“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 $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.