Earlier today, I heard about Disney’s move to acquire Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas for $4.05 billion. At first, I was incredulous. I thought that this was an Internet hoax born of Hurricane Sandy regurgitating seawater onto a New England data server unfortunately left behind by the first responders. There is a nice press release and a photo of Lucas holding a pen above a nondescript piece of paper to prove otherwise.
Gauging from folks’ responses on the web, Facebook, and Twitter, there seems to be a lot of confusion about this news. I certainly feel it myself. Looking at it through the cold logic of capitalism, Lucas is in the movie making business. What he might have once claimed was art or a manifestation of myth-made-modern was in fact simply a way to make lots of money. To borrow from Jay and Silent Bob, Star Wars (and Indiana Jones–a property apparently not of significant worth in the big scheme of things to Disney) was George Lucas’ “motherfucking movie check.” Lucas made it big–maybe it was part talent, part strategy, and part luck–and now, he has the opportunity to cash out. His ‘art’ was a tremendous investment that he has now leveraged to a lucrative payday. His selling the Star Wars/Lucasfilm property to Disney is an obvious choice. Disney has long partnered with Lucasfilm on part rides and merchandising. Additionally, Disney has shifted its attention toward acquisition of popular cultural properties to supplement what little remains of their own creative impetus. Disney bought Pixar, Steve Jobs’ insanely creative 3D animation studio in 2006 for $7.4 billion. Then, Disney purchased Marvel Comics for around the same price as Lucasfilm in 2009. Of course Disney would want Lucasfilm to join its portfolio of cultural holdings. As a result, a substantial amount of American culture is now owned by a single mega-corporation, Disney.
Looking at the situation from my Star Wars fanish eyes, I am uneasy about this transaction. Despite Lucas’ attempts at destroying his legacy through the investments he made in the culturally bankrupt Star Wars prequels and the failed continuation of the Indiana Jones series in the “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” I have always identified him as being the embodiment of the Star Wars universe. Of course, he originated the idea and benevolently maintained despotic control over that idea (compared to Paramount and Star Trek–Lucas is a saint in permitting and occasionally encouraging fan films and fandom in general). I suppose it always seemed in my mind that the author/text|Lucas/Star Wars were signs signifying the same thing. They were shared significations within my mind about what ‘Star Wars’ was and represented. For example, it seems in retrospect that nearly every pre-prequels Star Wars conversation (certainly EVERY post-prequel conversation operates in this way) eventually would come back around to Lucas’ vision, intentions, mistakes, successes, etc. as it related to the narrative space and its possibilities within the imaginations of me and my friends. In a similar way to Steve Jobs and Apple, it doesn’t feel right to separate the author from the work. Certainly, I can imagine the Star Wars universe–its stories, technologies, and cultural context–without invoking the authorial ghost of Lucas. However, the authorial ghost seems ever near and inseparable from the thing (Stars Wars) itself.
I can rationally think of how many billions of dollars George Lucas made from the Star Wars films among other things. I can rationally think about the exploited labor and anti-environmental effects of the merchandising that forms feedback cycle of the cultural consumption of ideas and things. I understand that Lucas, through his life, success, and business decisions, has enacted a real-life version of THX 1138. Despite all of these things, I cannot divorce myself from the love that I have of the Star Wars universe, its characters, its technologies (especially the Millennium Falcon–something that I imagine flying far more often than I might have any right to), and its wonder. Perhaps its this love for Star Wars that via the signification system transfers to Lucas in some weird way. He might have mucked up the possible narrative that I imagined and that my friends imagined for the Star Wars prequels, but my delight in Star Wars fills me with positive emotions that inform and shape my dichotomous respect and disdain for Lucas. While he and his vision do not define everything in my mind about Star Wars, his work and choices endowed me with an imaginative appreciation for Star Wars and a curiosity that far exceeds the bounds of “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” While I cannot give Lucas all the credit, I can safely say that Star Wars played a significant role in my being where and who I am today.
Lucas made a significant choice today to sell Lucasfilm to Disney. Since Lucas is so interwoven into the very idea of Star Wars and its potential fulfilment in culture, I am left feeling uneasy about the transfer of his intellectual property to Disney, the cultural aggregator, shaper, and producer. If we want to think of this as one artist giving something to be reshaped and retold by another artist, then Lucas has given his property to Walt Disney’s zombie. The Disney of today is a shuffling undead shell of what it once was (and here I am not attempting to wax nostalgically as I did with Star Wars–Disney and his team of storytellers did fantastic things for culture and education through the era just before I was born–what followed after has by-and-large little to be desired). The Disney company today seeks the brains of other culture producers–Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm–on which it feeds and continues its ravenous lurching. I suppose it is this image on the edge of consciousness that disturbs me the most. I am saddened that Lucas gave up control of his property to producers and committees–a fate that I am not sure is any worse than his own revisionist impulse in the prequels. I admit that I am simply being romantic, but I believe that this romantic impulse for the bond between author and text represents something as deep perhaps as the supposed mythical qualities of the stories Lucas told us about the Skywalker clan.
What does all of this mean for the future of Star Wars? Disney certainly didn’t wait for the ink to sign on the papers before they announced that a new Star Wars film would be released by 2015. Apparently, the acquisition included treatments that Lucas had been working on, but these will be re-developed by Disney. In a related note, I heard from today’s conference call that Disney CEO Iger said that Disney would focus on mobile gaming instead of big box/console games based on the Star Wars universe. This could have other repurcussions for the cultural impact and interactive engagement with its continuing stories. On this point, I am thinking about how these media are now interdependent and connected for conveying narrative and solidifying the cultural memory of those narratives. It would seem that Disney has hit the ground running with Star Wars, and I expect–for good or ill–a great many new things from Lucas’ universe. Unfortunately, he will not have any control over its further expansion, and I am doubtful that I will be as nearly as eager to be a participant in its expansion under the irksome visage of the Mouse.