Why would George Lucas sell Lucasfilm, and why would Disney buy it? In some ways, the answer is obvious: both parties see an opportunity to make money. Lucas gains billions of dollars in return for a company that has developed perhaps as far as he can; Disney gains the rights to exploit some of the most valuable media properties of the last 30 years. While this is undeniably true, the deal announced this week can also be understood as the culmination of a long, complex relationship between Disney and Star Wars.
According to most accounts, George Lucas never really expected the first Star Wars to be a hit when it was released in 1977. He had already shown a rough cut of the film to several of his peers, including Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma, who had found it baffling (although Steven Spielberg reportedly saw its potential). Moreover, family films were not considered particularly viable in the 1970s, a decade better known for more violent and challenging movies. Lucas actually went on holiday when the movie was first released, to avoid exposure to negative reviews.
We know now that Lucas had almost unwittingly made a movie that a whole generation had been waiting for, and American cinema is still very much in the shadow of Star Wars’s astonishing influence and success. In fact, Lucas had made something very like a Disney film, when Disney itself was struggling to connect with its traditional audience.
Disney had become a major company by producing films and other material for the relatively underexploited child and family audience in the 30s and, especially, the 50s. By the late 70s, though, the company was struggling, and its movies throughout this period, from The Rescuers, through The Black Hole and Tron, to Basil the Great Mouse Detective, lacked much of the sparkle and appeal that defined its earlier hits. By contrast, the film historian Peter Kramer has observed that Lucas and his longtime collaborator Steven Spielberg became the defining film-makers of the age, by addressing Disney’s core audience with a new generation of family-friendly adventures (and the American trade newspaper Variety actually described Spielberg’s ET as “The greatest Disney movie Disney never made”).
Uncle Walt had built his entertainment empire on the back of child audiences in the 50s, and Lucas forged Lucasfilm in a similar way in the 80s. Of course, Disney eventually got back on track by the late 80s, and today is an almost unstoppable force in the business, but George Lucas showed them the way, and so there is a neat historical inevitability to the news that Lucasfilm will finally be subsumed by Disney.
The move makes sense for Disney on multiple levels, and actually, their relationship with Lucasfilm has been growing closer for decades. Disneyworld already runs regular Star Wars weekends, which connect the two brands in interesting ways. Lucas has also initiated a series of new developments which reconstitute the Star Wars for a new, younger generation of fans, by creating the Clone Wars TV series, and handing over a great deal of creative control to supervising director Dave Filoni. There may be almost universal agreement that the prequel trilogy was a misadventure that highlighted Lucas’s weakened creative powers and tarnished the brand in various ways, but those movies certainly didn’t kill Star Wars, which exists today in a more slickly commercial form than ever before.
Star Wars may have lost much of its magic for die-hard fans as a result, but it makes Lucasfilm seem much more suited to acquisition by Disney. The unexpected, handmade charm of the original trilogy has been replaced now by a glossy veneer of commerciality that defines many Disney products today. Star Wars today just “feels”s like something that Disney might be involved with (and I don’t exactly mean this as criticism – for my sins, I rather like Clone Wars).
As for Disney, acquiring Star Wars (and Lucasfilm’s other productions) represents an opportunity to further extend its demographic reach to target male consumers of all ages. Over the past 15 years, Disney has been enormously successful at producing material for girls, through its Princess and Fairies brands. It has been less successful at targeting boys – although Pixars’ Cars was a cash cow for the company. Recently, Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Productions seems to have been driven by a desire to expand its reach to older boys. Now, when you walk into a Disney store, you turn left for princesses and right for superheroes. Acquiring Lucasfilm continues this process, of developing brands with a broad sweep of demographic appeal (and I’m not for a minute suggesting that boys exclusively like cars, space and superheroes, or girls prefer princesses – rather that this kind of thinking motivates Disney’s decision).
It has ultimately acquired Lucasfilm partly because the companies have a longstanding creative relationship, but mainly to intensify its grip on consumers. In effect, the company just paid $4bn to ensure that now, when you walk into the Disney store, you just head straight on for lightsabers.