Disney’s takeover of the Star Wars genre does not mean the end of successful film-making empire, writes Stephen McGinty. Perhaps the best is yet to come …
SOMEONE once said George Lucas couldn’t sleep at night knowing there was still an eight-year-old kid in Kansas with a dollar in his pocket. The creator of the Star Wars films, and the world’s most successful movie merchandising operation, can now slumber contentedly, in the knowledge that a new generation of children are soon to have their pocket money picked, this time by the white-fingered gloves of Mickey Mouse.
The news, announced on Tuesday, that Disney had bought Lucasfilms for $4 billion (£2.5bn) and with it the rights to release the first part of a new Star Wars trilogy in 2015, with plans to follow this up with a new film every two to three years, has triggered howls of outrage from fans. And this was even before the corporation released an advert for Disneyland which asked the question: what will Darth Vader do next?, and showed him riding on the magic teacups.
I thought the advert, which is available on YouTube, was hilarious, particularly the scene where Darth Vader gets startled on the log flume and nervously draws his light sabre. Or when, flanked by Stormtroopers in plastic mouse ears, he stands bewitched by the princess parade.
But there are many who distrust Disney. Under Michael Eisner, the former chief executive, it was said to be a difficult and unpleasant place to work, where creativity was stifled under a quilt of mandatory production notes. As in George Lucas’s world of the evil Empire, a spirit of rebellion grew. When a memo went round one morning making it sackable offence to jokingly refer to the company as Mouse-schwitz, by mid-afternoon staff had changed the nickname to Duckau.
However, the new chief executive, Robert Igar, appears to believe in the power of purchasing successful companies, and their staff, and then letting them get on with making successful films, and huge quantities of money – which is why Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilms is such a brilliant idea. Before I explain exactly why, I’ll remind you of another recent advert, this time for the Volkswagen car.
In the commercial, a little boy dressed as Darth Vader tries to use the force to start the washing machine and to levitate a dog, and then thinks he has the power when his dad uses the remote control key to switch on the car’s headlights. It was witty, funny and sweet without being saccharine, and was made once Michael Kaden, an advertising executive who discovered that the Star Wars films, unlike almost any other piece of pop culture, have an advertising demographic that runs from five to 75.
It is this appeal that makes them such an attractive proposition for Disney, particularly as it was an entirely natural phenomenon, one whose hype wasn’t triggered by the web.
First, let’s tackle the unsightly subject of money. When George Lucas created Star Wars, he tapped into a vast reservoir of emotion and cash. People adore the characters and the worlds he created, as the box office success of each of the six films have shown.
In the years since the release of Revenge of the Sith, an array of computer games and novels have further expanded the Lucas world, and continue to accrue hundreds of millions of dollars into the coffers of Lucasfilms. Even if Disney did nothing, its investment would earn a steady return each year. However, the reason for purchasing Lucasfilms was not to earn a small return on the six existing wells, but to tap into that vast reservoir of story and mythology from which billions is certain to gush out. For the fact is that the dynamics of Hollywood have changed.
In the past, studios would release between 20 and 25 films a year, with the successful few covering the costs of the majority of flops and an average return on investment of 5 per cent. Today, the major Hollywood studios may release half that number and now concentrate their resources on major “tent pole” films that will dominate the summer or Christmas market.
The creation of a smash hit movie is exceedingly difficult. As William Goldman said about the secret to box-office success: “Nobody knows anything”. James Cameron and 20th Century Fox fully expected Titanic to sink; no-one could have predicted that it would become, at the time, the most lucrative film ever released. Yet studio chiefs understand that you can load the dice in your favour in certain ways. Audiences enjoy sequels and, like fans of detective novels, want the same thing, just different, and it is best supplied in the form of a franchise, such as James Bond, Harry Potter … and Star Wars. Disney has recognised this, and set out to bring all these elements into its fold.
When Disney spots success it has a tendency to buy it up, which is at least preferable to the genocide and enslavement practiced by the villains in Star Wars. It bought Pixar (which George Lucas bankrolled in the beginning before selling it to Steve Jobs) and so has access once again to the most popular animated films on the planet, a title its own animation department once held. And in the past decade, movies based on superheroes from Marvel Comics have been stratospherically successful, with Avengers Assemble making $1.5 billion at the global box office. So Disney bought Marvel.
In fact, the best way to think about George Lucas and the Star Wars movies is to think of him as a comic-book creator, in whose files lie an entire world of wildly popular characters who have slipped under the skin of people around the globe. Like comic books, the Star Wars deal gives Disney access to the most extensive media and merchandising empires in modern history.
Having detailed why the deal is a stroke of genius for the Disney Corporation, let’s move on to why it will be fantastic for the fans. In a sentence, the answer is a new director and better writers.
The general consensus is that the first three Star Wars movies were brilliant, and the next three, well, rubbish, a tepid soup of cartoon effects and clunky dialogue. Yet even when presented with disappointing results, the fans had almost a decade of excitement as new villains and heroes emerged from a swirl of rumours. Are you really telling me that fans would rather have nothing than something, particularly if that something could be brilliant?
Certainly George Lucas has no appetite to climb back into the director’s chair. “Why would I make any more when everyone yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?” he asked.
Think about the generation of writers and directors who grew up bathed in the light of the Death Star’s destruction. For whom the first few bars of John Williams’s epic score still raises the hairs on the back of their neck . Imagine the world of Star Wars released from the suffocating love and steely grip of George Lucas and allowed to be take flight under the guidance of a better writer and more visionary director.
I can think of three directors in whose hands the new movies would be secure. The first choice would be either Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) or Peter Jackson, the genius behind The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Next would be Guillermo del Toro, the director of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, whose love of monsters, the macabre and other worlds is infused with pathos and a touching emotion. He would have a field day dreaming up the populations of distant planets. And then there are the fanboys made good, writer/directors such as JJ Abrams, who has revamped the Star Trek franchise, and Joss Whedon, who topped Buffy The Vampire Killer with Avengers Assemble, the third-biggest popcorn movie ever made, and one whose reviews read like love letters.
There is also the fact that the new films won’t be such a collective downer. What people forget is just how bleak the second trilogy was, focused on the corruption of a young boy’s soul, his transformation into Darth Vader and the massacre of the Jedis. The next three movies, said to take place 20 or 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, promise a lighter view and, here’s hoping, the possible return of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. The six-year-old inside me, still sitting slack-jawed in the worn seats of the ABC on Sauchiehall Street, says roll on Star Wars VII which, like the first in the series, should be subtitled: A New Hope.