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What Can We Expect from the Disney-Lucasfilm Deal?

The motivations and effects of Disney buying George's lucrative empire

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Han Solo

Han Solo in Star Wars.

Lucasfilm Ltd.

To the layman in the street, Lucasfilm is Star Wars -- and Star Wars is six feature films, three featuring Han Solo and three featuring Jar Jar Binks. How can that be worth $4 billion to Disney, which already controls so many different pop culture refineries that they're the entertainment equivalent of Standard Oil?

But by paying as much for Lucasfilm as it did for Marvel (a bit more, actually), the Disney suits demonstrated that they clearly believe that the empire that George built is at least as fertile a source of future revenue as that diverse and burgeoning comic book empire, the latest feature film product of which smashed through all kinds of box office records.

This raises the question, how does Disney intend to exploit its newly acquired Lucasfilm holdings to win back its $4 billion investment, and what does that mean for fans of Star Wars and sci-fi in general?

The Growing Disney Beast

Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm is its second-biggest buy since its 1995 merger with Capital Cities. Only the company's massive $7.6 billion purchase of Pixar made a bigger dent in Disney's checkbook, with the $3.9 billion acquisition of Marvel Entertainment a close third.

What kind of bang does Disney get for that buck? Quite a lot. Marvel may be an engine for several successful entertainment franchises, but Lucasfilm, as the New York Times notes, is "one of the most extensive media and merchandising empires in modern history," starting not just with the Star Wars films but with the industry-dominating digital production houses Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound. A breakdown of the company may be found here.

Moreover, even talking just in terms of filmed entertainment, Disney -- now the owners of Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm on top of Walt Disney Studios, Touchstone, ABC Studios, and Walt Disney Animation -- is now a Hollywood monster, shouldering ahead of the other top five studios is sheer size and economic power.

And then think about the other things Disney owns -- broadcast and cable channels (including things people forget about like ESPN), theme parks and resorts, theatrical productions, music labels, retail stores, and the Muppets -- you start to wonder if this behemoth will ever stop acquiring creative forces and manufacturing money.

Causes and Effects

Why does Disney say they did it? They're emphasizing Star Wars as the most visible of Lucasfilm's products and the one most easily invoked in discussing future plans for the division. "Lucasfilm reflects the extraordinary passion, vision, and storytelling of its founder, George Lucas," said Robert A. Iger, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Walt Disney Company. "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."

Toward creating a symbol of that goal of "significant long-term value," Disney announced alongside the deal itself that Star Wars Episode VII is in train for a putative 2015 release, "with George Lucas serving as creative consultant," to be followed by "more feature films." This might include the balance of a third trilogy at expected two-year intervals. The content of these films, and where they will fall in the already thickly planned out Star Wars Expanded Universe (which Lucas originally allowed as a continuation of the Star Wars saga in lieu of his original plan for Episodes VII, VIII, and IX), is anyone's guess.

One thing's for sure: Whatever Kathleen Kennedy, who moves from Co-Chairman of Lucasfilm to President of the division under Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn, will decide with regard to future Star Wars features will be very closely watched.

Lucas's Legacy

Lucas himself is quite sanguine about the deal, and no wonder. He, too, was emphasizing the Star Wars franchise in his public statement, as well as securing his legacy before it's too late.

"For the past 35 years, one of my greatest pleasures has been to see Star Wars passed from one generation to the next," he said. "It's now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers. I've always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me, and I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime. I'm confident that with Lucasfilm under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy, and having a new home within the Disney organization, Star Wars will certainly live on and flourish for many generations to come. Disney's reach and experience give Lucasfilm the opportunity to blaze new trails in film, television, interactive media, theme parks, live entertainment, and consumer products."

Will it make Lucas himself richer? Not that he needs it. Earlier this year, Forbes estimated his net worth at about $3.2 billion, and he's the sole owner of Lucasfilm. He says he'll donate most the value of the Disney sale to education charities.

But this won't be the end of Lucas at Lucasfilm. If if his consultative involvement in at least a magisterial role in future Lucasfilm projects pans out to what "creative consultant" roles for ex-creators usually means, through the works he's created, the people he's hired, and the policies he's instituted the hand of George Lucas will be felt at Disney for a long while to come.

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