What a week. Between being displaced from Manhattan by Frankenstorm Sandy, me having a flight out of JFK thursday, the seemingly non-stop tech industry news, with Forstall leaving Apple topping the roster and the 17th floor bucket brigade it's all a bit overwhelming.
And suddenly a new contender, out of left field, the announcement that Disney has bought LucasFilm for $4 billion dollars. Wow.
Shocking, though perhaps not surprising, if that makes any sense. On the one hand it's nearly impossible to imagine especially Star Wars without George Lucas at the helm, whatever you may think of the course he set. On the other, for what Star Wars is today, and considering the long-standing relationship between the two companies — Star Tours, break dancing Darth Vader, merchandizing cross over and of course Disney's extensive use of ILM on their feature films, like Pirates, The Avengers and John Carter — Disney is without a doubt the most fitting parent for a displaced Lucasfilm.
On second glance, it's a staggering deal. Remember, this isn't 'simply' Star Wars; it's all of Lucasfilm, including the Indiana Jones franchise, and films like Willow and of course Howard the Duck, as well as companies like Lucas Licensing, Lucas Books, ILM and Skywalker Sound and all of the rights associated with them.
I don't know whether that also includes films like American Graffiti and THX 1138 though I don't believe that's the case as they were produced by American Zoetrope. As for Lucas's student films, who knows? And what about the Skywalker Ranch facilities? After all Skywalker Sound lives in the facilities at Skywalker Ranch, whereas ILM and LucasArts reside in their (relatively new) facilities at the Presidio in San Francisco.
Also, consider that this means that Disney now owns not just their own extensive back catalog, but Pixar, The Muppets, Marvel and Lucasfilm, as well as the arguably most advanced production facilities in the world.
It's shocking, but perhaps not surprising, because aside from getting up in years, Lucas has also been lambasted by his so-called fans in recent years, and as he himself said in a recent New York Times interview: “Why would I make any more, when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?”#. And mind you, this is from the guy who for years never acknowledged the more, shall we say, verbal part of his fan base. Between the critical reception of the new Star Wars and Indy movies and the economic reception of Red Tails, it was beginning to look like a perfect time to cut your losses and finally retire into making those long awaited small personal films.
Although heralded ahead of time, Lucas handing over the Lucasfilm reins to Kathleen Kennedy was in itself a historical shift — she is certainly a fantastic choice for the part, having a hell of a pedigree to her name — but, for him to disengage entirely is so shocking precisely because his entire life has revolved around that very same control of his franchises and companies. The reason all of the Lucas industries exist at all is precisely because Lucas got burned by lack of control on his early films and struck back by constructing his own filmmaking empire in northern California.
My initial reaction to the announcement that Disney was already planning the seventh installment for a 2015 release, was that they had been too rash. But despite earlier beliefs to the contrary, it now seems that "Fox owns distribution rights to the original Star Wars, No. 4 in the series, in perpetuity in all media worldwide. And as for the five subsequent movies, Fox has theatrical, nontheatrical and home video rights worldwide through May 2020."# Which would explain why Disney is eager to get started on their own roster of films as soon as possible.
Also, that article mentions that back when Disney first acquired the rights to use the Star Wars characters in their parks, Lucas sold the rights $1 million a year, in perpetuity. That's almost unbelievably cheap; but maybe he simply saw it as a way to keep up the steam to the Star Wars engine? After all, while the special editions were sold as Lucas finally fulfilling his vision, in reality the continued meddling with the movies probably has a lot more to do with keeping Star Wars alive as franchise. Remember, Lucasfilm Licensing is the company that makes the dough; the films themselves, while certainly profitable, are incidental to the real cash cow.
Either way, the rights for Star Wars as we know it must be a gordian knot of epic proportions. After all, is the theatrical edition the same as the special edition, or the blu-ray edition? And while Fox retains the distribution rights, what does that mean in terms of updated versions? Or indeed un-updated versions? The inevitable discussions around a properly restored theatrical release are already exploding across the internet, and while some take Fox's distribution rights to mean that they control the print, there's nothing that has indicated that to be the case so far. And keep in mind, that Fox has done right by most of the major franchise films otherwise in their catalog, the likes of the Alien franchise, releasing some of the best possible blu-ray sets on the planet. They were not the ones holding back a theatrical release.
Just on the topic of restoring the original films to their original glory, Disney has matured over the last decade as a feature film company with Pirates, John Carter and The Avengers, but it is still largely a kiddy-pool company. It seems content to serve up the stuff kids want, which in turn forces parents to dig up the wallet. Great strategy, obviously, but not one that is conducive to progress on the whole 30-40-year-olds getting their beloved theatrical release out in any kind of modern, restored format.
But in the long term, unless Lucas left behind stipulations about maintaining the movies in their current deplorable state, I think chances are good that we'll see some sort of arrangement over the next few years. Either near the end of the current format cycle, or as an opener for the new one.
Whatever the case, lawyers and decision makers at Disney and Fox are going to become well acquainted with one another over the next few years as they page through the yacht catalogs together.
Disney's a good home, exactly because the pantheon of 70s and 80s movies that Star Wars was surrounded by — the ones that Lucas and Spielberg in particular were making — were themselves heavily indebted to the spirit of the kinds of movies Disney built the mouse house on. The loss of course is that the main canon of the movies, were always 'personal' films, in the sense that they came from Lucas. That was the hallmark of many of those early blockbusters; that they were personal films, conceived and willed into life by sheer will by their creators. But that's a side of Star Wars, and I think of Lucas in general, which with every subsequent release became more and more at odds with the business side of LucasFilm.
It's a precarious situation, which I think receives too little in the way of understanding from the more cynical 'fans'. But consider just how big the LucasFilm empire is, and that the movies themselves are the fuel that keeps the engine going.
Also, just as an aside, it's fun to note how interconnected all of this is. Not only has Disney and Star Wars had a lot of crossover merchandising for years, but Pixar sprung from Lucas's first attempts at digital filmmaking, Marvel jumped into bed with Star Wars for the comic books as early as the late 70s and The Muppets have had several similar Star Wars crossovers (and of course a certain 3' green jedi master).
It's also worth keeping in mind that Disney's treatment of The Muppets seem to have been vindicated by the latest feature film, which was a big success, as was I think it was fair to say, their take on The Avengers. John Carter may have bombed, and while it isn't a great film per se, it wasn't for lack of commitment on Disney's part, which poured all the money in the world into it and gave Andrew Stanton largely free rein over its production and marketing!
Between the recognition of Star Wars having long since moved from being the magic trilogy of movies many of us grew up with, into a broader all-media entertainment brand, and the A for effort and pretty good execution Disney has shown over the past decade, I don't see any reason to not be optimistic about their future endeavors with it.
Will it be my Star Wars? Probably not, but then again, what would?