Disney-fying Star Wars
The Empire has bought the Republic
Headlines were made last October when it was announced that the Walt Disney Company was buying Lucasfilm, and all of its properties, for $4.06 billion dollars. It sent headlines across the world, especially since with the announcement came news of a new Star Wars film in 2015. It’s obvious that Lucasfilm founder, George Lucas, made out like a bandit with the deal. Lucas was 100% owner of Lucasfilm so he gets the $4 billion. As part of the deal he receives 40 million Disney shares, making him the second-largest non-institutional shareholder of Disney behind the trust of deceased Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. The buyout is Disney’s fourth largest deal ever. Putting it behind the buyouts of Capital Cities/ABC in 1995, Pixar in 2006 and Fox Family. It also tops the $3.96 billion Disney paid for Marvel Entertainment, parent company of Marvel Comics, in August 2009. What does this mean for Lucasfilm, it’s subsidiaries and its movie properties? Well, a lot.
The Death of LucasArts
We’ve already seen the dismantling of the LucasArts division, laying off at least 150 game development and support staff, and with that the end to production of a couple of Star Wars games. Most notably the Star Wars 1313 game which was announced at E3 last year, but also the widely know, but never confirmed, Star Wars: First Assault. A small team will remain at LucasArts to handle licensed products like the Lego Star Wars franchise. What this means is that Disney has now turned LucasArts into a publisher, with the hopes that other studios will produce the games with LucasArts releasing them. Disney is looking to minimize their risk, with maximizing their profits. The closing of LucasArts takes places as Disney has shifted focus of its interactive business on social media and mobile games. Instead of focusing on quality Star Wars games, Disney has decided to farm the work out to other studios in the future. Instead it focuses its attention on Disney Infinity, which bows this August and is Disney’s answer to Activision’s Skylanders, a video game that incorporates interaction with action figures. It’s a safe bet to assume that some Star Wars characters will appear in the game.
It was announced at the 2013 E3 that there will be a Battlefront III game, produced by DICE and published by EA. Unfortunately it’s not expected until 2015 at the earliest. It’s been rumored that DICE is using a number of assets that were already developed by LucasArts since the game was reportedly already in early production within the company. Disney has also already announced the use of Star Wars characters in their on-line web based game Club Penguin, where they turn penguins into Star Wars characters. If that’s not the epitome of Disneyfying Star Wars characters then I don’t know what is.
The Ripple Effect
Lucasfilm has long had a strategy of sharing technical resources and staff between the various visual effects, animation and games studios. Between Lucasfilm, LucasArts, Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound, Lucas liked to keep work within the family as much as possible. Since there was such close synergy, it meant that vfx employees from ILM worked on LucasArts and Lucasfilm projects. With the closure of LucasArts, and Disney’s decision to cancel the popular Clone Wars animated series that aired on the Cartoon Network, this left a number of Industrial Light & Magic’s vfx staff out of a job. So the ripple effect of the closing of a studio and animated show is felt by the rest of the Lucas family. A Lucasfilm spokesperson said that “It’s impossible for ILM to absorb all of those resources, so with this change came the necessity for ILM to align itself and take responsibility for its own resources.” The company wouldn’t disclose the number of staffers let go, but the group included IT and support staff. Lucasfilm Animation claims that the Clone Wars series isn’t dead, with Supervising Director Dave Filoni promising that the team was still working on additional story arcs. In an online video posted to the official Star Wars website, Filoni assured people that the Clone Wars adventures would continue, and he even gave a sneak peak of a new story arc. Only problem is that the official press releases describes the story arcs as bonus content, which doesn’t bode well for it nor does it inspire much confidence in fans. Yet despite all of their claims of full steam ahead, the entire Lucasfilm Animation staff was recently let go except for Filoni, who will be heading work on a recently announced new animated series. Unfortunately for fans of the series this means that there will be no closure on multiple story lines that had developed in the series. From the fate of Darth Maul to Asajj Ventress’ change of heart, fans will also be left wondering what happened to Anakin Solo’s padawan, Ahsoka Tano. It looks like Disney is shutting the book on the prequel era Star Wars, instead shifting focus to evens after Episode VI.
This is sad news for people who prefer the finely crafted Clone Troopers over the boring and inept Storm Troopers. There’s been speculation that Disney decided to cancel the Cartoon Network series because they wanted a fresh take on a new series that will air on its own Disney XD network. With the conspiracy theorists pointing to Disney’s cancellation of the Star Wars: Detours show, the long in the works animated spoof series created by the Robot Chicken team. Funnily enough, it too was supposed to air on the Cartoon Network. There is hope though, Lucasfilm claims that while Detours is currently cancelled, it may reconsider launching the series prior to the launch of Episode VII… if it makes sense. So far the recent cancellations are only associated with Lucasfilm Animation projects, but it doesn’t bode well for the live-action crime themed TV show that was announcer, Star Wars: Underworld. A show set on Coruscant that focused on a crime family dwelling in the lower levels of Coruscants core.
But to be fair, we really should wait. It’s taken 4 years for Disney to launch a television show based on one of their Marvel properties, one that’s airing on the Disney owned ABC network.
And they did announce Star Wars: Rebels, a new animated series that will air on Disney XD in 2014. It’s rumored that they will bring back former LucasFilm employees to produce the series, but nothing has been set in stone yet. As of now, Filoni is working on pre-production stuff. Then there’s the recently announced Star Wars/Phineas and Ferb crossover that will also air in 2014. It’s clear that Disney will pimp out Star Wars with any property they currently own. I anxiously await the new Princess Leia/Sophia the First crossover.
Emphasis on the Big Screen
With Disney shuttering many of Lucasfilm’s other Star Wars properties, it’s clear that their focus for Star Wars is the film franchise. Next to merchandising, the film franchise will assuredly make the most money for Disney. And with Disney’s aggressive announcement of film releases, it’s clear that most of their efforts are being put into the big screen. On the day of the buyout announcement, Disney CEO Bob Iger noted that Episode VII will be released in 2015, with Episodes VIII and IX coming out every two years following. It’s clear that Disney had been planning on a new movie before the buyout took place. It only took two weeks from Disney’s takeover for a writer, Michel Arndt, to be announced and another two months of speculation until it was announced that J.J. Abrams was hired to direct. The choice of Michael Ardt as writer is an interesting one. Arndt won his first Academy Award for his Little Miss Sunshine script and four years later won his second Oscar for his Toy Story 3 screenplay. He contributed material for Disney Pixar’s animated winner Brave, their followup to Up and the screenplay for the upcoming Phineas and Ferb movie. It’s clear that Disney likes him, considering the majority of his work has been for the House that the Mouse built.
Now Star Wars fans might be wondering, does he have the chops to write a Star Wars movie? But let’s be honest for a minute, were the scripts for Episodes I-III really all that good? There was a lot of contempt for Episode I from all corners of Star Wars fandom. Could Arndt do much worse? It’s clear that Disney likes him, and for good reason. He’s written the script for two Oscar winning movies, and contributed to another Oscar winner. It’s also been reported that Arndt has held writers’ retreats in the past where they focused on breaking down and examining the effectiveness of the script for Episode IV. What may be troubling is that Arndt co-wrote the script for the upcoming Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller Oblivion, and to say that it’s been getting less than stellar reviews would be an understatement. Is sci-fi a genre that doesn’t suit to Arndt’s style? Unfortunately we’ll have to wait a couple years to see what pans out. Let’s not forget how the trailers for Episode I gave the impression that we were in for a classic Star Wars movie. For now though it’s all speculation as to what the story is and who will definitely be in it. It’s been confirmed that the new trilogy will be based on completely original material, forgoing anything that has appeared in the expanded universe of books, comics and television. Based on the rampant speculation, and mentioning, of the cast it’s clear that the famed Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo will be making appearances in the movie. And according to one source, Arndt’s script calls for older versions of the characters. Coupled with the persistent rumors of Mark Hammil, Carrie Fischer and Harrison Ford returning, you can bet you’ll see the characters in some fashion. But is this good for the franchise?
Moving on from the sequel trilogy, Disney also announced that in the “off years” of non-sequel movies they were going to release spin-off films, one-shots if you will. It’s been confirmed that Lawrence Kasdan (co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and Simon Kinberg (co-writer of Sherlock Holmes) are involved in bringing other Star Wars movies to the big screen. Nothing has been confirmed as of yet, but rumors persist that we’ll see movies focusing on Han Solo and Boba Fett, as well as other characters people are already familiar with. In a way, Disney is taking their approach to the Marvel movies to Star Wars. The Star Wars expanded universe and the Clone Wars animated series have already demonstrated that there are countless worlds to explore and stories to tell. The spin-off movies could focus on established characters, such as Han Solo, Boba Fett, Asajj Ventress or countless others, or they could decide to create new characters and place them in familiar settings. If Disney wanted to they could also make a Star Wars action movie, feature the popular Storm Troopers. But is Disney milking the Star Wars cow too much? Will fans be over saturated with Star Wars movies? To quote a famous line heard through out the Star Wars movies; “I have a bad feeling about this”. Personally this is what I feared was going to happen with the acquisition by Disney. I view their movie announcements as a production-line franchise that is made purely for monetary reasons rather than any greater story arc being played out. Of course they are driven by money. Just because it may be their primary motivation doesn’t mean it is their only one and it certainly doesn’t mean the films will be produced with any less genuine enthusiasm, imagination and care as the original trilogy. But it can also be argued, that from a business point of view, the films will have to be of a high quality. Being Star Wars, there’s a core group of fans who will see the movies regardless of the reviews, but after the mixed reviews of the prequel trilogy’s quality, a good percentage of potential movie goers will base their decision on whether to see them in theaters or not on the early word of mouth. With Disney’s intention to produce film after film, they’ll have to take quality into consideration. Releasing film after film is going to require a steady returning fan base. One or two bad films and the marketability of billions of dollars of future film earnings is at risk.
The Future of Star Wars Comics
A large part of the expanded Star Wars universe comes to us from Dark Horse Comics, who have held the rights to Star Wars since 1991. During the past 22 years they’ve produced some memorable series, from Dark Empire, Tales of the Old Republic, Dark Times and much, much more. Now that Disney owns the Star Wars franchise it’s quite conceivable, and almost expected, that Dark Horse will be out of the picture this time next year. Why? Well that’s easy, Disney also owns Marvel Comics. When Disney acquired Marvel in 2009, it ended up transitioning Disney-branded comics from production at BOOM! Studios over to Marvel. Marvel, known for their hits like the X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Captain America and much, much more. Disney has been incorporating the Marvel universe into a lot of the Disney properties, from character appearance in Phineas and Ferb as well as their social gaming network. Disney has incorporated Marvel and the various characters into everything they can. And why not, they own them.
The biggest fear about the Star Wars comic franchise moving to Marvel is the quality of the books. Marvel hasn’t had the best reputation for quality stories as of late. With their recent Marvel Now relaunch of a large number of titles, many fans have complained about the lack of quality writing and art in a number of Marvel books. From X-Treme X-Men and X-Men: Legacy to the dismal Spider-Man: Brand New Day series, Marvel has been more about selling as much as they can than putting out a quality product. Can Marvel retain the creators currently on the various Star Wars books? If they want to keep the current fans and have them move over they’re going to have to. The licenses that Dark Horse holds for Star Wars will expire around the end of 2013. While nothing is definitive for now, the writing is on the wall. Randy Stradley, Dark Horse editor, said to Entertainment Weekly that “Well, we’re, waiting for the other shoe to drop. What we’ve been told is we’ll hear something about the future of the license sometime this year.” Fans of the novels have it a little easier. LucasBooks, will likely stay intact as is since the LucasBooks imprint is not owned by LucasFilm, and did not go over to Disney with the acquisition. The imprint is a division of DelRey Books, which pay for the licensing rights to use the Star Wars name. Disney doesn’t print novels in house so they will likely leave the arrangement alone.
The Cash Cow of Merchandising
Disney knew full well the money it stood to make off of the Star Wars merchandising. Everything fromtoys, video games, clothing, food, statues, house wares, replica items and more are made for Star Wars. The brand ties into everything and anything you can imagine, from LEGO’s, Mr. Potato Head, Angry Birds to XBox 360’s. If you can slap Star Wars on it, it will sell. One thing Disney does, and does well, is merchandise its properties. The acquisition of Star Wars allows for more inter-company merchandising, and to reap the rewards from the many licensed products in production. All you need to do is look at the first promotional image Disney released for Star Wars after its acquisition (hint, take a look at our main page, that little image of Mickey on a speeder-bike says it all). With the Star Wars Weekends, Disney’s Star Wars themed events, occurring at their Hollywood Studios beginning May 17th a slew of Disney-fied merchandise was unveiled. Most of it was Disney characters with a Star Wars theme, but there were some Star Wars items… with Disney splashed all over it. From the slideshow below you can see just how much of an emphasis Disney is putting on their branding of Star Wars items.
It’s a somber reminder of what happens when one of your favorite franchises is bought our by the Mouse House. And it’s only going to get worse. You can be assured that Disney will apply the Star Wars theme to everything they own, including theme parks. Disney is in the business of theme parks, and none of the LucasFilm properties are currently licensed to any other theme parks, so we’ll surely see some LucasFilm themed sections at Disney parks soon, probably right next to the Marvel themes areas.
At the end of the day, who’s won?
That’s the million dollar question isn’t it, or rather $4 billion dollar question. Unquestionably it’s Disney and its subsidiaries. The money they will bring in from not only the Star Wars franchise, but Lucasfilm’s other franchises will bring in far more than they paid. The losers on the other hand are plenty, from the employees at LucasArts, Lucasfilm Animation and Industrial Light & Magic. To the people that licensed the Star Wars brand, like Dark Horse Comics. A lot of people have already been impacted by Disney’s take over, and more will follow suit. Yet let’s not forget the consumer as well. From the gamers, who were looking forward to LucasArts releases to the fans of the Dark Horse comics. To the fans of the Clone Wars animated show, who were left with no closure to the many story lines. Then there are the purists who will cringe at the dearth of Disney-fied merchandising that will be released. It’s always the proverbial little guy that gets it in the end. At the end of the day though, one thing is for certain. The Empire has bought the Republic.