“We’re going to concentrate on the ‘Star Wars’ franchise,” Disney CFO Jay Rasulo said yesterday in a Disney conference call to discuss the immediate acquisition of Lucasfilm Ltd. “What we’re buying, along with the overall company, is a pretty extensive and detailed treatment for what would be the next three movies. The [new] trilogy.”
And with those 34 words, geek brains, already reeling from the surprise announcement of a new “Star Wars” film arriving in 2015, positively exploded. Though insisting in 2008 that there would be no more “Star Wars” films, Lucas has obviously changed his mind now that Disney has purchased a song to the tune of $4 billion.
With Lucas out of the way, not writing or directing but only consulting along with executive producer Kathleen Kennedy (the current President of LucasFilm), there’s a pretty open and level playing field to take the “Star Wars” universe — arguably still a very rich and expansive one — in a new direction that could restore some of the series' legacy (one that many of us agree was tarnished by the three, inferior “Star Wars” prequels). Though, to be honest, as Episode VII suggests (but does not confirm) a direct continuation where “Return Of the Jedi” left off, our enthusiasm tends to wane.
But just look around the Internet, which is currently full of (potentially premature and largely unlikely) suggestions of creative teams who could relaunch and revamp “Star Wars,” with creatives like J.J. Abrams (who’s relaunched the “Star Trek” series), Brad Bird (one of the gods at Pixar) and Matthew Vaughn (who extended the shelf-life on the “X-Men” franchise) being tossed around by fans. But certainly, there is no shortage of names –big or small — who could take this universe into bold new directions.
One thought this writer had was that the "Star Wars" franchise could be treated with the same approach as Marvel, another company that Disney owns. Bring new and exciting creative types to write and direct your films, and then guide them within the constraints of what your overall goals are and what you’re trying to achieve. While Marvel has had some hits and misses, think of what they’ve pulled off. We’ve seen Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. launch into the A-list with their adaptation of “Iron Man” (taking a B-level character from the comics and making him Marvel's flagship hero), while they've handed the reins of their films to an eclectic and disparate group of filmmakers that includes Louis Leterrier, Joe Johnston, Joss Whedon, and soon Edgar Wright (who is attached to 2015's "Ant-Man") and an even more bold and motley crew choice of upcoming directors that includes James Gunn (of “Slither” and “Super” fame helming "Guardians Of The Galaxy") and comedy directors Anthony and Joe Russo (helmers of “You, And Me And Dupree,” who are set to direct the upcoming "Captain America: The Winter Soldier").
So, the possibilities for Disney and "Star Wars" are endless (which speaks to the massive valuation of for LucasFilm). One way to restore your brand is to reinvest in its quality by making some bold creative choices that will hopefully result in films that will matter, will be special, and will be as close to “for the ages” as possible (like the original “Star Wars” films). And while it may be a damaged brand from a fan perspective (those Red Letter Media and “Honest Trailers” video pieces about the prequels are still total gold), who find new reasons to air grievances with each new release, let's remember that same core, who vocally opposed the controversial Blu-ray set "Star Wars: The Complete Saga" (with some calling for a boycott), turned it into one of the fastest-selling releases in the format ever, with the box taking in $84 million worldwide. (Though Disney can't be pleased they can't set up supersized box sets spanning the length of the series without roping in Fox who still have the rights to "Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope").
So it's no surprise that Disney clearly sees the franchise as “one of the most successful and enduring family entertainment franchises in history,” viewing it as a still-pristine diamond investment. Lucasfilm's consumer products business is expected to generate around $215 million in licensing revenue in 2012, figures that are comparable to what Marvel generated for Disney in 2009.
And more importantly, Disney are beholden to their shareholders. If you listened to their aforementioned conference call yesterday, the oft-repeated narrative was not about the creative direction the films could go, but driving “long-term value for our shareholders,” LucasFilm fitting the criteria of “strategic acquisitions” like Pixar and Marvel, and perhaps most significantly to “create value well in excess of their purchase price.” In layman's terms: "We spent $4 billion, but don’t worry, these films and the brand will make that money back and more." (And yes, it’s by and large a shareholders' conference call meeting, so sure, they’re going to focus on these monetary concerns, not on whether or not Han Solo will be reprised).
“Adjusted for inflation, as well as growth in both international box office and 3D, we estimate the three most recent Star Wars films would have averaged about $1.5 billion in global box office in today's dollars,” Disney CFO Jay Rasulo said in yesterday’s conference call. “This speaks to the franchise's strength, global appeal, and the great opportunity we have in the film business.”
The plan right now is for Disney to ensure that, starting in 2015, a new "Star Wars" movie is hitting theaters every 2-3 years. And while this continual rollout approach has worked for Marvel (who are now issuing movies annually), does this strategy bode well for good films in this new “Star Wars” universe? Can this product — now approaching forty years of age — ever reclaim it's former glory, or is Disney just content to have a brand that brings in an assured amount of revenue year after year? Of course, “good” is a relative term (“The Avengers” is great entertainment, but far from classic, but as the 3rd highest grossing film of all time, it’s hard to argue with its success), but does the quality of the future "Star Wars" movies even matter?
What seems clear here is that Disney knows they have a strong brand that has weathered the prequels, and it's one they can exploit and leverage to the hilt. With films, TV properties, video games, books, comics, theme parks, and, according to Disney, an international market that could be tapped to a much greater degree, there seems to be no end to where the “Star Wars” brand can expand to. And expand, exploit and leverage they will. But will they learn from their mistakes with the prequels, or simply look at the financial success of the brand thus far? From a corporate perspective, one can only assume the latter. But in case they do want to please the core and make some money too, stay tuned because later today we'll have some suggestions on what they need to know to reinvigorate the series.