Disney, You’re Our Only Hope – Part 1 – The Dark Side

Before anything, I’d like to wish those on the East Coast who have been impacted by Hurricane Sandy my sincere prayers for your safety, security, and recovery.  For those of us outside the region, I ask if you can assist any local organizations or churches who are sending support, donate to the Red Cross, or donate to charity of your choice.

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Never in my life did I expect to have an emotional and visceral reaction to a corporate merger.

Then, I read that Disney is buying Lucasfilm for 4.05 billion dollars.

Woah.  I need to let that soak in again.

Is this feeling excitement, fear, the anticipation of change?  Do I feel as Obi-Wan did at the destruction of Alderan:

“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”

Or, do I feel as jubilant as Lando Calrissian and his flight crew as they successfully escaped the flames of an exploding Death Star during Return of the Jedi?

I honestly don’t know.

The past few days have been a roller-coaster of emotions, my mind slightly blown.  When I found out, my brain felt like a six year old child leaping and bounding, spinning around the room in uncontrollable excitement.  At the same time, I feel a fear and dread.

Star Wars fans worldwide have long lived in a constant state of both adoration and mistrust of the professional, official representation of our beloved franchise.  We are careful to be excited.  Twice we have trusted George Lucas, both when he released the Special Editions of the Original Trilogy, and when he released the Prequel Trilogy.  Twice we have been more than disappointed.  We look at these, and we feel like Luke Skywalker facing Darth Vader in Return of The Jedi, “I can feel the good in you,” but the quality is not there.

Perhaps Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney because he felt as Darth Vader did: “It is too late for me, my son.”

Has George Lucas acted as Vader, and thrown the Emperor of bad ideas down the shaft of the Death Star, sacrificing and redeeming himself for the sake of the franchise’s future, or is this similar to an alternate future where Luke kneels down to the Emperor and evil prevails?

In order to answer, we must consider the Dark Side and Light Side of this development.  Due to length, this post will focus on the former, and the next will focus on the latter.

The Dark Side

“Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

Prior to October 30, 2012, despite merchandising, Star Wars was a holy grail of franchises.  It was something above other franchises because it as an entity could not be bought or sold.  Unlike Star Trek (which I also love), or Terminator, it could not be traded, re-traded and re-formed to suit the current owner.  For better or worse, no matter how painful Lucas’s decisions were to hard core fans, it was exclusively in the hands of the man who created it.  This made it safe for the expanded imagination of fandom, for all of the novels, video games, fan fiction, fan films, and other reaches of our Galaxy, far, far away.  (We Professsional Liars has an excellent post on the sudden commodification of the Star Wars brand.  Read it here.)

And now that has ended, and I find myself sad.

Lucasfilm has been the Cloud City of entertainment companies by staying in Skywalker Ranch, a place distant and seperate from Hollywood, the company abstaining from the mass production of movies and instead focusing on specific projects and brands.  There was something pure in Lucasfilm only producing Star Wars and Indiana Jones.  Yes, there have been a few other films over the years, but Lucasfilm has mainly focused on these two massive franchises and producing technological wizardry.  Look at what Lucasfilm has brought us: Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), Dolby, and Pixar.  I can think of no company that has done more to change the way we watch movies.  All done independently from the typical Hollywood system.  Yes, Lucas and Lucasfilm have close ties to Hollywood, but it still felt separate.

Now, by combining with Disney, it feels like Lucasfilm is just another company, and Star Wars and Indiana Jones are both just another movie franchise.

When the announcement came this summer that Lucasfilm was transitioning into a production company with Kathleen Kennedy taking over as head of Lucasfilm, I was intrigued and excited.  Having worked with Spielberg on some of his greatest films, Kennedy has a strong resume and good taste.  The transition made sense.

And then we received a shock as great as being led by Lando Calrissian to a dinner date with Darth Vader.  Not to say Disney is evil.  It’s just unexpected.

Bespin Etiquette Rule #5: It is rude to shoot a fellow guest when invited to dinner.
Even if your friend has betrayed you.

As a fan, I worry if Star Wars is safe in Disney’s four-fingered mouse hands.  Will the copyright-protective company embrace all of the non-sanctioned fan events, stories, and films as Lucas has?

Despite all the outcry over what Lucas has added to the official Star Wars “canon” for the past 15 years, Lucas understands fans, and encourages their nerdom.  Why else would he sanction Robot Chicken’s parodies, and now Star Wars Detours?   As Lucas said in a quote in a recent article on EW.com:

“[Possible futures have] been covered in the books and video games and comic books, which are things I think are incredibly creative but that I don’t really have anything to do with other than being the person who built the sandbox they’re playing in.”

This sandbox is what makes people so vehemently passionate about Star Wars. Will it  now be gated, or pristinely sculpted by the Disney executives?

Another concern is the treatment of another Disney-owned brand: The Muppets.

“Now we can be together, Luke, for we are owned by the same company.”

A few years ago, I had a magnificent opportunity to tour Jim Henson Studios in Los Angeles.  While a statue of Kermit stands atop the Charlie Chaplin Studio, wearing Chaplin’s classic suit and hat, there is an inner vibe in the studio that says: “Don’t discuss The Muppets.”

The Muppets were sold to Disney in 2004 in a post-Henson world.  The Henson family and the Jim Henson Studio have no power over what Disney decides to do with the Muppets.  While it seems Lucas will have more sway and power, the Muppets could be a cautionary tale.

In the years of Disney’s ownership, they have produced Muppets From Space, a few mediocre Christmas specials, odd cameos, and last year’s The Muppets.  The only movie to match the quality of the classic Muppet Show and movies was The Muppets, and it only came to fruition through the persistance and passion of Jason Segal.  (Here’s why)  All other projects have moments which touch upon greatness, but then become plodding, awkward, and cheesy.

The new Star Wars movie could be dreck that doesn’t fit the franchise, like Muppets From Space, or a fantastic homage and extension, like The Muppets.  Perhaps we need a Jason Segal for the Star Wars series, someone who understands it as a fan but can think critically as a storyteller.

“It is the way of America… I mean The Force…”

And finally, my biggest concern: Disney is already ginormous.  It already controls so much of media around the world, with stakes in unexpected films and franchises.  It is a well-oiled blockbuster producing, franchise extending, marketing and merchandising machine.  Unlike other studios and conglomerates, it is well-organized, and smoothly integrates between it different layers of business. Disney’s business is to make money, and despite bombs like John Carter, they’ve been able to find a way to perpetually commoditize and churn money from their films.

Now, with Star Wars and Indiana Jones added to Disney’s massive catalog of copyrights, along with their recent acquisition of the entire Marvel Universe, they feel almost too powerful.  It is similar to Palpatine taking on emergency powers in Episode II, or disbanding the Imperial Senate in Episode IV.  How many of our beloved franchises, stories, and characters do we want in the hands of one entity?

Tune in later for the benefits of this merger – there are many.

What do you think?  Are you excited, bewildered, disappointed?

SIDE NOTES:

In researching for this article, I discovered this excellent New York Times parody.  It’s a prime example of Star Wars’ deep reach in popular culture.

“The Death of Obi-Wan Kenobi”, read special coverage from The Galactic Empire Times

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11 thoughts on “Disney, You’re Our Only Hope – Part 1 – The Dark Side

  1. I’m cautiously optimistic. Disney owns Marvel and I liked the Avengers. I’m just glad they’re out of the hands of George Lucas. No more re-re-re-releases and potentially a bluray of the original trilogy untouched. Disney’s got to know fans would pay extra $$$ for that.

    • Cautious optimism seems to be the general feeling I’m getting from other fans.
      A few years ago, Lucas did release the original trilogy untouched as a 2-disc DVD set of each movie – one disc with the special edition, and the other untouched. It’s nice to go back.

  2. Interesting post! I hadn’t really considered the Muppets in the balance. Everyone keeps talking about how Disney did a great job with Marvel movies, but we forget other franchise they own (and other catastrophies they have created). My feeling is that we should wait and see. In the meanwhile I’m taking notes on people’s reactions, and collecting the memes.

  3. Like you, I was taken aback. I remain dismayed. I like Disney, when they make Disney movies. Not so fond of them owning ALL the entertainment in our genre. Where is there room for original creative storytelling?

    • It’ll be interesting to see how it will all turn out.
      I think original, creative storytelling is in books, which is why there are many film franchises based on books: Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games. You may not be a fan of each, but they are all original stories being retold.
      With all the money that is put into films, an original, untried story without a fanbase to make money off of is a tough sell.

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