When You Wish Upon A Death Star: The Disney-Lucasfilm Connection
It’s Walt Disney’s 115th birthday! To celebrate the occasion, let’s take a look at how Lucasfilm became part of the Magic Kingdom.
Contrary to what some disgruntled fans might have you believe, the ‘Disney-fication’ of Star Wars didn’t start when George Lucas sold Lucasfilm in 2012.
In truth, it started in the early 1970s, before a single frame of footage had been shot.
The Disney dream
In archival interview transcripts in JW Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars, Lucas – still looking for a home for Star Wars – discussed the ideal studio for the film.
“I think Disney would have accepted this movie if Walt Disney were still alive,” Lucas said in 1973. “Walt Disney not only had vision, but he was also an extremely adventurous person. He wasn’t afraid.”
Indeed, Steven Spielberg said this was exactly the way his friend had described his fledgling film to him. “George always described it to me as a kids’ picture,” Spielberg said, “a little Disney film, that he didn’t think anyone would want to see, but he wanted to see it.”
Originally, Lucas intended the film to open and close with a storybook, The Journal of the Whills, to emphasise that the story came from a book — the same framing device used in Disney’s 1967 adaptation of The Jungle Book.
When it finally came time to cast Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill stood out to Lucas because he was “a little younger, more idealistic, naïve, and hopeful; a little more Disney-esque”.
In the infamous deleted scene that was originally intended to introduce audiences to Luke Skywalker and Biggs Darklighter, Luke’s friends even refer to the young orphan as ‘Wormy’, just as the future King Arthur was known as ‘Wart’ in Disney’s The Sword and the Stone (1963).
In 2012, while discussing the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in an interview for the official Star Wars YouTube channel, Lucas acknowledged that Star Wars and Disney had long been a match made in heaven.
“When I first made Star Wars, everybody in Hollywood said, ‘Well, this is a movie that Disney should have made’,” Lucas said.
Lucas grew up idolising Walt Disney. When he was inducted into the Disney Legends hall of fame in 2015, Lucas said in his speech that he had always wanted to be part of the Disney family.
He first visited Disneyland on the second day it was open (he was 11 years old at the time, and Autopia was his favourite ride); he has visited a Disney park at least once every year since then.
As well as following in Disney’s footsteps as a ground-breaking filmmaker, Lucas followed the path Disney laid down as a businessman and promoter — long before licensed Star Wars products flooded store shelves, it was Walt Disney who made Mickey Mouse the figurehead of a merchandising empire.
Indiana Jones and the Sale of Destiny
For all that, though, it wasn’t actually the Star Wars franchise that brought Lucasfilm and Disney together.
It was Indiana Jones — twice.
Before Michael Eisner took over as CEO of The Walt Disney Company in the 1980s, he had worked as an executive at Paramount Studios. It was in this role that he became an early champion of Raiders of the Lost Ark, giving him an in with Lucas.
When Eisner took over Disney, he made the most of this relationship. He recruited Lucas to work with Michael Jackson, Francis Ford Coppola and Walt Disney Imagineering on Captain EO, a ‘4D’ attraction that opened in 1986 and ran until 1996 at Disney parks in Anaheim, Florida, Tokyo and Paris.
In 1987, Star Tours — the motion simulator ride that made history as the first Disney attraction to be based on a non-Disney property — opened at Disneyland in Anaheim, and soon became a popular attraction at Tokyo Disneyland, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Paris’ Disneyland Park.
The Indiana Jones Adventure followed at Disneyland in 1995 and Tokyo DisneySea in 2001.
Such were the ties between Lucas and the Disney parks in the ‘80s and ‘90s that, when Lucas sold his company to Disney in 2012, you could be forgiven for thinking he had already done so decades earlier.
In 2005, Eisner was replaced as The Walt Disney Company’s CEO by Bob Iger, who had been Eisner’s heir apparent for nearly a decade.
Iger, too, had a history with Lucas – in the early ‘90s, Lucas had pitched The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles to Iger, who was working as the chairman of ABC television at the time.
Iger had his doubts about The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, but proceeded to greenlight the project anyway because of his faith in Lucas. “I wanted it to work very badly,” Iger later told Bloomberg. “It was George Lucas, come on.”
Lucas always appreciated Iger’s support — especially once he kept Lucas’ passion project going for a second season, despite poor ratings. “It struggled,” Lucas told Bloomberg, “but he was very supportive of the whole thing.”
In May 2011, Iger and Lucas flew to Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort for the opening of Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, an upgraded version of the Star Tours ride.
It was there, over breakfast at a Disney World restaurant, the Hollywood Brown Derby, that Iger made his play, and asked Lucas if he would ever consider selling his company.
Lucas had an inkling of how the sale might work, because Disney already owned one of ‘his’ companies — Pixar, which he had founded in 1979 as The Graphics Group, part of Lucasfilm’s computer division. In 1986, Lucas sold Pixar to Steve Jobs, who eventually sold the company to Disney in 2006.
Even after the sale, however, Pixar essentially continued to operate under its own auspices — in fact, as part of the deal, Pixar’s Executive Vice President, the great John Lasseter, became Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios (and the Principal Creative Adviser at Walt Disney Imagineering), effectively giving Pixar creative control over Disney, and not the other way around.
Encouraged by Disney’s arrangement with his old company, and intrigued by Iger’s offer (which he had declined, for the time being), Lucas began planning the next stage of his life — retirement, while still maintaining some degree of creative control over Lucasfilm’s properties.
A number of things that we tend to think of as part of the ‘Disney era’ then took place — Lucas brought super-producer Kathleen Kennedy on board, and together, they hired Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt to write the script for Episode VII, and recruited Lawrence Kasdan to serve as a consultant.
In fact, Lucasfilm even enlisted Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher to appear in the film before Lucas picked up the phone and called Iger.
In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise that Lucas would eventually refer to Disney as “white slavers” in an interview with Charlie Rose, and dismiss The Force Awakens as “a retro movie”.
The signs were all there early on — Lucas had always fiercely guarded his creative control over his intellectual property, and been distrustful of the studio system, but when he sold Lucasfilm to Disney, he seemed to be operating on the assumption that he would be given a certain creative license that was not actually part of the deal.
In 2013, Bloomberg published an in-depth feature on the Lucasfilm sale — it was more or less a puff piece, but in retrospect, cracks in the foundation were already visible.
Compare this quote, from Walt Disney Chairman studios Alan Horn — “We needed to have an understanding that if we acquire the company, despite tons of collegial conversations and collaboration, at the end of the day, we have to be the ones who sign off on whatever the plans are” — with this one, from Lucas himself.
“Ultimately you have to say, ‘Look, I know what I’m doing. Buying my stories is part of what the deal is.’ I’ve worked at this for 40 years, and I’ve been pretty successful. I mean, I could have said, ‘Fine, well, I’ll just sell the company to somebody else’.”
Lucas didn’t sell the company to somebody else, but he didn’t get an assurance they would use his stories, either. Lucas initially served as a creative consultant on the film, and advised on the technical details of the Star Wars universe, but his ideas were ultimately discarded by Disney, and he ceased taking an active role in the development of the film.
Lucas’ unusual status as an outsider looking in on the latest entry in his own franchise eventually led to that notorious interview with Charlie Rose, in which he admitted that he had parted ways with Disney.
"They weren’t that keen to have me involved anyway, but if I get in there, I’m just going to cause trouble, because they’re not going to do what I want them to do,” Lucas said.
“And I don’t have the control to do that anymore, and all I would do is muck everything up. And so I said, 'OK, I will go my way, and I’ll let them go their way’."
It was in this interview that Lucas called the films his “kids” that he had sold “to the white slavers that take these things”.
The Charlie Rose interview was a misstep by any measure, but Lucas and Disney appear to have patched up their differences since then.
“I misspoke and used a very inappropriate analogy, and for that I apologise,” Lucas said in a statement issued shortly after the interview aired.
“I rarely go out with statements to clarify my feelings, but I feel it is important to make it clear that I am thrilled that Disney has the franchise and is moving it in such exciting directions in film, television and the parks.”
Lucas isn't avoiding his old company altogether. He visited the set of Rogue One, although we’ll most likely have to wait until after the film is released for him to comment on it (if he comments at all).
And, of course, his handpicked choice to take over his company, Kathleen Kennedy, is still at the helm, while a number of Lucasfilm staffers hired before the Disney era, including creative executive Pablo Hidalgo, continue to occupy high-profile roles within the new regime.
Whether or not George Lucas and The Walt Disney Company see eye-to-eye on everything, one thing is clear — with plans to release one Star Wars movie a year for the foreseeable future, it’s obvious that Disney is delivering on the brief Lucas laid down for them.
“I’m doing this so that the films will have a longer life,” Lucas said in that 2012 interview on the Star Wars YouTube channel to discuss the sale.
“It’s a very big universe I’ve created, and there are a lot more stories sitting in there.”
UPDATE: George Lucas has seen Rogue One, and according to director Gareth Edwards, he dug it. "Two days ago we got to show George the movie, and we all had a phone call and I got to speak with him yesterday, and I don't want to put words into his mouth, but I can honestly say that I can die happy now," Edwards told reporters at a Rogue One event.
"He really liked the movie. It meant a lot. To be honest, and no offense to anyone here, it was the most important review to me. You know, you guys are important too, but he's kind of God... I will take that conversation to my grave. His opinion means the world to me."