What to expect when Disney buys ‘Star Wars’

From left: Mark Hamill, George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford on the set of the “Star Wars” film “The Empire Strikes Back.”
From left: Mark Hamill, George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford on the set of the “Star Wars” film “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Lucasfilm/20th Century fox/file

More “Star Wars” movies on the way?

Well, they can’t be any worse than “The Phantom Menace.”

The announcement last week that the Walt Disney Co. is spending $4.05 billion to buy Lucasfilm from its retiring founder-visionary George Lucas came as a surprise only in its timing. This is entertainment mega-corp business as usual — the purchasing of vast swaths of pre-sold intellectual property — and it’s what Disney chief executive Bob Iger does perhaps better than any other suit in the industry. He buys not things but story lines and characters and creative brain trusts. Pixar in 2006. Marvel in 2009. (The latter deal looks especially brilliant in the wake of $1.5 billion in worldwide grosses for this summer’s “The Avengers.”) Now Lucasfilm, a deal including the pioneering special-effects house Industrial Light and Magic, rights to “Star Wars” and its many iterations, and all the other properties Lucas has created or owned over the years.

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What does it all mean? Lucas gets to ride into the sunset with a sweet package: He can buy his own galaxy now. And the “Star Wars” saga, which began as a private fantasy about space warriors and princesses that a shy young man doodled on the margins of his homework, is now part of the most efficient content factory on the planet.

So, yes, we’ll be seeing more “Star Wars” movies — lots of them. The first, which Disney says will be an all-new story with no ties to existing films, TV shows, video games, or Boba Fett key rings, is slated for release in 2015.
Oddsmakers are already placing bets on which characters will return: Paddy Power, Ireland’s largest bookmaker, announced that C-3PO and R2-D2 have a 33-to-1 shot at turning up in Episode VII. The line at your local googolplex may be already forming. Disney will probably find a way to spin out fractal variations on “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” too. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a “Howard the Duck” sequel.

More to the point, the new “Star Wars” sequels will almost certainly be safer and less personal — less tied to the artistic vision and limitations of the singular man who dreamed them up. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s doubtful that a Jar Jar Binks would survive the corporate team vetting and focus-group mind-set of the Mouse House. Lucas’s most glaring weaknesses as a writer-director — drably declamatory dialogue and a remarkable inability to spark certain actors into life (*cough* Natalie Portman *cough*) — might be overhauled by a new creative team with greater skills in these areas. Yes, without George Lucas “Star Wars” wouldn’t exist as the source of eternal pop memories and immense corporate profits, but it’s still worth noting that the best movie of the six, 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” was directed by Irvin Kershner, and that its richest dialogue exchange (Leia: “I love you.” Han: “I know.”) was improvised by Harrison Ford. (Lucas’s original line: “I love you too.”)

At the same time, how often in our modern entertainment machine does one man get to shepherd his private vision directly to an audience of billions? With the original “Star Wars” in 1977, Lucas ushered in the age of blockbuster movie rides and endless tie-in profiteering; this is where the notion of a money-spinning “franchise” that today’s major media behemoths rely on for their daily oxygen had its start. Yet “Star Wars” was made by hand and made with love, and so, in their wonky way, were the other five episodes and everything Lucas put his mind to. The craftsman puttering around in the attic of his mind and the grounds of his personal ranch has been replaced by a company that knows exactly how to spit these things out so you’ll be begging for more.

The new “Star Wars” will come in 3-D, IMAX, and someday — who knows? — holo-vision and jack-in-brain cinema. But Disney CEO Iger’s announcement of the Lucasfilm acquisition is telling. “This transaction combines a world-class portfolio of content including ‘Star Wars,’ one of the greatest family entertainment franchises of all time, with Disney’s unique and unparalleled creativity across multiple platforms, businesses, and markets to generate sustained growth and drive significant long-term value.”

There are certain things missing from that sentence, words like movie and story and characters. George Lucas might have put them in, but he’s no longer running the show.