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Is Disney A New Hope For ‘Star Wars?’

Is Disney A New Hope For 'Star Wars?'

Sometimes the headlines just write themselves, don’t they?

Faster than you could make the Kessel Run, the entire landscape of Hollywood changed yesterday. The Walt Disney Company bought Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion in cash and stock — and announced their plans to put “Episode VII” of the “Star Wars” franchise in theaters by 2015. According to Disney’s press release about the acquisition, Lucas will serve as “creative consultant” on the new “Star Wars” films — that’s films plural — as they plan “to continue the ‘Star Wars’ saga and grow the franchise well into the future.”

So “Episode VII” and whatever comes after it will still have Lucas’ fingerprints on it — but not his stamp of authorship. As anyone who’s followed Lucas’ career will tell you, this is a huge development. It’s easily the second most important business decision in the history of the franchise.

The most important business decision in the history of the franchise took place in 1973, when, with one shortsighted blunder, 20th Century Fox created a mogul and paved the way for the Disney/Lucasfilm merger almost forty years later. The studio’s original arrangement with Lucas for “Star Wars” called for him to make $200,000 for producing, writing, and directing the film. But after Lucas’ previous picture, “American Graffiti” opened to huge grosses, the budding auteur was in prime position to renegotiate. His agent told him to ask for $500,000. But as he later explained in the documentary “Empire of Dreams,” Lucas went in a different direction:

“I was very careful to say ‘I don’t want more money, I don’t want more points, I don’t want anything financial, but I do want the right to make more sequels.'”

And so Lucas renegotiated his contract — for the exact same salary. Instead of an additional $300,000, Lucas asked for the rights to make sequels and merchandise. Fox, already nervous about pumping more cash into a risky project, agreed. At the time, the rights Lucas requested were considered so useless — because few films got sequels and even less produced significant merchandise — that they were nicknamed “garbage rights.”

You know what happened next. “Star Wars” became one of the biggest hits in the history of cinema and, with his “garbage rights,” Lucas quickly became a millionaire — and later a billionaire –off his creation. In recent years, Lucas has insisted he wasn’t a forward-thinking genius in 1973: he didn’t see the movie becoming a hit and him becoming wealthy off it. In fact, he anticipated the opposite. He assumed “Star Wars” would be a flop, and expected Fox to wash their hands of it. Success or failure, Lucas liked what he was working on, and envisioned many more films about the characters. Owning those rights meant when — not if, but when — “Star Wars” tanked, Lucas could at least try to make something of it somewhere else.

When you read about George Lucas — as I did recently as research for my *coughPLUGcough* contribution to a book about “Star Wars” — you see that his career path is not about money; it’s about control. Two different studios had demanded changes to both of his first two features, “THX 1138” and “American Graffiti,” and Lucas hated the notes process. Afterwards, he swore he would get to a place where no one could demand final cut on his work. From that one decision, an empire (pun obviously intended because I’m a terrible person). Even as his film became one of the biggest cultural events of the 20th century, and his little company became a major force in the entertainment industry, Lucas continued to consider himself a defiantly independent artist. 

Until yesterday. That was the day Lucas finally let go of the reins for a couple billion dollars — picked money over control. What has remained interesting about “Star Wars” over the years even as its movies got boring is the fact that it’s a multibillion dollar plaything of just one man. At a time when almost every mainstream American movie is made by committee, “Star Wars” belongs completely to Lucas. But while many critics often deride committee-made movies for being bland and generic, they also take Lucas to task for his quirky, peculiar (and, admittedly, kind of terrible) “Star Wars” prequels, and for his refusal, until yesterday, to let anyone else make decisions about the fate of his baby.

In other words, Lucas’ time atop Lucasfilm produced one of the craziest paradoxes in movies: a director who prides himself on being an auteur — and who argues loudly in favor of movies as personal works of art by powerful, independent filmmakers — creating three “Star Wars” prequels whose questionable creative choices serve as the one of the biggest arguments against auteur filmmaking in history.  And as Lucas massed the power and digital technology to complete his idiosyncratic vision, the success of his original “Star Wars” trilogy helped inspire a new business mindset in Hollywood dominated by sequels and merchandising. The studio movies made as a result were too large and too risky to be dictated by the whims of a single creator. In a sense then, no one has done more to champion — and single-handedly destroy — auteurism in America than George Lucas.

Not that I necessarily fault Lucas for any of this — but plenty of others do. For years, Lucas has been the scapegoat for his own creation’s massive (yet weirdly unpopular) success. “Star Wars” fans demand more “Star Wars” content, but spend most of their time complaining about its quality. And, as they’re quick to tell you, they’ve all got ideas for where to take the franchise that they insist are much better than Lucas’.

In yet another irony, those rights Lucas fought for not only gave him the ultimate control of his property, they also ensured that his audience would never stop trying to wrest that control from him. For several generations, Lucas built his fortune by convincing children that they could  “own” a piece of “Star Wars.” When they buy video games or replica lightsabers or Darth Vader mass, his audience sees themselves as more than customers or fans. In their eyes, they’re stockholders. And stockholders want a voice. In a privately held company like Lucasfilm, that doesn’t go over too well.

Now, all that changes. Will fans embrace the new creators, whoever they may be? Or will they remain permanently dissatisfied by whatever Lucasfilm and Disney throw their way? What will they do if Disney tries to remake the original films instead of making new ones? Will Disney be as lenient with “Star Wars” fan films and copyright violations as Lucas was? Just how involved will Lucas be as a creative consultant?

It all remains to be seen; even a Jedi Master couldn’t predict what comes next. What is clear is that for now and the foreseeable future, the fate of “Star Wars” remains out of the fans’ control.

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