The dust is settling a bit from yesterday’s suprise announcement that everything George Lucas once held near and dear is now the property of The Walt Disney Company®©™, with Lucas finally putting the nails into the coffin of his filmmaking career by pocketing $4.05 billion in cash and stock. [UPDATED, 11/1/12]Well, now he can make all those risky, artsy, experimental movies he’s been talking about for the past few decades, the ones that harken back to his USC student days when he shot moody tone poems such as Look at Life, Herbie and THX 1138 4EB, the student film that wowed his classmates and professors, put the young race car enthusiast on the road to a rather spotty filmmaking career as a director, but launched a quite astounding career as a producer (and owner) of some of cinema’s crown jewels.
Disney, rather like the spoof conglomerate “Engulf & Devour” from Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, is basically grabbing every major franchise (er, in studio speak, “property”) that they can in order to corner the market on childhood dreams and make ginormous amounts of cash for their executives and shareholders (everyone else can suck it on their union wage). Unless you’re not a big movie geek from the land of Generation X, then you probably either don’t care or don’t know what the big fuss is about because you liked the prequels and think churning out Star Wars movies is just fine, but those who remember the original Star Wars movie back in ’77 this kinda news hit like a ton of bricks in Toontown. If ever there was a license to print money, this is it. Pity Paramount* and 20th Century Fox studios, now without a distribution deal for Indiana Jones* or Star Wars (word has it that the 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare will no longer be a part of the Star Wars films, even on video). With the acquisition of the Muppets in 2004, Pixar Animation Studios in 2006, Marvel Entertainment in 2009 and now Lucasfilm, Disney is blazing a trail for other entertainment industry powerhouses, notably Warner Bros., to follow. On toy licensing alone they will make a killing, just in case you thought, y’know, this was about the love of movies or something stupid like that.
Not that Disney doesn’t treat all their iconic properties with care. If Lucas wanted to sell and cash out, he could have done a lot worse than Disney for stewardship of his beloved characters (save, the Ewoks and Jar-Jar Binks, which I doubt even Disney magic can rehabilitate). If anything, Disney is an over-protective parent, ready to sue the living Sith out of anyone who dares to cross legal lightsabers with them… If a small town, podunk little nursery school puts up a few images of loveable Disney characters like Mickey, Dumbo or Bambi on their walls you can bet it won’t be long before the long arm of Disney’s business affairs and legal division comes a-calling with a cease & desist order to remove said images post haste! One can only imagine how they treat corporate rivals who overstep their trademarked rights. The Magic Kingdom might seem a silly symphony to some, but just attempt to use a character in unlicensed fashion and you’ll enter a legal black hole that sucks every last penny from your pocket in court costs and punitive damages. Cruella de Vil has nothing on Disney’s ability to sue the crap out of anyone, so what better enforcers could you entrust an entire galaxy of characaters to?
That said, the facts are that Lucas’s handpicked successor (and old friend), Kathleen Kennedy, will be in charge (perhaps answering to studio chief, Alan Horn, on the production side) and new Star Wars movies will go into immediate production with the first film, probably a sequel, ready to hit screens in 2015. But, honestly… does the world really need more Star Wars? Are you, film geek, willing to shell out money to spend more time in the Star Wars universe? The best rumor has it that writers of a new Star Wars trilogy will dive deep into “The Thrawn Trilogy” or perhaps “The Callista Trilogy,” or separate works that cover the journeys and adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia (Leia Organa Solo, that is… You can see how deep this stuff goes). If sequels are what older, Gen-X fans want, Disney will have a whole host of possibilities to choose from. But what about the younger generation that came after the 80s, for which the prequels are kinda cool? Well, there’s as much prequel material left unmined (“Dawn of the Jedi,” anyone?) as there is tibanna gas on Bespin.
So, Disney, it must be said, made a wise move, and Lucas himself was no slouch in the deal… After all, these two companies and their iconic founders (Walt and George) seem made for each other, and have been working together since the 1980s when Lucas began to license his characters to Disney’s themparks for use and later launched one of the park’s most popular rides, Star Tours. Lucas was instrumental in helping to bring Michael Jackson’s Captain Eo into the Disney themeparks, and Industrial Light & Magic is no less a magical place than the Magic Kingdom itself… Disney now owns the special effects giant along with Skywalker Sound, LucasArts and other facets of the Lucasfilm empire. It can be said that Disney has positioned itself for a great future with Pixar handling animation and Lucasfilm handling live-action specialities, while all post work will now be handled, more or less, in house.
Of course, Star Wars characters won’t be the only ones getting put back on the screen and offered a bigger role in the theme parks. A certain Dr. Jones will be cracking his whip (though don’t count on Howard the Duck getting a last quack, Donald wouldn’t stand for it) and who knows, maybe the kids from American Graffiti will be sipping Carnation milkshakes along Main Street, U.S.A. The possiblities are limitless, and Disney, long known for wringing a dollar from every penny, will certainly exploit every opportunity it can… within the limits of good taste and family values, that is. But the questions remains… is this really what we want when we go to the movies? Our we limiting our greatest cultural treasure: the cinema? Hasn’t Hollywood debased filmmaking enough by treating it merely as so much property to be horse-traded, and debased further with endless remakes, prequels, sequels and regurgitations of the same thing over and over and over?
Even if you never wanted a Star Wars movie beyond the original trilogy or even the original film, you’re now going to get them anyway. What does that mean for the art of filmmaking and the ability of certain films to transport us to galaxies far, far away? Are we just diluting our memories? Trashing our traditions? Treating cinema as pablum for two hours while we text our thoughts into little smartphone screens without even looking at the big screen anymore? Isn’t this sale of movies and movie magic just another way we disregard American’s greatest art form (this side of jazz)? Is this what millions of dollars will be spent on as production costs skyrocket… a momentary diversion, quickly forgotten?
When Star Wars first came onto screens in May of 1977 it was a throwback… a loving goof on the old science-fiction movie serials George Lucas had grown up watching. Serialized fare like Flash Gordon and The Adventures of Captain Marvel were actually throwaways when they were first show on screens. Certainly not A-list productions, they were made for kids as mere entertainment on a Saturday afternoon, not produced with great art in mind… they were never meant to be beatified and canonized. Lucas took those little cliffhanger movies and turned them into great art, almost accidently. Through Lucas’s vision, the cheap tricks and tacky effects of those old serials were elevated by the early ILM team, turned into something utterly fantastic that audiences could believe in, and they wre in service to the stories of heroic characters that audiences most certainly believed in.
Star Wars was a riff on old movies, but it seemed so utterly original because of the craftsmanship behind it. The Empire Strikes Back added greater depth and drama, as well as crackling charm and well-written romance to the mix. By the time of Return of the Jedi a cult of fans had been fully formed, and they believed in Jedi magic as much as they did old-world religion. But for others, ROTJ was a turning point of a different kind… for Lucas, it seemed, was more concerned with toymaking as much as filmmaking. If you weren’t turned off by Ewoks, then you were unprepared for what soon followed. I began to fall away from the magic of Star Wars as soon as Lucas decided to revisit his original trilogy in the 90s by adding digital effects. He didn’t simply clean up the images and touch up some effects, no… he went at the legendary films with a digital hacksaw, and reconsituted them into things I no longer remembered. Greedo shooting first? Jabba made a mockery? Then I began to realize, hey… these were never my movies in the first place. They were always George Lucas’s to play with and rework as he sees fit… Seeing the prequels was a numbing experience because I no longer had a frame of reference for what this man, Lucas, was trying to do any longer… I felt left out, like Luke in Hoth’s hostile environment.
So, with this sale, I feel nothing… not anger, not hurt, not excitment, nor thrill. Nothing. I’ve already been through the wringer in trying to hold the original trilogy (or two and-a-half great films) dear to my heart, only to have that heart broken. I’ve had my mind cleared by the awfulness of the prequels (sorry, younger fans, they do suck huge hairy bantha balls), and worse, by pure crap like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so I have no preconceived notions any longer. Let Disney make movies for a new generation of kids. I’ve had my fun in Lucasland and have a pair of pristine discs showcasing the original two films (without added CGIcandy) that I can rely on to take me back to the past. Nowadays I’m more interested in the films of Kubrickian heirs Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan and David Fincher. At this stage of my life, that’s the kind of cinematic entertainment I seek.
Lucas has sold it all and will be rich beyond the need to even think about money. Like the late Steve Jobs, he’s now one of Disney’s biggest shareholders (though well below the Jobs Estate). According to Disney CEO, Bob Iger, his only influence will be on the next three Star Wars films (currently being written from Lucas’s own original concepts). Lucas is now semi-retired in that regard, like a king in a lonely castle, nodding– yes, that name is just weird enough to be a Star Wars character, or– no, boobs don’t bounce in space, tape them down. He is an emeritus authority figure, nothing more. Lucas may decide to give time to the new trilogy on the boards, or simply go full philanthropic in his retirement, concentrating on the George Lucas Educational Foundation (Edutopia), or he may simply fade away like old Jedi sometimes do. Whatever, he’ll be well remembered (and scorned) by my generation… and may the Force be with him.
*CORRECTION & UPDATE: Entertainment Weekly has confirmed (as of 11/1/12) that Paramount will indeed retain the rights to all four existing Indiana Jones films as well as future releases featuring the character. If there is to be a fifth film produced by Disney, my guess is that they’d ask Paramount to at least chip in a bit on the production cost. Bob Iger seems to think a fifth Indy film wouldn’t be out of the question, but as EW confirmed, during the shareholder’s call, he mentioned there would be “some encumbrances.” In any case, EW says fans shouldn’t hold their breath for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is Harrison Ford’s age (just right perhaps to play an aged space-rouge who no longer needs to bootleg space swag, but too old to play an adventuresome archeologist anywhere outside of the classroom). Let’s not even mention penis boy.
Good article,Chris. See, I do read your stuff.