This week George Lucas sold his beloved Lucasfilm to Disney for US$4billion. In a sense, the Hollywood doyen's story is a perfect encapsulation of the American Dream. In another, it's a cautionary tale of obsession.
When news started to filter out on Tuesday that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm for a reported US$4.05 billion, there were plenty of reasons why no outlet in the world ran a headline such as: ‘Star Wars creator George Lucas finally sells out’.
After holding onto his beloved production company for more than 40 years, the 68-year-old Hollywood legend, once a cash-strapped innovator who stuck ping pong tables together and shot some of science fiction cinema’s most iconic scenes above them, has now officially relinquished control of the lucrative franchise forever synonymous with his name.
The deal comprised half cash and half stock (around 40 million shares, or a 2% stake) which makes Lucas — already a very rich man mostly through lucrative merchandise tie-ins — one of the Big Mouse’s largest shareholders.
The sad part of this story, if it is possible to feel empathy for a person who just landed a ten-digit deal, is the sense of relief in film industry circles that the creator of a monumentally influential franchise is no longer able to play a role in steering its future. The feeling is he will not be missed.
Over the last couple of decades, Star Wars enthusiasts have grappled with a festering disdain for what many interpret as an ongoing series of sacrileges committed by the grey-haired cashed-up nerd.
The first major controversy that upset Lucas’ fan base, dubbed ‘Han Shot First’, highlights the devoted nature of the followers he cultivated — and how ready they were to turn on him.
In a famous scene in the 1977 Star Wars original, A New Hope, gruff straight-talker Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is in tense conversation with a freaky-looking alien bounty hunter. Solo grips a gun (“blaster”) under the table. After the bounty hunter threatens his life, Solo shoots and his opponent dies without firing back.
In preparation for the film’s 1997 cinematic re-release, Lucas changed it. The scene was modified to depict Solo retaliating against the bounty hunter, who now shot first and missed. His logic was to depict Solo as a victim of circumstance who had no choice but to fire, in turn changing the moral dimensions of the character. Fans interpreted it as a dramatic rearrangement of a history they had known and loved. An online campaign – one of the first of its kind – spread like wildfire.
If concerns about tampering with small details in a movie seem minute in the scheme of things, they stand for much larger values. One of the best and most passionate evocations of these values came in 1988, in a speech to American congress about the importance of cinematic preservation. The person who gave it? George Lucas.
The normally softly spoken, socially reclusive Lucas boomed:
I’ve come as a citizen of what I believe to be a great society that is in need of a moral anchor to help define and protect its intellectual and cultural heritage…
The destruction of our film heritage, which is the focus of concern today, is only the tip of the iceberg. American law does not protect our painters, sculptors, recording artists, authors, or filmmakers from having their lifework distorted, and their reputation ruined. If something is not done now to clearly state the moral rights of artists, current and future technologies will alter, mutilate, and destroy for future generations the subtle human truths and highest human feeling that talented individuals within our society have created….
In the future it will become even easier for old negatives to become lost and be “replaced” by new altered negatives. This would be a great loss to our society. Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten.
The same man went on to embark on the kind of historical rewriting never before or since undertaken in Hollywood, in turn — to use his own words — mutilating and destroying his reputation.
When Lucas’ 1971 classic THX 1138 was eventually released on DVD in 2004, it arrived re-mastered with two minutes of additional footage and fancy new special effects. The original studio cut of THX has never been released on any home media format. If people want to see what it originally looked like, tough luck.
When the original three Star Wars films were re-released in cinemas in the 90s, a cavalcade of changes came with them. This Wikipedia page lists the astonishing amounts of alterations Lucas made (some small flourishes in the background, others entire scenes). He would revise these films, again, after the release of the three Star Wars prequels (from 1999 to 2005). Hayden Christensen, star of Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), now appears at the end of Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983). He was two years old when the film first opened.
When the re-mastered and remade ‘Special Edition’ versions of the initial trilogy were slated for DVD release, Lucas declared the original cuts would not be included — a decision that would have effectively blocked them from digital history.
Fans were livid. The situation was resolved by distributor Twentieth Century Fox including the original films as “bonus material” in the 2006 box sets. But they would not be restored and the negatives were permanently altered. Lynne Hale of Lucasfilm issued the following response to fans:
So many fans have requested the original movies, we wanted to find a way to bring them to you. But since these movies do not represent George’s artistic vision, we could not put the extraordinary time and resources into this project as we did with the Special Editions…. We want you to be aware that we have no plans—now or in the future—to restore the earlier versions.
Lucas’ changes to Star Wars were not limited to the original trilogy. Alterations were made for the DVD releases of Episode I – The Phantom Menace and Episode II – Attack of the Clones. All six Star Wars movies were again modified for their 2011 release on Blu-ray.
As Hale’s statement above suggests, Lucas’ dogged determination to revise his films and to limit accessibility of the ‘outdated’ versions is not necessarily the cunning plan of a man attempting to rewrite history in his favour. It is the pursuit of a perfectionist attempting to ‘complete’ and ‘improve’ bits of his work he never ‘got right’, without the critical distance required to a) comprehend the impossibility of the mission (everything can always be improved, nothing is perfect, etc) and b) how, by limiting access and altering negatives, he has violated the values of preservation he once so enthusiastically championed.
“I’m sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it. But I want it to be the way I want it to be,” Lucas said, on the defensive, to MSNBC in 2004, ahead of the Special Edition DVD release.
“If you look at Blade Runner, it’s been cut sixteen ways from Sunday and there are all kinds of different versions of it. Star Wars, there’s basically one version — it just keeps getting improved a little bit as we move forward.”
There are other reasons why George Lucas’ biggest fans turned against him, and why nobody bemoaned his exit from the Star Wars galaxy. The long-anticipated three prequels (particularly the first two) were savaged by fans and critics. Merchandise-ready kiddy characters such as Jar Jar Binks made the series a laughing stock. Lucas directed all three of the new films (he only directed one of the originals). It is unlikely he will direct again.
In a sense, Lucas’ story is a perfect encapsulation of the American Dream: a hard working kid with a crazy idea creates a phenomenon that lines his pockets and inspires the world. In another, it’s a cautious tale of obsession and a reminder that fortune and integrity are not mutually exclusive.
For a man so protective of his own work, so unwilling – “cold dead hands” style — to let go of it, this week’s US$4 billion deal must have come with a sense of sadness. A photograph of him signing on the dotted line next to a smiling Bob Iger (CEO of Disney) is not the look of a man chuffed to take one last tug on the teat of a decades-old cash cow. It looks like a person sad to let go, who can’t even bring himself to smile for the camera.
The announcement on Tuesday was two-tiered. Disney proudly declared that another Star Wars movie – Episode VII – was already in pre-production, and new installments would be released “every two to three years”.
Given it takes around two to three years to make a movie, that means, for the foreseeable future, that a new Star Wars will always be in production. Lucas, enlisted as a “creative consultant”, will not be able to change a single frame.