“I’ve always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me, and I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime,” said George Lucas in a statement confirming the sale of Lucasfilm Ltd. to the Walt Disney Company for $4.05 billion in cash and stock—a statement that is sending shockwaves of panic through the community of the Star Wars faithful. Lucas is passing the Star Wars brand along to a “new generation of filmmakers” and Disney intends to pick up where Lucasfilm left off with a release of Star Wars Episode 7 in 2015.
The deal means Disney now controls all of Lucasfilm’s assets, which include the Star Wars franchise, the Indiana Jones franchise, Industrial Light and Magic, and Skywalker Sound. Kathleen Kennedy, the current co-chairman of Lucasfilm, will become President of the Lucasfilm division and report to Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn. This puts Lucasfilm next to the animation group Pixar, superhero-centric Marvel Entertainment, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise on Disney’s shelf of massive brands. (Fun aside: Steve Jobs bought Pixar from George Lucas in 1986.)
With Lucasfilm among their collectables, Disney plans to release a new Star Wars film every two years and purchased an “extensive and detailed” treatment for Episodes 7, 8, and 9. But Disney is a brand-manager. When they make acquisitions like this, they try to keep most parts of the content generation the same but use their influence to market the hell out of the franchise. This means they are looking to expand Star Wars rides in their Disney parks, create new Star Wars video games, put Star Wars on television (possibly on Disney XD), and develop new revenue streams through merchandising and licensing. Almost all of Disney’s recent mega-hits come out of their acquired studios. Films like Toy Story 3 out of Pixar and The Avengers out of Marvel Entertainment were blockbuster trophies while films from Walt Disney Pictures like John Carter were incredibly expensive flops.
But the Star Wars loyal are afraid. Disney is a juggernaut, and they fear it will demolish the franchise and all of the characters and narratives they love from the galaxy far, far away. Change is terrifying but there are a number of factors to consider in the grand scope of this power turnover.
It’s very easy to hate any new Star Wars material that comes out of this deal. Some might defend this hate on a concept of principle that disallows them to subject their beloved franchise to mass-marketing and corporate jiggery-pokery. But to be honest, Star Wars has been floundering since the prequel trilogy was released. In May, 1977 Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was released to the public. In 1980, Episode V came. Episode VI followed in 1983. The original audience for the epic trilogy is about 45 to 55 years old now. In 1993, ten years after the first release, the trilogy was distributed on VHS. By 2001, the prequels started coming out: Phantom Menace in 2001, Attack of the Clones in 2002, and Revenge of the Sith in 2005. The episodic films of the Star Wars brand had all been released—the numbers made sense—but the stories in the prequel trilogy fell flat. While Phantom Menace was the highest grossing Star Wars film at the box office at about $983 million, it is most assuredly not the most beloved. Were the film released without 25 years of Star Wars excitement brewing out of admiration for the original trilogy, there is no way it would have been such a success.
Lucasfilm had already lost its touch by the time Episodes 1, 2, and 3 were released. The prequels were only good in that they successfully and logically led into the original trilogy (famous last words, I know). But Lucasfilm was falling apart. Just look at Jar Jar Binks, Hayden Christensen’s acting, or the 2008 release of the animated film The Clone Wars. Could a Disney-plus-Lucasfilm release of a new Star Wars be any worse than what fans have been tolerating and pseudo-praising for the last ten years?
The problem lies with my generation and our presumptive ownership of Star Wars as our series. People who are 20 to 35 in 2012 grew up with the original trilogy on VHS. The films are relatable and as significant a part of our childhoods as the childhood of someone who saw them in 1977, but they can’t fully be our films—they weren’t made with us in mind. But in 2002, Star Wars was made for us in mind, and all we got was the lukewarm prequels. But because of our affinity for the originals, we had to glom on to the prequels because they represented a part of the Star Wars universe that was made for us in mind. So, we made exceptions for the prequels because we would take whatever we were given so long as it was Star Wars. And the whole deal came with Star Wars backpacks, amusement park rides, video games, and costumes.
This next set of films will do for the fans born in the 2000s what the last three did for those born in the 80s and 90s. It hands Star Wars not just to a new generation of writers, but a new generation of fans.
Even if the intent is noble, there is worry about whether Disney could potentially screw everything up. Disney’s track-record would say no. The Avengers was an excellent, quality film that also set 25 box office records. Pixar still continues to make amazing films since being purchased—Up and Toy Story 3 being the best examples. But that could be attributed to the exemplary directing by Joss Whedon for The Avengers and the specific processes Pixar uses to make films. Neither was really struggling before Disney swooped in. If Episode 7 is of Star Wars prequel quality, the public will undoubtedly call it a failure and attribute its issues to Disney.
To Disney’s benefit, a great deal of the Star Wars universe and history has already been written. The first Star Wars novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, was written in 1978, before it was realized Luke and Leia were siblings. In the text, they get affectionate in the worst brother-sister kind of way. In 1991, Heir to The Empire, written by Hugo-award winning Timothy Zahn was published. The book, set five years after Return of the Jedi, spent 19 weeks on the New York Times best seller list and inspired a trilogy that expanded the Star Wars universe further and created historical details used in the prequel films. Zahn’s books, called the Thrawn Trilogy set a perfect stage to base the stories of the coming films on. Disney’s job isn’t so much to create new stories, but help Lucasfilm keep building the universe that already exists.
With this expansive universe of material to work with, Disney is unlikely to the fall into the great crime that George Lucas himself was perpetrating on the films. Whereas the prequel films were merely damaging to the franchise, Lucas has shown willingness across his materials to edit what would otherwise be sacred, the original works themselves. The changes on each of the films is numerous and seemingly grows each decade. Not only did Lucas mess with the retroactive continuity of the films by changing them after they were released, He made authoritative plot decisions that don’t make sense (Anakin Skywalker built C-3P0? Yoda knows Chewbacca?). With the materials in Disney’s hands, the original trilogy will likely fall into their infamous “vaults” to remain safe from continuous re-workings by Lucas.
If these revisions show anything, it is that Lucas was stuck looking backward. Disney can look forward, developing the materials in ways that LucasArts may have been unwilling or unable to. Of course, part of the reason for the staying power of the original trilogy was the merchandizing. Disney has the potential to continue this trend in refreshing ways—instead of action figures, we’re talking theme parks. Further, Disney is a growing force in the video game industry and is poised to continue expanding their operations. Star Wars (and LucasArts on the whole—Zombies Ate My Neighbors and the Monkey Island series) has already seen success in this genre, but have not adapted well to mobile. Expect Disney to quickly develop properties that take advantage of the growing mobile and kinetic gameplay that the next generation of Star Wars fans are growing up on. But mostly, LucasArts, at least in the cinema, was stagnating with the aging of its boss. Disney could breathe new life into its various wealthy properties in unforeseeable, possibly great, ways as they are poised to do with Marvel.
Still, fans have a right to be afraid. It is the universe and mythology behind Star Wars that sets it aside as something to treasure. The 1970s brought on an assumed level of stark sophistication for film brought on through European influence and the creation of neue-Hollywood. Directors and producers wanted to be real and gritty and complex just like the times enveloping them. George Lucas found his success in defining a universe based on adventure, romanticism, and spectacle—a universe that put good against evil and let the balance of power work its way to evenness.
Lucas reached back to the pre-1960s “Golden Age” of film to find the heart of American Mythology. Star Wars may take place in space, but at the root it’s about the mythological hero (ask Joseph Campbell). It may feature futuristic technology, but the humans move and act with the romantic qualities and badditude of American Westerns. When a story unfolds a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away the tale doesn’t create characters but worlds. The mythology of King Arthur, Lord of the Rings, and the American West all exist in their own galaxy far, far away. The world of Star Wars is one this generation can interact with, empathize with, and be nostalgic for. There’s a terror for Star Wars fans, because there’s a threat that when we watch Episode 7 and beyond, we will no longer be going home.
Blake J. Graham and Tony Russo contributed to this piece