During an interview with Charlie Rose which aired over the Christmas holiday, George Lucas likened the sale of Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise to Disney to selling his property to “white slavers.” You probably heard or read about that.
But while everyone seems to be focusing on what Lucas has since called an “inappropriate analogy,” the more interesting aspect of those remarks was the last part of the quote where Lucas says corporations like Disney “takes these things, and…” before stopping himself, likely before he said something he didn’t want to say.
Before Lucas sold his studio, he and fellow director Steven Spielberg criticized the film industry’s over-reliance on blockbusters at the opening of USC’s new School of Cinematic Arts building in 2013. (It’s worth remembering that both filmmakers began the blockbuster trend with Jaws and Star Wars.) In their view, such dependence on tentpole franchises stifles smaller, more personal films. In the interview with Rose, Lucas explained that Star Wars came from nothing in that there was nothing like it before, only to be repeated later.
“The studios said ‘Wow! Well we can make a lot of money. This is a license to kill and they did it. And of course the only way you can really do it is not take chances, only do something that’s proven…Now unless it’s a sequel, unless it’s a TV series or doesn’t look like one, they won’t do it. That’s the downside of Star Wars.”
While Lucas is right that Disney will keep making Star Wars movies as long as they’re profitable, which right now looks like forever, he has a right to be fearful. As much as Disney will never admit it, they see it as a money-making intellectual property. While Star Wars became a brand long before Oct. 30, 2012, when Disney purchased Lucasfilm, it’s clear from the interview that Lucas, either in earnestness or egotism, believes that every film and its merchandise comes from the same independent spirit he had when he made the 1977 original.
This is likely due to the fact that he personally financed the the two sequels in the original trilogy, as well as the three newer prequels because his deal with Fox gave him sole rights to the production of any future movies, along with to the rights to every piece of merchandise. Regardless of their scale, production costs or popularity, those sequels and prequels are “independent films” in the truest sense of the phrase. By that reasoning, Lucas believes those films, characters and stories belong to him.
The excellent 2010 documentary The People vs. George Lucas explores fans’ love/hate relationship with Lucas. The most interesting question it puts forth is “Who owns a franchise that permeates the culture like Star Wars?” The film doesn’t flat out answer that question, though its countless references to fan-made content inspired by Star Wars leans you a certain way. But it’s worth revisiting even more today because fans are contributing to the franchise’s primary format: the Star Wars movies themselves.
Inside the seemingly impenetrable Death Star that is the Walt Disney Corporation, there’s a large group of directors, writers, producers, production designers, effects artists and many more who were likely inspired to pursue their careers partially because of Lucas’ creation. It’s impossible to look at J.J. Abrams’ work along with that of Rian Johnson, Gareth Edwards, and Colin Trevorrow — who are all attached to future films in the franchise — and not see bits of Star Wars.
So while Lucas may have tinges of seller’s remorse over the fact that, for the first time, Star Wars belongs to a company that isn’t his, nor financed by him, he also has to contend with the fact that it now belongs more to the fans than it does him.
Fans should be overjoyed by this, but not without concern. Author Neil Gaiman offers some brilliant perspective in the aforementioned documentary, chiefly on what fans want from the culture they love.
“Fans know exactly what they want. Fans want more of the last thing they read and they liked. That’s what fans want. They liked that thing you did, they would like another one of those, please.”
Whether they care to realize or admit it, people love The Force Awakens because it borrows from and feels like the original film. Lucas told Rose that after he met with Disney to discuss the treatments he started before selling the franchise, executives told him “We want to make something for the fans.” For all intents and purposes, the new iteration of the series belongs to us now. But we have to hope the writers, directors and everyone else involved who has earned our trust, will use that goodwill to bring fans to new places. I believe that Lucas trusts the filmmakers involved — he praised Abrams as a director in the interview — but the hardest thing for him appears to his newfound lack of control over the franchise he created.
I don’t blame Lucas’ for having seller’s remorse. I’d imagine even $8 billion — twice what Disney paid — wouldn’t entirely quell the feeling of no longer owning something that has taken up more than 40 years of his life, something which people love so much. However, it’s a shame that he isn’t as excited as we are about those who love his creation now adding to it.
You can view Rose’s entire interview with Lucas below.