely beautiful moment of connection to witness. A moment that can only really happen at a place like Star Wars Celebration.

‘Episode IX’ Panel – The Rise of Skywalker

The cast and crew of Star Wars: Episode IX on the Celebration Stage. Photo by Kaila Spencer.

Here it was, the biggest event of the whole convention—our first look at Episode IX, the end of the Skywalker story arc. On Friday morning, I woke up at 5 AM so that I could be one of the first to queue up for the panel scheduled at 11 AM and luckily, I ended up as one of the first to be seated. Though the rest of my group I traveled to Chicago with was still asleep, I didn’t have to struggle to kill time in queues, for it was not very difficult to talk to the dedicated fans around me.

And this is true for every experience I’ve had, waiting in line in Chicago. As someone who is pretty much a local to Disneyland, I’m quite used to waiting in lines in general. If I don’t have a friend near me, I take out my phone or bring out a video game to play and tune out everything around me; but at SWCC, the excitement kept building and I simply wanted to hear what the people around me were looking forward to the most in Episode IX, or if they had plans to see Galaxy’s Edge later this year, or what other events they had scheduled for the rest of their time in Chicago. From parents visiting SWCC with their kids to couples who are Star Wars veterans and attend Celebration every year, to people like me who made the effort to go for the first time before the sequel trilogy ends— all of us bonded together in this line.

“Any of us can imagine being that kid on Tatooine, ready to take our steps into a larger world. I was once that kid, and on my best days, I still am” opened panel host Stephen Colbert, before inviting director and producer J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy to the stage. After some more teasing, the stars of the film, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Joonas Suotamo, BB-8, as well as newcomers, Naomi Ackie and D-0 appeared to discuss the first info of what’s in store for the grand Skywalker finale. Although she wasn’t present, there was a nice shoutout to the second-unit director, Victoria Mahoney and a couple of BTS pictures of her in action.

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Victoria Mahoney and Daisy Ridley on the set of Episode IX, shared at the panel.

Loads of concept art, production photos, minor story details of the movie were shared, but what stood out to me about the presentation was that a good part of it was spent talking about perhaps one of my favorite aspects about each Star Wars movie: the group dynamic. The sequel trilogy has an electric cast, each character has their own distinct personality and they all play off of one another with natural chemistry, however, it took until the finale of The Last Jedi to see all of them together on one ship. At every opportunity in the panel, Abrams assured that Episode IX will be a true ensemble film, and that’s a really refreshing sentiment, considering how vital the idea of found family is in this franchise of films. Rey, Finn, and Poe are our new set of heroes, carrying on the dynamic that was Luke, Han, and Leia for the original trilogy.

Since we’re talking franchise roots within the group dynamic, I think one of the pleasant, unexpected qualities about the Episode IX panel was how much of an emphasis there was in teasing popular ships, and not just the space kind! We still don’t know too much about what’s in store for the film – perhaps there will be no romantic arc in this trilogy at all— but I’ll admit that there’s something comforting about the discussions from the cast of whether or not FinnPoe, or FinnRose, or FinnRey, or even Reylo are going to come into fruition. Whether or not a ship is my cup of tea, there’s such an long and expansive precedent for shipping in Star Wars (I mean, think of the battles between Luke/Han and Luke/Leia before Return of the Jedi), that it almost feels like we, as fans of Star Wars, are carrying on an important tradition in our reactions to the casts’ playful banter over fan theories. How fitting for a film series that is fixated on exactly that – legacy.

Whatever the outcome, there’s also something reassuring in the fact that Oscar Isaac is attempting to make FinnPoe just as valid in the conversation as everything else.

“I think he takes his love for Finn VERY seriously.”

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A first look at Finn and Poe in Episode IX, shared at the panel.

But amongst all of this excitement, I’d say the most triumphant moment of the whole panel had to be when Abrams stressed that one of the best choices the previous director, Rian Johnson, made for Star Wars, was casting Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, to which the crowd erupted with applause. It’s been a hard time recently for Tran, who deactivated her Instagram account after the backlash and harassment she faced in the months that followed The Last Jedi, so being there was enough of a mark of bravery in itself. As a result, this applause was not just your typical fan cheering, it was an act of pure Star Wars love; it was hearing the crowd rightfully praise Kelly Marie Tran amongst this galaxy of heroes. It was one of the strongest, most emotionally powerful moments of SWCC I will remember for the rest of time.

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Kelly Marie Tran at the Episode IX panel.

At long last, we were amongst the first to see the teaser and the title for the last chapter in the Skywalker saga: The Rise of Skywalker. It was impossible to miss the teaser, seeing how Twitter crashed the moment it aired, so I will also not go into detail here, but know that the energy in that room full of Star Wars fans was as to be expected: completely unmatched. Rey’s leap, the shot of General Leia and Rey hugging, the title reveal, and of course, the Palpatine laugh were just a few of the key moments of apeshit reactions within the crowd. It was the perfect force push of energy for the rest of the weekend.

‘Covering Star Wars’ Panel

The ‘Covering Star Wars’ Panel. Photo by Tyler ‘Llewyn’ Taing.

On that same Friday was the smaller ‘Covering Star Wars’ panel that was essentially a roundtable discussion between journalists Amy Richau, Anthony Breznican, Dan Zehr, Drew Taylor, and Clayton Sandell, sharing their own personal anecdotes in the world of film journalism, how they got their start, how they ended up contributing to StarWars.com and other big media outlets, and providing advice for young writers.

There, I met a fellow friend and aspiring journalist, Savannah (@savannahjai) whom I immediately clicked and stuck around with for a good portion of my time. But what amazed me about Star Wars Celebration in this very moment was that, not only is this convention a wonderful space for fans to socialize, it was also jam-packed with career opportunities. Not even just on my end with media journalism, but for S.T.E.M. students, scholars and thinkers, artists and animators, and everyone in-between. There was something for everyone, whether it be a small panel or its very own booth at the exhibition hall. This felt unexpected, but it was truly clear to me that Star Wars is not only bringing people cinematic joy, but it’s also fuelling passion for future careers. This epiphany shed some perspective on how Star Wars Twitter brought me to where I am, professionally. It was great to know that I was never the only one on this journey.

The full panel can be listened to on Dan Zehr’s podcast, ‘Coffee with Kenobi’ here.

‘Bringing Galaxy’s Edge to Life’ Panel

The ‘Bringing Galaxy’s Edge to Life’ Panel. Photo by Tyler ‘Llewyn’ Taing.

The second day of celebration brought the Disney Parks focused panel, ‘Bringing Galaxy’s Edge to Life’, hosted by Josh Gad and featuring a whole crew of Imagineers and specialists. After a Force for Change charity feature on robotics, and a screening of a playful sketch of Josh Gad trying to sneak his way into Disneyland’s construction of the new Star Wars themed land, details on the story of the park attractions were shared once again. Most of the information of the park wasn’t particularly new, since the experiences open as soon as May 31st, but the second half of the panel brought new details on the in-universe Coca-Cola refreshment pods, B-Roll footage of the layout of the land, information on guest interactivity through the Disney Play app and samples of the original John Williams score for Galaxy’s Edge.

This panel was probably the most SWCC ever felt like what it seems to be at face value –  an elaborate commercial. The Galaxy’s Edge panel featured some hard-working people and some really amazing pieces of fan service which showed the true amount of dedication it takes to create something like a Disneyland attraction, but the hand-out of the Coca-Cola logo in Aurebesh shirts (which was Carrie Fisher’s favorite soda, so maybe we can give the three quadrant consumerism in a shirt here a small pass) made it very clear this is something for fans to invest money in soon. This doesn’t make the event inherently cynical or negative, but it did serve as a reminder that Star Wars, underneath all the sentimentality, is still a brand.

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Coca-Cola brand refreshment orbs, shared at the panel.

But fear not, there were still glimmers of humanity underneath it all. The Imagineers sitting close to me in the audience cheered on mentions of their co-workers and even reached out to talk to us while we waited for the panel to start. One of the coolest details shown off at the panel was the ability for the fans at the celebration to be immortalized at the park via video confessional booths. Thirty-second videos of fans, talking about what they personally love about Star Wars, would be immortalized by being uploaded to a “Holocron” and placed within Galaxy’s Edge.

So of course, my friends and I, massive Disney Parks fans, immediately jumped at the opportunity and recorded ours together. We talked about how Star Wars brought us together as a family, and the thought that one day someone will scan their phone at Galaxy’s Edge and possibly relate to that sentiment excites me to no end.

‘Sisters of the Force’ Panel

The ‘Sisters of the Force’ panel. Photo by Tyler ‘Llewyn’ Taing.

The next panel offering of Saturday, and perhaps my favorite panel of them all, was ‘Sisters of the Force: A Celebration of Women in Star Wars’ hosted by the voice of fan favorite Ahsoka Tano and founder of Her Universe, Ashley Eckstein. Alongside her was Vanessa Marshall, voice of Hera Sydulla, Catherine Taber, voice of Padme Amidala and Suzie McGrath, voice of Tam Ryvora, all iconic female characters from the Star Wars cartoon shows. The panel started off with a bang, as all of the female cosplayers in the audience got to go up on stage to be celebrated in a large group photo with Eckstein.

When the panel officially started, each person on the panel got to talk about their favorite moments and traits they got to bring to life as voice actresses to their respective characters, as well as highlight specific fans who demonstrate Star Wars-centric courage in real life. Eckstein and Taber shared the story of two fans of Ahsoka and Padme who are currently fighting cancer, and how Star Wars enlightened their lives. Marshall spotlighted one particular fan who was a victim of bullying at her school and brought her out to stage to a round of applause. McGrath shared the story of how she overcame her stuttering problem as a child and Ratcliffe told us how Derla Pidys, a character from the Canto Bight book, inspires her as a working woman.

My favorite story had to be Athena Portillo’s, who shared an anecdote of her struggles at SFSU, and how, despite being late to her Lucasfilm internship interview, she had a passion for Star Wars that carried her all the way to becoming a producer on The Clone Wars and Rebels animated shows, as well as a key figure in the Lucasfilm story group. As someone attending SFSU in the fall, it was the perfect reminder that my own work ethic is something I can overcome, and maybe there is a future head of me similar to hers, which was vastly comforting.

That’s exactly what this panel was; comfort. It was ‘pure love of Star Wars’, and also ‘Star Wars love’, a term I keep coming back to in this piece. The Sisters of the Force panel was a symbol of emotional support within the Star Wars community. It showed me how any character or piece of lore within this expansive universe can mean something to anyone who needs at a certain point in their lives. I haven’t seen The Clone Wars, nor Rebels, nor Resistance in full, but witnessing how life altering these heroines and the moments they project onto young fans can be made my eyes watery. More than any other panel, the Sisters of the Force panel understands what Star Wars is as an emotional piece of art.

The whole panel can be seen here, on the Disneyland Experience YouTube channel.

‘The Mandalorian’ Panel

First still of Pedro Pascal as ‘The Mandalorian’, shared at the panel.

On Sunday, the celebration stage presented probably the second biggest panel in scale, The Mandalorian panel, which was hosted by Dave Filoni and brought producer Kathleen Kennedy, showrunner Job Favreau, as well as stars Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano, and Carl Weathers to the stage. Showing off the very first Star Wars Disney+ show that will launch with the streaming service, it gave us just enough interesting details on the new component of Star Wars mythology. Set after Return of the Jedi, the show follows the titular Mandalorian in need of a job in the wake of the fallen Empire. It was promised to be similar in tone with George Lucas’s original trilogy, get into darker, anti-hero backgrounds, and be accessible enough to fans who have no previous investment in the world of Star Wars. Celebration exclusive footage and a BTS reel of the production were presented.

The show itself looks great, but I am still cynical of the idea of Disney and other corporations having their own singular streaming services along with the ones we already have now. It was a bit strange to hear Disney+ being discussed in such a neutral way, but it’s to be expected at a PR panel such as this, so I appreciate the craft first. What excites me about The Mandalorian is the fact that the films will be going on a hiatus after The Rise of Skywalker releases, so this is an excellent opportunity to go back to the drawing board and rechart the franchise’s course from here on out. The anthology films have their fans, especially evident by roaming around SWCC and seeing Rogue One and Solo cosplayers, but they are generally divisive by critics and certain audiences.

I’ve always loved the idea of the anthology films because, for many Star Wars fans such as myself, there’s so much life within the franchises’ galaxy that doesn’t involve the Skywalker family— and yet the anthology films still struggle to introduce a good balance between the unknown and what fans are already used to seeing. The Mandalorian could be the key to seeing what the Star Wars universe is like, post the Skywalker saga, and that’s both exciting and scary. In a way, it is a sign of what’s ahead for the brand, and a foreboding reminder that this is beginning of the end of Star Wars as we know it, as we prepare for the finale this year.

Pedro Pascal, Anthony Carboni, and Andi Gutierrez on the Star Wars show stage. Photo by Tyler ‘Llewyn’ Taing.

Seeing Pedro Pascal and the rest of The Mandalorian cast in person at the Star Wars Show stage with all my friends was amazing as well. We’re all big fans.

Celebrations End, Closing Notes

The full banner revealed at the end of Celebration. Photo by Kaila Spencer.

My final moments at SWCC were spent on Monday morning at the exhibition hall. The convention was still celebrating with the 20th Anniversary panels for The Phantom Menace, but I had a flight to catch so I, unfortunately, had to pass on the fun. The last five days of being in Chicago around pure, unadulterated Star Wars magic seemed to be gone in a flash, and walking around the hall, seeing crowds of fans outside the main stage, excited to celebrate what was once the most infamous Star Wars film of them all, assured me that the energy will keep going while I’m gone.

At Star Wars Celebration, Hayden Christensen, the voice of Jar Jar Binks Ahmed Best, and Ray Park are all treated with the same respect given as all the big roles of the Star Wars canon. It was enlightening for me to see that, no matter how big or small, how controversial or widely loved, there is a place for it at Star Wars Celebration, and it, without fail, means the whole universe to someone out there. After a long year or so of irritating Twitter discourse, I walked into SWCC and saw that some of the coolest cosplays were force-projection Luke Skywalker, or all the Rose Ticos I’ve saw walking around, or the seemingly endless line of Rey cosplayers banding together to reenact the force mirror scene.

A big revelation was that – even though sometimes it certainly feels like it – Twitter is not the whole world. There is a huge difference between internet fandom, and what is to be experienced physically at fan events such as this one. It’s grand, powerful, and beautiful. It’s a force.

And as I began to pack up for my flight home and said my bittersweet goodbyes to all my friends in the hotel room, I remembered something important. The people who were around me all week would not be in my life without Star Wars. We gathered here, in Chicago so that we could be immersed in Star Wars together, one more time before our trilogy comes to an end. I came here with the media badge around my neck because Star Wars fueled a burning love for film that I would take with me for the rest of my life, and it would inform the entire course of what’s ahead. And even though the source of this connection was a brand, there is still so much emotional weight for so many different flavors of individuals; each with their own, singular understanding of what Star Wars is to them, and their own ways of expressing that passion.

Am uncharacteristically empty overhead of the exhibition hall. Photo by Kaila Spencer.

This is what Star Wars is all about. It’s why the con is called ‘Celebration’ instead of ‘Convention’. Star Wars, like the force, surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the fan community, the galaxy, together.

As I boarded the plane, still a little shaken from parting ways with my best friends, I realized a few more things. SWCC was not the bookend to the last four years I’ve spent enamored with Star Wars I thought it would be, but it was the end of a chapter. I didn’t say goodbye to my friends, just farewell. Our love we share in our big family, in the form of Star Wars, doesn’t have to end here. Celebration returns in Anaheim next year in 2020, and I’m already prepared to do this all over again.

One Luke Skywalker quote echoed in my mind as I took off, and soon it made its way onto every social media post written about our time at SWCC.

Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac on the set of The Rise of Skywalker. Source: @jjabrams

“No one’s ever really gone.”


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