“Attacking that battle station ain’t my idea of courage. It’s more like suicide,” Han Solo warns Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars film. As we know, the rebels’ wild risk-taking pays off, and they manage to bring down the Empire over the course of George Lucas’s holy trilogy. The movies may be an affirmation of chancy interstellar battle tactics, but Walt Disney’s (DIS) $4.05 billion purchase of Lucasfilm is best understood as an effort to make film production as risk-free as possible. On the analysts’ conference call following the announcement, Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger was asked, “What do Star Wars films come in lieu of, creatively?” The answer: non–Star Wars films. Iger explained: “We actually determined that we’d be better off as a company releasing a sequel to Star Wars than probably most other, I’ll call them not-yet-determined, films.”
It’s no wonder Iger hopes to remove the risk from blockbuster moviemaking. This year, Walt Disney Studios released the disastrous John Carter and, in 2011, Mars Needs Moms, reported to be the biggest money loser in film history. (The company’s Marvel, Pixar, and Disney Animation output has performed much better.) Up next are a series of pricey hedged bets, new prospective franchises based on old material: the prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful (opening March 8); Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger (July 3); and Maleficent (March 14, 2014), starring Angelina Jolie as the villainess from Sleeping Beauty. Iger noted, “One of the things that we were very mindful of is the value of brands and the value of properties that are both known and loved.” That describes Star Wars to a T but may not apply to a title like Maleficent, whose value is, let’s say, not yet determined.
With the Lucasfilm acquisition, one 2015 tent-pole slot goes to a Star Wars film, as sure a bet as exists in the film industry. The irony is that Star Wars itself is Hollywood’s greatest example of the virtue of risk-taking. After being rejected by Universal Studios (CMCSA) and United Artists, Lucas’s odd sci-fi scenario was picked up by Twentieth Century Fox (NWSA). As Lucas remembers in Tom Shone’s book Blockbuster, “Alan [Ladd Jr., president of Fox] … said, ‘I don’t understand this movie, I don’t get it at all, but I think you’re a talented guy, and I want you to make this.’ ” Dumped into theaters inauspiciously in late May, when its presumed audience of children would still be in school, Star Wars drew massive crowds. The flocks of fans have kept the franchise minting money ever since (an estimated $33 billion so far, combining worldwide box office, DVD sales, and merchandise).
Granted, with its comparatively modest budget—$40 million in today’s dollars—Star Wars wasn’t as big a swing as recent big-budget gambits. And even Hollywood isn’t immune from surprises: Who’d have thought Liam Neeson would win fanboy love not from his roles in the Star Wars or Batman series, but from Taken, a $25 million revenge flick?
Oddly, the very particular set of skills that Lucas demonstrated with Star Wars—creating an original film franchise—are ones that contemporary studios refuse to nurture even with their favorite filmmakers. Today’s nerd-God auteurs came to prominence introducing original concepts in television (J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon), independent film (Christopher Nolan), or animation (Brad Bird), but their marquee live-action Hollywood credits have come on preexisting properties such as Star Trek, The Avengers, Batman, and Mission: Impossible. James Cameron’s Avatar is the exception that proves the rule: These days, if you want to make an event movie based on an original screenplay set in a galaxy far, far away, you’d better have written and directed the highest-grossing movie of all time first. It’s a sign of the times that the Lucas-worshiping Abrams, Whedon, and Cameron all have their next films lined up: sequels to Star Trek, The Avengers, and Avatar.
George Lucas’s sale to Disney will give a new generation of writers and directors the opportunity to make Star Wars movies. But it diminishes their chances of creating the next Star Wars.