Force Majeure

Disney buying Lucasfilm is a good thing.

I can’t say I was all that surprised by the news a while ago that Disney was buying Lucasfilm. It’s not that I had any kind of insider info, of course, or that I’m all that savvy about the entertainment business. It just didn’t surprise me because it felt inevitable.

What did surprise me was seeing the reaction from people on the Internet, who acted like it came out of nowhere. Maybe it’s just because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in Disney parks over the last several years, but it’s seemed like Disney had already become de facto stewards of the Star Wars franchise. Disney buying Marvel was kind of a shocker. Disney buying Lucasfilm is like getting a wedding invitation from an inseparable couple who’ve been living together for over a decade.

Most bizarre were all the parody ideas and images that people kept tweeting or slapping together in Photoshop. Like Disneyfying quotes from the movies, or replacing Spaceship Earth at Epcot with the Death Star, or showing the Death Star with Mickey ears. They were bizarre because the people seemed completely unaware that these are all already officially licensed products. Do a Google Image search for Star Wars Weekends (which is an annual event at Hollywood Studios) and you’ll see that pretty much every possible variation on the theme of Disney + Star Wars has already been done. They have parades; and T-shirts with Darth Vader riding the carousel at the Magic Kingdom with the quote “This will be a day long remembered;” and Mickey ears that look like R2-D2’s head; and figures that mash-up Star Wars with Disney characters and the Muppets; and they sell it all near the Rock and Roller Coaster in a big warehouse they call the Darth Mall.

Sure, some of it borders on unfortunate. Even though I’ve been burned several times, I’m still just reverent enough of Star Wars that it bothers me to see a big dance party with Stormtroopers and Darth Vader. Especially when the music stops and Darth Vader says “Now witness the power of this fully operational dance floor.” But even that shows that Disney gets the tone right: mocking it as completely silly would feel off, but so would taking it too seriously.

The prime examples of it are absolutely great, though. The new Star Tours is a ton of fun, is filled with clever references, and makes the settings and designs from the prequels actually seem interesting. Plus, it feels even more fitting in the Star Wars universe than the original version of the ride did — you’re actually riding with C-3PO and R2-D2 on new adventures, instead of tagging along on the Death Star trench run and asteroid field with Pee-Wee Herman. (No offense to the original; after all, it was only his first flight).

And the Jedi Training Academy, a live show at Disneyland and Hollywood Studios, is fantastic. Kids are given padawan robes and a lightsaber, and they fight against Darth Vader himself. The kids love it, seeing Darth Vader and Stormtroopers showing up in Disneyland is always cool, and the Jedi trainer narrates the entire thing with a tone somewhere between Qui-gon Jinn and a Jungle Cruise skipper.

So what I’m saying is that Star Wars is in the best hands. I can all but guarantee that we won’t see anything like the Star Wars Christmas Special again, but it’s entirely possible we’ll see a better-animated equivalent to the Boba Fett short in the Christmas Special. And the rumors around the new movies — which were a complete surprise to me — make it sound as if they’re ignoring the “expanded universe” stuff in favor of a new story. I’m still not sure whether I can let myself get excited about Star Wars movies again, but I’m at least glad that we won’t have to see pheremone-spewing genius space admirals, or people carrying around sloths that have evolved to repel the Force.

When talking about hits and misses, Lucasfilm licensing has had a much worse track record than Disney. There have been a couple of stand-outs — both Genndy Tartakovsky’s and the more recent CG series of The Clone Wars are both excellent — but for the most part, it’s been pretty dire.

For years, the internet’s been full of people who go apoplectic at the sight of George Lucas in a “Han Shot First” T-shirt. They’ve convinced themselves that Lucas — nay, every artist — has an obligation to his fans, that the fans “own” Star Wars at least as much as he does. I think that’s complete and total BS, but in a sense, they’ve gotten their way. Whatever happens going forward won’t be a case of Lucas making only what he wants (or more accurately, what he believes kids want). It’ll be a bunch of Star Wars fans making the stuff they’ve always wanted to see.

5 thoughts on “Force Majeure”

  1. I can’t say I’m one of the fans who are ‘up in arms’ in the way you’re suggesting. I was aware of ‘Star Wars Weekends’ and ‘Star Tours’ and all the crossover merchandise that exists, and I’m also cognizant of the fact that large media conglomerates don’t automatically feel some compulsion to put their properties in a blender and hit ‘frappe’ whenever they get a chance. For what it’s worth, Lucas got in bed with Rovio for a lame, pre-Holiday merchandise blitz without any help from the House of Mouse.

    My concerns have to do with the points where business intersects with creativity in a more subtle manner.

    Anytime a corporation like Disney gobbles up yet another media company, it’s simply not good for the state of entertainment/news/information/creativity as a whole. All art is derivative. Star Wars itself owes deep debts to Flash Gordon. But the next budding filmmaker who tries to use Star Wars as a launchpad for their own grand space opera, might find themselves on the receiving end of a big ol’ cease and desist order. Not to say that Lucasfilm didn’t have its own lawyers, but Disney is far more notorious for using the law like a cudgel against copyright infringers, both real and imagined.

    And then there’s the Chekhov’s Gun aspect of the sale. If you buy Lucasfilm, there’s no way you’re NOT creating more movies. I feel that Disney will do a good job (a better job that George Lucas, even) on aspects of story, and plot, and characters, and all the other things that so many fans are worried about, but I also feel that it needs to come together in an organic, unforced way, or it’s going to feel very… tedious?

    Regardless of all the noises that Lucas ever made about a future sequel, I actually groaned when I heard that Episode VII was going forward, that it would take place after the original Trilogy, and that we’d revisit some of our (very) old friends. Even if they don’t hew to established Expanded Universe continuity, it still has a very strong, “been there, done that, picked up the action figures and comic book spin-offs” aspect to it.

    To be fair, I’d have groaned if I heard that Lucasfilm was doing Episode VII. But then, at least, it might’ve felt marginally less like a calculated business decision, and more like a situation where all the artistic aspects happened to gel at the right time.

    I’ll also admit that it could just be me. A five-year-old who loves Star Wars, but hasn’t been exposed to the same broad range of literature and film that my thirty-seven years have brought me, isn’t going to harbor the same, “there’s nothing new under the sun” cynicism that I’m bringing to the table. And that’s great for Disney: he’ll buy all the toys and sleeping bags and breakfast cereals that they sell. I’m sort of past that.

  2. First, the issue of copyright infringement. You say that Disney is “notorious for using the law like a cudgel.” I say “notorious” is a pretty good word, because it’s an over-simplified, shallow, internet-driven perception of the company that isn’t backed up by facts. They’re made out to be litigation-crazy whenever a story like the one about the day care center using Disney characters on its walls comes to light, but no one points out that it’s a company using Disney’s characters for their own commercial gain. Or that there are tons of people constantly trying to rip off Disney and being completely shameless about it — for evidence, just look in any bargain bin of DVDs, or drive even a half mile off Disney World property in Orlando.

    There is an enormous difference between copyright infringement and “inspiration.” People have been making stuff inspired by Star Wars since 1977, and they’ll continue to do so. If someone made something that was as derivative of Star Wars as Star Wars is derivative of Flash Gordon, there’d be absolutely no case for copyright infringement. And Lucasfilm has been every bit as likely to defend its trademarks against commercial works as Disney will be.

    Where there’s a gray area is with fan fiction and fan films. Lucasfilm has been pretty lenient and even encouraging with those; there’s no guarantee that Disney will be as lenient. But I just don’t have that much sympathy. There are billions of ways to be more creatively inspired by Star Wars than just putting on Stormtrooper helmets and doing a parody.

    There’s still plenty of opportunity to work with Lucas’s characters and settings, though. It’s just that now, your work will be the property of Disney instead of the property of Lucasfilm. I think your general tone of “Disney = commercial entertainment product, Lucas = creative work” is also overly simplistic; there’s a balance between commerce and creativity in everything, or else George Lucas wouldn’t be obscenely wealthy. There’s plenty of room for creativity within Disney, and this post gives just a few examples.

    The only point that I’d agree with you on: if Lucasfilm had made a 7th Star Wars movie, it would’ve been because George Lucas wanted to make it, not because he wanted to bring in some more cash. (The fact that he’s devoting the money from the sale of Lucasfilm to further education is proof of that). But then, we’ve seen how that works. And more important is that “inspiration” you were talking about. Whoever ends up working on the 7th Star Wars movie is going to be someone who loves Star Wars and wants to work with those characters. How do we know that for sure? Because Disney just spent four billion dollars on a property, so they’re going to do whatever they can not to screw it up.

    More evidence: Disney bought Marvel three years ago. After that, they put Joss Whedon — a huge fan of Marvel characters — in charge of The Avengers. Not only was it a fantastic movie, it was a pretty huge pay-off. That should be reason enough for the fans and the accountants to stop worrying.

    And finally, as for the “toys and sleeping bags and breakfast cereals” that Disney sells: have you seen what Lucasfilm licensing has been doing for the past 25 years?

  3. I think you’re oversimplifying much of what I said.

    For starters, I’d refer you to the ‘Disney vs. Air Pirates’ case, for a famous instance in which I feel (and the courts obviously disagreed) that Disney overstepped their bounds to protect their copyrights:

    The Supreme Court’s decision in ‘Campbell v. Acuff-Rose’, coupled with its mischaracterization of the earlier ‘Air Pirates’ case, provides the foundation for my claim of ‘overstepping bounds’. And I feel it’s a strong one.

    I’d also like to point out Disney’s use of lobbyists to extend copyright expiration dates, for their own benefit:

    The last three sections of that article are, I feel, the most important, as they delve into the Founding Father’s thoughts on “intellectual property”, how our foundations for copyright law were based on a notion of temporary protection for artists, and how art that enters into the public domain is actually important for spurring on additional acts of invention and creativity.

    And while it’s true that I chose to focus on Disney’s attitudes towards copyright, my concerns about ANY large media conglomerate adding yet another company to its portfolio, go well beyond that:

    Finally, never let it be said that I see Lucasfilm as some grand artistic entity that puts vision over dollar signs. Everything I said about Disney’s marketing/licensing applies equally to Lucasfilm. I haven’t been particularly enamoured of their output over the last few decades either, and I fully admit that this might just be an aspect of my still loving the core stories, but growing out of the eat/breathe/sleep Star Wars phase of my younger life.

    Part of running a successful business is CONSTANTLY finding ways to expand your market. Getting kids hooked on your product works. Will I still see Star Wars VII? Absolutely. Will I enjoy these new movies? Disney will, without-a-doubt, put together a top-tier group of directors/actors/writers, and produce something that’s at least more entertaining than Lucas’ prequels were. I’m aware of what Disney’s done with Marvel’s properties, and my concerns AREN’T that any Star Wars flicks they produce will be cheap cash-ins.

    But will I, perhaps, feel burnt-out on Star Wars? I’m thinking so. Will I buy the merchandise? If I haven’t in the last ten years, why would I start now?

    Disney realizes this. Hence? New movies designed to hook yet another generation of kids into the Star Wars mythos, and thus, the merchandise that old farts like me won’t be buying. The new movies may not be based on EXACT storylines from the novels and comic books and video games that came before, but I fail to see how they wouldn’t touch on many of the same themes and ideas that have already been done to death; which is just fine, if your intent is to grab the interest of those who wouldn’t have already experienced the novels and comic books and video games.

    Where does any of this differ from what Lucas would’ve done? I guess it’s one of those things that I can’t quite pinpoint, except to say that it took Lucas sixteen years to produce his first follow up to the original trilogy. Disney’s announcement that they bought out Lucasfilm went hand-in-hand with the announcement that a new film installment was coming in just a few years.

  4. I don’t think I’m oversimplifying it at all, since I still feel that you’re making an overly simplistic argument. You’re talking about an over 40-year-old case, in which the management of Disney and the financial state of the company were completely different, and in which the defendant was explicitly provoking Disney into a lawsuit with the goal of sticking it to the Man in the name of counter-culture.

    That has absolutely nothing to do with creation of new artistic works inspired by existing ones; it’s specifically and explicitly about tearing down existing works, in an adolescent, tiresome, Boing Boing-calibre attempt at tearing down corporate hegemony by showing Mickey Mouse fucking and doing drugs. It also has nothing to do with Disney actively seeking innocents to sue into submission; the article says outright that the underground comics didn’t get Disney’s attention, and they deliberately provoked it to make a statement.

    As for Disney’s well-publicized attempts to extend copyright, no one’s unaware or denying that they’re doing that. The company is also in the unique and unprecedented position of having creative works that are almost 100 years old and are still completely viable and profitable sources of revenue. Disney has a Snow White-themed ride coming to its theme parks, and it’s still every bit as viable as the attractions based on more recent properties.

    However you feel about that, it has little to do with new expression, either. Boing Boing and Nina Paley made a big deal about Sita Sings the Blues, for example, as a testament to the evils of copyright and the necessity of publicly owned culture for the purposes of freedom of expression. (And I use that example because it’s actually a good movie, although I think Paley’s attempts to say that the original audio recordings she uses were necessary to the work, aren’t valid. She could’ve said what she wanted while keeping use of the material within the realm of fair use). On the other hand, Pogo (the video artist/musician) has done a lot of remixes of Disney and Pixar movies to create new works, with the consent of Disney.

    In short: it’s disingenuous to take examples of people deliberately provoking IP owners in order to make a point, and then claim that that’s a danger to freedom of expression. Either you’re making genuinely new works, you’re making references or parodies that fall squarely in the realm of fair use, or you’re being derivative. It just wouldn’t sound as convincing if people had to admit that they’re defending people being derivative.

    As for the rest of your point, I’m not sure what to tell you. As someone who’s worked for both companies and is still a fan of the work of both, I’ll tell you that getting tired of or burned out on Star Wars is inevitable, and it’s not a bad thing. And while I believe that the prequels are all bad movies, I think that at least some part of the disappointment that fans had in them came from the fact that the movies simply weren’t aimed at us long-time fans; they were aimed at kids with the purpose of creating new fans.

    I still say that your aversion seems to be entirely based on over-simplified fears of “Corporations are Evil” (when the fact is that corporations are callous, which is better in some ways and worse than others), along with an apprehension over the line where art and commerce intersect. A new Star Wars installment is coming soon after the purchase of Lucasfilm, for the purpose of expanding the audience, and even though it may very well be a good movie, it’s tainted somewhat by the fact that their heart isn’t in it. But I say that for the people working on the new movie — just like the people who’ve been working on novels, comic books, TV series, and video games for years — their hearts are in it, and they’re making new works with characters they love.

  5. Once again a lot of your thoughts here mirror my own, albeit with a different perspective. I burnt out on Star Wars in its entirety (films, EU, everything) in high school (after the special editions but before the prequels, if you want to timeline that) for a number of inter-related reasons. I watched the prequels out of a sense of duty and played bits and pieces of various KOTOR/SWTOR story lines, because BioWare, but largely I had given up on the franchise.

    Disney taking full ownership of Star Wars actually has me excited and thinking about the franchise again. I also think ignoring the EU for films is most likely a good idea given what I remember of the EU and its increasingly over-complicated canon and fanon.

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