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Disney Buys Lucasfilm

As I’ve pointed out a few times on this blog, the Walt Disney Company has been underperforming terribly in the past few years. Until very recently, Disney’s film division could only claim a couple of Pixar sequels, some franchise non-starters, some films that earned huge box-office dollars that came with critical bashings, and some extremely high-profile bombs. On the other hand, there was the Disney Channel.

The Disney Channel had found incredible success by way of shows like “Hannah Montana,” “Sonny with a Chance,” “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” the High School Musical films, etc. Not only did these shows bring in legions of viewers and a new generation of young actors (each with their own fanbase), but it also led to a ton of merchandise sales for the Mouse. There’s just one problem: These shows brought in an overwhelmingly female audience.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Disney bought Marvel at this period in time. They already had the market cornered on prepubescent girls, after all. What better way to court the prepubescent boy crowd than to buy out half the market on superheroes? From this perspective, I think that today’s news makes a lot more sense.

News has just come in that after dropping over $4 billion to buy Marvel, Disney is spending another $4 billion to buy LucasFilm. That includes Skywalker Sound, LucasArts, Industrial Light and Magic, the whole shebang. And on top of that, they’ve announced a Star Wars sequel to be released in three years.

Obviously, there’s a lot to be said about this.

First of all, I — like so many others — have fond childhood memories of the Star Tours ride at Disneyland. Hell, when I last went to Disneyworld a few years ago, there was this huge interactive show teaching kids how to be Jedi. So if nothing else, the two companies already have a very long history where theme parks are concerned. Of course, the two companies have something else in common: They are both merchandising juggernauts.

This leads me to my second point. For all of George Lucas’ many faults as a filmmaker, there’s no denying that he’s a very astute businessman. I have a very hard time believing that there isn’t some alternate agenda at play, and I wonder what else Lucas might be getting out of this deal. Then again, Lucas himself is making a great show about retiring.

For the past 35 years, one of my greatest pleasures has been to see Star Wars passed from one generation to the next. It’s now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers. I’ve always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me, and I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime. I’m confident that with Lucasfilm under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy, and having a new home within the Disney organization, Star Wars will certainly live on and flourish for many generations to come. Disney’s reach and experience give Lucasfilm the opportunity to blaze new trails in film, television, interactive media, theme parks, live entertainment, and consumer products. –George Lucas’ official statement

That seems crystal clear to me. George Lucas has officially (or at least ostensibly) let go of the Star Wars franchise. If I was a Star Wars fan, I’d be leaping for joy right now. After the prequels and the various re-releases of the original trilogy, anyone would be begging for Lucas to give up the franchise’s reins. Then came a little debacle called Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which ruined Lucas’ other great franchise. Most recently, well outside of Lucas’ usual sci-fi/fantasy purview, there was a film called Red Tails that proved a commercial and critical bomb.

We all knew that Lucas was washed up as a filmmaker. Now, for all intents and purposes, he’s out of the game. His entire life’s work, everything he’s done and built, is off his hands. He can take his money and ride off into the sunset. Hell, with all of his money, the guy could build a new identity, go through reconstructive surgery, and live in total anonymity for the rest of his days if he wanted to.

So what’s next? Well, first and foremost, the slate has basically been wiped clean as far as Star Wars is concerned. Not only is Lucas out of the picture, but 20th Century Fox has been cut out of any future Star Wars dealings as well. Of course, I expect they’ll raise a stink if Disney tries to re-release the older versions of the original trilogy, but let’s hope they’ll work something out.

On the one hand, Lucas’ franchises can now be put into the hands of the people who grew up watching and idolizing them. Maybe now, Star Wars and Indiana Jones can get the infusions of new blood and fresh ideas that they so badly needed. In fact, maybe Spielberg and Ford can put their heads together and give us an Indiana Jones movie that doesn’t suck. If we’re really, really lucky, maybe someone could make an alternate prequel trilogy so we can truly and finally declare Parts I-III non-canon.

In fact, why stop with the flagship franchises? How about a sequel to Labyrinth or Willow? Why not reboot The Land Before Time or Twice Upon a Time? Hell, now that Marvel and Lucasfilm are under the same roof, how about another crack at Howard the Duck?

Moreover, why limit the company to existing franchises? Why can’t Lucasfilm be turned into a studio for great new science-fiction or fantasy films to capture the imagination as Star Wars did so many years ago? Maybe it could be a laboratory for bold new movies that could spin off into new franchises. Maybe this company could foster creativity and innovation as it did back in the early days.

But then I remember my opening point: This is Disney.

If there’s one thing Disney has been good at over the past several years, it’s funnelling huge amounts of money into abominations. Yes, The Muppets was a huge hit, but that film only cost $45 million. Yes, The Avengers made a gajillion dollars, but that film was mostly made and bankrolled by Paramount. I’m talking about huge cinematic investments like Tron: Legacy, Alice in Wonderland, John Carter, Mars Needs Moms, and the beached wreckage of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

(Side note: The Lone Ranger is next, I’m calling it right now.)

It’s really hard to imagine Disney making a good tentpole movie right now. Then again, Disney has been on a roll with acquiring great talent, and this is the corporation that made synergy into an art form. Heaven knows what’s going to happen when the folks at ILM start collaborating with the Imagineers of Disneyworld or the creative geniuses at Pixar. What comics might we look forward to when Marvel gets hold of Lucas’ old toys?

But far more importantly, what will happen to Lucas’ two most enduring franchises when Lucas himself isn’t around to guide them anymore? Only time will tell, but one thing is sure: Lucas’ technical companies — ILM, Skywalker Sound, THX, et al. — have never been stronger, and his franchises — Star Wars, Indiana Jones, et al. — couldn’t get any worse.

All told, I think that’s reason enough to be optimistic.

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