George Lucas’ STAR WARS has been one of the longest running and most wide spread franchises in media content history; starting with the original film, now commonly known as STAR WARS IV: A NEW HOPE in 1977, its universe has now spread over several television, book, video game, and film series. The Original Trilogy, which is comprised of STAR WARS IV: A NEW HOPE, V: EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), and VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983), and the Prequel Trilogy, I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002), III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005) are all produced by Lucasfilm Ltd., and are written and directed by George Lucas himself. When Lucas had announced his plans for retirement and Disney’s subsequent acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, however, many fans and critics were polarized over possible influences the transaction would have over the franchise. Many argued that Disney would oversaturate the brand, while others argued that only they had the financial resources vast enough to properly extend the series. Both were valid arguments and both are probably true.
Disney produced what’s commonly referred to as The Sequel Trilogy, comprising of Episodes VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015), VIII: THE LAST JEDI (2017), and IX: THE RISE SKYWALKER (2019). Unlike The Original and Prequel Trilogies, which were all heavily controlled by Lucas, The Sequel Trilogy has many writers and collaborators, and has even seen several changes of directors through the trilogy’s production process. J.J. Abrams directed EPISODES VII & IX, with writing assistance from multiple people on both, while Rian Johnson wrote and directed EPISODE VIII. Along with The Sequel Trilogy, Disney studios has also produced notable companion films ROGUE ONE (2016), directed by newcomer Gareth Edwards,and Ron Howard’s SOLO (2018), as well as hit television series THE MANDALORIAN (2019- Present), created by Jon Favreau, which streams exclusively on their service, Disney+.
Lucas was a promising newcomer in the film industry when he secured the partnership between Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox in order to create STAR WARS, and neither he nor the studio expected it to really do much in the box office. When it premiered, it only played in around forty theatres across the US, but by the end of opening week, Fox’s stock nearly doubled. From that point until Disney’s takeover, Lucas had almost complete control of his franchise. Despite any biases toward The Prequel Trilogy, Lucas revolutionized the way CGI animation and digital recording would be handled in film production, and even assisted Sony in developing a digital camera that would best capture his universe and would become the leading technology still used and expanded on today. It must be widely acknowledged that Lucas created an influential and legendary brand; both of his trilogies changed the way films were made and marketed. That would inherently mean that Disney’s challenge with the takeover of Lucasfilm and the franchise would rest mainly with the opinion of fans and critics, as any sequels would be almost guaranteed box office successes.
Because The Original & Prequel Trilogies were so revolutionary in terms of special effects, cinematography, and overall style, it would be imperative the company that take over the next set of films be financially capable of doing so. Disney has always been known as an innovator in the world of animation and computer generated graphics. In fact, Lucas created Pixar; it began as the Graphics Group for Lucasfilm in 1979 before it was split off with funding from Steve Jobs. From that point Pixar was very close partners with Disney studios, until they finally acquisitioned Pixar in 2006. Shortly after, in 2009, Disney had also announced their purchase of Marvel, and since then has experienced massive financial and critical success. In that vein, Disney naturally seemed the perfect home for the STAR WARS franchise. While it is well known that Disney has historically had its financial ups and downs, it has always maintained reputation as the most successful and the best animation company in Hollywood history. With both Pixar and Marvel on their rosters, it would almost seem silly if STAR WARS didn’t go to them.
There are endless opinions as to whether or not The Sequel Trilogy is “good” or “loyal” to the original STAR WARS franchise; in some ways this argument, in terms of Disney’s involvement, becomes moot. The Prequel Trilogy, under Lucas’ direction, is widely considered to be a failure in opinion, even when Lucas has voiced his impatience with the series’ criticisms, due to the fact that he’s always created the franchise with “twelve year olds” in mind as the main audience. When he was asked in an interview with Ian Freer for Empire Magazine in 1999, how he addressed the fact that The Prequel Trilogy would open to expectant, nostalgic adults despite the franchise being designed for children, he replied, “basically I didn’t. I kept it as it was originally intended. You can’t play too much to the marketplace. It’s the same thing with the fans. The fans’ expectations had gotten way high… And I can’t say, now I gotta market it to a whole different audience. I tell the story.”
With that said, however, Disney did make significant changes. While in some ways, the studio definitely diversified and opened the universe to several new and intriguing storylines and characters, it also cut some vastly short. Because of the shared hands in writers and directors involved with The Sequel Trilogy, some fans and critics argue that many of those new storylines are abandoned altogether between the three films. What may be more upsetting is their complete abandonment of not only the Expanded Universe, which has been developed since the first trilogy through multiple book series, but also Lucas’ own plans for the rest of the film series. Up until Disney’s takeover of Lucasfilm, several book series considered canon had been written by Lucas and other sci-fi writers, many of which have been prominent and respected; after the acquisition, these would no longer be part of the universe, effectively ending decades-long canonical contribution and collaboration.
Similarly, when negotiations had taken place between Disney and Lucas, he had included with the transaction, his plans for The Sequel Trilogy. Both Lucas and Disney CEO Bob Iger have been transparent as to their discussions and feelings since the deal. In Iger’s memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, he mentioned that he felt the necessity to purchase Lucas’ outlines for the next trilogy, but also “made clear in the purchase agreement that [they] would not be contractually obligated to adhere to the plot lines he’d laid out.” When it was revealed to Lucas that his treatments were ultimately rejected, Iger acknowledged that “[he] felt betrayed… [and] this whole process would never have been easy for him.” Lucas would become upset with the studio’s new direction, saying
“they decided they didn’t want to use those stories, they decided they were going to do their own thing. … They weren’t that keen to have me involved anyway… they’re not going to do what I want them to do. And I don’t have the control to do that anymore… And so I said, ‘OK, I will go my way, and I’ll let them go their way.’”
In an interview with James Cameron for his show, SPACE, Lucas confided that his plans for the next slate of films “were going to get into a microbiotic world. There’s this world of creatures that operate differently than we do. I call them the Whills. And the Whills are the ones who actually control the universe. They feed off the Force.” Some of the most devout Lucas loyalists have looked at this outline with skepticism or apprehension, but as with The Prequel Trilogy, Lucas would probably remain steadfast in his views of his franchise and its consumers anyways, regardless of popular opinion.
Along with Disney’s changes to the universe, many feared their capital power would lead them to over-saturate the STAR WARS brand. While Lucas had created an incredibly successful franchise with admittedly humble beginnings, Disney has catapulted its marketing reach much farther than any other company could. Along with The Sequel Trilogy, they have also produced two companion films, ROGUE ONE and SOLO, that have done rather well financially, but also released a television series, THE MANDALORIAN exclusively through their streaming service, Disney+. While box office numbers started to decline for their feature length films, Jon Favreau was entrusted as creator and show-runner for the debut series; the series featured multiple directors, including Bryce Dallas Howard and Taika Waititi, and was a major success. The series did so well that Disney immediately started production on a second season, with rumors that the third is already in progress. Following THE MANDALORIAN’s critical success and experiencing extremely high subscription rates due to the show’s presence, Disney soon announced that they would only be exploring the depths of the STAR WARS universe from now on through more television series streamed exclusively on their service, including the much anticipated Obi-Wan Kenobi project, with Ewan McGregor reprising the role. Alongside these developments, Disney parks have also just added STAR WARS themed resorts and hotels, rides, and restaurants to both US locations, and are planning to add them to others as soon as possible. This is also not to mention the vast retail opportunities that Disney flaunts worldwide, thus pushing the brand farther than anyone could have imagined when the first film was released in 1977.
Disney has possibly pushed the brand to farther reaches of consumption, but the reality is that people enjoy the franchise enough to partake in that process. Every main STAR WARS film to date has not only made a profit, but has also been nominated for at least one Academy award. Despite any criticisms of the series, that is an incredible feat, and Disney has managed to uphold that reputation with their resources. As well, the franchise has always been meant as a children’s series, and even the creator has been capable of upsetting his fans with his storytelling decisions in The Prequel Trilogy, so it seems hardly fair to lay any type of blame solely to Disney with narrative discrepancies; Lucas’ own plans for The Sequel Trilogy seem polarizing at best. With a legacy this large, it isn’t possible to please every viewer. Although, Disney does seem to have a Hollywood monopoly, no other studio could have successfully marketed and revisited the STAR WARS universe with the same stylistic caliber that fans have come to rightfully expect from the franchise. With that in mind, it seems the Force is truly strong with Disney.