I could see where things were headed. The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire. It’s a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business, but that’s not the best thing for making quality films,” former Lucasfilm insider and producer of the first two “Star Wars” films Gary Kurtz told Hero Complex in 2010. He also said “the first film and ‘Empire’ were about story and character, but I could see that George [Lucas] George’s priorities were changing.”
Whether intentionally or not, the massive success of “Star Wars” helped usher in the blockbuster film era, in which products associated with the movie are more lucrative than the film itself. And heading into “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back,” one understands why Lucas couldn’t resist the lucrative allure of toy sales. After all, he was financing the highly anticipated sequel independently, as well as using his own visual effects company on the production. Lucas’ personal stakes were unbelievably high, and it would be natural to want those costs offset. But thirty-five years later, it’s a bit rich to hear Lucas speak out so vehemently against an industry that he not only inadvertently spawned, but has continued to participate in and which has enriched him to near unprecedented levels.
Visiting the Sundance Film Festival this week, Lucas sat down with pal Robert Redford for a conversation and the “Star Wars” creator slammed Hollywood films. They are “more and more circus without any substance behind it,” he said (via Variety). “If you go into ‘Star Wars’ and see what’s going on there, there’s a lot more substance than circus.”
And he didn’t stop there. Lucas also struck out at the very people who distributed and invested time and money into his pictures. “Studio executives generally are not the most sophisticated people in the world…you do not want to be oppressed by people who are not as smart as you are, and I’m dumb,” he said.
But Lucas isn’t entirely lacking self awareness: he conceded the source of his massive wealth: “All the money is in the action figures.”
Last summer it was reported that in 2011 —with no movie in theaters— “Star Wars” merchandise earned $3 billion in sales. As you might guess, Disney is expecting even bigger figures by the time “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” arrives. So it seems that their $4 billion purchase of Lucasfilm was a steal. Merchandising alone will help erase that debt, and the power of auxiliary avenues of profit is well known to Lucas, with Kurtz claiming that the end of ‘Empire’ was changed for the sake of the toys.
“We had an outline and George changed everything in it,” he said. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant, he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of the story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time, there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.”
Lucas seems to be in conflict with himself, wishing to been perceived as an artist and independent minded filmmaker and trying to distance himself from the very studio practices that more than comfortably padded his bottom line. And it’s a bottom line that continues to grow, with Disney CEO Bob Iger confirming in a shareholder letter (via The Wrap), that the plans for the next ‘Star Wars’ movies haven’t changed. “As one of the few people allowed to visit the set during filming… and one of the fewer who’s seen most of the footage… I can assure the millions of ‘Star Wars’ fans who have spent the last decade hoping for a new movie this one will be worth the wait,” he wrote. “And it’s only the beginning of a new era of exceptional ‘Star Wars’ storytelling; next year, we’ll release our first standalone movie based on these characters, followed by ‘Star Wars: Episode VIII’ in 2017, and we’ll finish this trilogy with ‘Episode IX’ in 2019.”
And with that, we can probably expect a whole new wave of toys, video game, clothes, lunch boxes, pencil cases, bedsheets, snow globes, keychains and more. But can someone bring back C-3POs? Meanwhile, watch the entire Lucas/Redford conversation below (but you need to fast forward to about the 29 minute mark, fyi).