The news that The Walt Disney Company will buy the privately held Lucasfilm Ltd. for $4.05 billion in cash and stock is surprising but not unexpected. There is still a bit of George Lucas DNA within Pixar, whose hardware-oriented progenitor he founded in 1979, although there’s more of Steve Jobs’s in the company as it exists today. But you can bet they were watching in Marin and at the Presidio as Disney acquired Pixar in 2006 and integrated it into the larger company.
The Lucas people surely had one essential question: can Pixar retain its creative independence inside one of the world’s greatest marketing juggernauts? In other words, will the suits push Pixar around? They surely smiled as John Lasseter, Pixar’s human heartbeat, became Chief Creative Officer not only of Pixar but also of Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Principal Creative Advisor to Walt Disney Imagineering (i.e., theme-park attractions). Pixar’s Ed Catmull took over as President of the Disney animation unit. Far from stifling the Emeryville kids, Disney anointed Pixar as the future of its entire animation effort. Jobs – whom nobody pushed around – even negotiated hands-off exceptions in such mundane areas as human resources: for example, Pixar had no employment contracts before the acquisition, and it has none now.
The Disney guy who did the Pixar deal and agreed to all this stuff was Bob Iger, the chairman and CEO. He believes in two things: stewardship of Disney’s existing assets – mainly its iconic characters and franchises – and growth through acquisition of other iconic characters and franchises. Financial mavens thought he’d paid too much for Pixar, but their amazing string of blockbusters continues. They thought he’d paid too much for Marvel Entertainment in 2009, but its first movie for Disney, THE AVENGERS, blew past the billion-and-a-half mark worldwide and became the third biggest picture of all time. They’re going to give Iger a pass on Lucasfilm. Good call.
Disney gets ILM, Skywalker Sound, and other state-of-the-art outfits (it does not get Skywalker Ranch or any of George’s Marin real estate), but Iger really coveted just two words: Star and Wars. If George is to be believed, he originally planned STAR WARS as a nine-film saga, and as part of the deal he has delivered a “detailed treatment” for the next three films. Iger expects that Lucasfilm’s first production as a Disney subsidiary will be STAR WARS Episode VII in 2015 (the same year that the chairman will step down from hands-on control of the Disney empire), but you can also count on seeing new STAR WARS product on TV, in the parks, in the stores, everywhere. From Disney’s point of view, it’s a natural fit: one of the best-loved trademarks in the world, around the world. Indiana Jones is murkier, because the distribution deal is with rival Paramount; my guess is that Indy has permanently retired, but stranger things have happened. What this does is trade a sure thing (STAR WARS) for an iffy thing or two (JOHN CARTER) in the Disney schedule – and lets the studio take full financial advantage, rather than serving as distributor/marketer-for-hire, as Fox did with the prequel trilogy.
From George’s point of view, he never expected to be in this position. He was a USC Young Turk, a member of the “Dirty Dozen,” as they called themselves, talented indies who were going to change filmmaking in guerrilla style. But as fate would have it, he and another indie-centric filmmaker changed the business in ways which amazed even themselves. The unexpected success of both JAWS and STAR WARS ushered in the age of the summer blockbuster. And George – who formed Lucasfilm in 1971, just a few years after he was the toast of the town for his amazing student film ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB – was only transformed when he offered his services as the writer/director of STAR WARS for a modest fee in exchange for all sequel and merchandising rights, which at the time were viewed as worthless. Sequels? We’re in the George Lucas business, all right, especially after AMERICAN GRAFFITI, but this thing is so crazy, we might not even get the first one released; it’s science fiction, and that never makes money. Merchandising? It takes decades to sell Lone Ranger and Superman lunch boxes, my friend! Hindsight is 20/20, and today George Lucas is one of the two richest – and best known – filmmakers in the world. The other one is his old buddy Steven Spielberg. Definitely not what they signed up for.
You could hear George’s frustration when he went on Jon Stewart earlier this year to promote RED TAILS, a Lucasfilm production (i.e., George’s own money) about the WWII Tuskegee Airmen. He said there were two more potential movies on the subject, the backstory and the future, but no studio was interested. Neither, it turned out, was a big audience. You’re forgiven if while watching RED TAILS you think you’re just seeing the last reel of STAR WARS again, because Lucas and his editor and then-wife, Marcia, assembled WWII dogfight footage to guide and inspire the STAR WARS team. A circular progression. But still, it had to be a huge disappointment.
George understands that, however it happened, he’s created a multi-generational piece of fantasy that now belongs to the ages. Parents proudly show STAR WARS to their kids, and they love it in turn. The closest example I can think of is the 1939 film version of THE WIZARD OF OZ. It’s also a timeless perennial. But unlike STAR WARS, since the dawn of home video OZ has only been able to hitch a ride on each new bit of technology: VCR, Laserdisk, DVD, Blu-Ray, etc. They’re already prepping a 2013 re-issue in 3-D. (Wanna feel old? If a new STAR WARS film is actually released in 2015, then the time span between it and the movie that started it all will equal the span between that moment in 1977 and the original theatrical release of THE WIZARD OF OZ. It’s been that long, boys and girls.) In comparison, there’s so much more potential story in the STAR WARS saga. And it’s clear by now that this saga is going to survive George Lucas. His driving passion for the property may already be waning – after all, he was pretty much beaten up personally (and, in my view, too zealously) over the prequel trilogy. Why not hand it over to some people who will carry it forward – and judging from the Pixar track record, should be able to preserve the qualities that made it great?
George is only 68. Nobody believes this is “retirement” for him. I think he’s going to make smaller pictures and scratch that itch that brought him to film school in the first place, just like his mentor (and fellow blockbuster survivor) Francis Coppola is doing. With $4 billion more – and his new position as a major Disney shareholder – George will now have the time and treasure to think about other stuff besides his DIY empire. And woe be to the Disney exec who tries to release a STAR WARS film that George isn’t willing to publicly say he likes. But there’s an easy way to make people drool for tix to SW VII, and I’ll bet Lucasfilm’s new owner has already thought of it.
To direct, hire this kid on the Universal lot.
The name’s Spielberg.
11/1/12: Late yesterday afternoon, George announced that the bulk of the proceeds from the Disney sale would go to philanthropy, specifically to fund education programs.
3/13/13: And now we know that the director of Episode VII will be J. J. Abrams, the resuscitator of STAR TREK, who is Spielberg to a younger crowd.
12/25/15: And now we know that J. J. succeeded.