A hand grenade got lobbed into geek culture today, with the announcement that Disney is paying $4 billion to buy Lucasfilm, and therefore the Star Wars franchise. What’s truly significant is that Lucas has surrendered control of the franchise and new blood will be allowed to make their mark on it, beginning with Star Wars Episode VII in 2015, which will be the first in a new trilogy that’s been rumoured and discussed for over two decades.
I’m not a huge Star Wars fan. Much as I’ve wanted it to, Lucas’s universe has never got under my skin the way that Star Trek has. Part of the problem may be that most of my experience with the films comes from the post-Special Edition time when the franchise began to lose its lustre. Its enduring quality became the subject of intense debate rather than a universal truth. Because I didn’t grow up with the films as perfect, unsullied feats of imagination, they may not have had a chance to gain a firm foothold.
So I’m surprised that this news has got me so excited. For one thing, to cheer the acquisition of one massive company by an even more massive company feels like the worst capitulation to the dominance of art by commerce; since this deal is all about wringing more money out of Star Wars, why should we be happy?
Two reasons. Firstly, George Lucas has finally surrendered control and can no longer veto decisions that fans are clamouring for. He has seemingly been weary of big-budget filmmaking and Star Wars itself almost since he began working on the prequels, which may explain how joyless they feel. Despite this, he accepted no help with the writing and direction of the films except for Jonathan Hales’s assistance on Episode II, and that film didn’t exactly sport an Irvin Kershner-style fresh voice. And once the prequels were over, we were firmly told that Lucas would make no more Star Wars films, with the implication that no-one else would get to either.
Of course, the prequel-hating fanbase, whose numbers are legion, were hardly optimistic about a new film coming from Lucas himself anyway. Being burned three times is bad enough. Stronger work was being done by others on the various Clone Wars cartoons, proof (if any was needed) that other voices could still make Star Wars sing. Imagine if top filmmakers were allowed a crack at a Star Wars feature film?
That appears to be what will now happen. Long-time Lucas and Spielberg producer Kathleen Kennedy now heads Lucasfilm and will develop the new trilogy with writers. Lucas will serve as creative consultant and is writing the treatments, but there’s no guarantee that strict fidelity to them will be required. How contractually obliged Disney is to involve Lucas or use his ideas is naturally unknown at this point, but it’s hard to believe that they would pay so much money and still be expected to indulge the creative mind that, by its owner’s admission, is exhausted.
Although Star Wars is a powerful enough brand and any movie will make a ton of money and sell a bunch of tickets and merchandise to kids, Disney are surely aware of how poorly received the prequels were by adult fans, who weren’t exactly a niche contributor to even those films’ box office grosses. Resuscitating the brand will partly involve restoring its creative reputation, so hopefully Disney will pay a lot more attention to scripting and bring in multiple writers and other creatives to really hone this thing.
Granted, that would go against prevailing Hollywood practice where the script really isn’t a big issue for massive tentpole films. However, hopefully Disney also recalls that the Marvel films that have done so well for them have, more often than not, had pretty decent scripts, particularly The Avengers. Good writing does matter and can lead to greater success, particularly for a franchise as delicate as Star Wars.
But the very existence of the movies may be problematic, and too many may dilute the brand, particularly if they fail to reach the heights so many demand. We’re accustomed to films being cultural events; despite the diminishing creative returns of the prequels, each one somehow still managed to seem important.
Yet Disney are alluding to not only a new trilogy, but further films beyond that. Yes there’s a huge history and future history to explore, as the massive expanded universe attests. But do we really want to get to a point where a Star Wars film tumbles off a production line on schedule, making a mint but never a dent? Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, anyone?
The second reason we should be happy about this is that we may finally get the theatrical versions of the original trilogy on Blu-ray, and otherwise available for the world to see for posterity. While I can almost imagine that Lucas perversely made their continued suppression a condition of sale, I again don’t see Disney putting up with that. If he’s willing to hand the entire legacy over to another company, presumably it’s occurred to him that he’ll have to suck it up and let the world see the original versions if that’s what Disney decides is best.
And why wouldn’t they? It would equal a ton more home video revenue, and would constitute one of the most significant home video releases ever due to the pent-up demand. Granted, it’s hard to measure just how widespread the desire for the original editions truly is. Presumably kids don’t care, but even the most casual of older viewers resent seeing Hayden Christiansen at the end of Jedi. It’s another example of alienating consumers that Disney presumably doesn’t see any benefit in persisting with. And having multiple versions of a film to offer equals multiple products, and what home video company would turn that down?
However, they would have to work with Fox to release such a package. Fox hold the distribution rights to A New Hope in perpetuity, and to the other five films until 2020. The former must aggravate Disney immensely, because it’s hard to imagine Fox ever giving it up unless there ends up being so little value to only having a grip on one Star Wars film post-2020 that they will sell the rights for a fortune. But Disney would likely want a Blu-ray release in 2014-15 in time for the story’s continuation with Episode VII, and surely Fox would appreciate the profits they’d make in working with Disney on such a release.
I expect that co-distribution would be essential, because Fox would be releasing films containing characters owned by Disney, so they really can’t do anything without the Mouse. Now we just have to hope that there are enough surviving materials to restore. That said, I doubt Lucas has let them go to rot, despite his declarations that they will never be seen again. It’s just not prudent to neglect such key assets.
I’ve mentioned a bunch of unknown factors and several misgivings, so why does this still excite me? Naivete and being a sucker for punishment may explain it, but I can’t help but be optimistic about a great filmmaker miraculously restoring the joy and wonder of the Star Wars universe again. I’ve never been terribly compelled to explore its expanded universe, but I’m still tantalised by the prospect of a superbly-made cinematic Star Wars adventure. And for the first time since May 1999, we have reason to expect that one is possible again, and it’s only three years away. I may just have to dust off my DVDs and remind myself of the appeal of this world, Greedo shooting first be damned (for now).