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George Lucas’ $4 bil graceful exit

Disney deal promises to preserve enigmatic mogul's legacy

Back when Disney acquired Pixar, some analysts second-guessed the $7.4 billion pricetag. This seemed inane given the creativity and characters the animation powerhouse brought into a studio then desperately in need of both.

In the wake of that deal and the 2009 purchase of Marvel, one suspects there will be far fewer naysayers about the studio buying Lucasfilm in a $4 billion agreement. The Tuesday announcement slipped in the not-incidental tidbit that there will be a seventh “Star Wars” feature.”Win-win” is an overused term in media circles, but this marriage represents one of those rare situations where, to quote Darth Vader, it’s “all too easy” to see the motivations on both sides.

That’s because Lucasfilm obviously feeds into Disney’s multifaceted marketing machinery — from licensing to animation, from TV to a feature slate that has often appeared moribund in its reliance on tentpoles to the exclusion of virtually everything else.

Even before “The Avengers” became such an enormous hit, it was clear Marvel shored up Disney’s consumer-products arm and gave the company a powerful connection to young boys, complementing its princess-oriented girls profile.

As for Lucasfilm, the deal offers patriarch George Lucas a graceful exit from a business that has increasingly appeared to hold diminishing interest for him. Having begun his career as a filmmaker, Lucas has expressed disenchantment with the nature of movies, even as his company — with its emphasis on advancing technological wizardry — has helped guide them further away from the kind of personal films he professes to admire.

It is, in a sense, the irony of ironies: The digital filmmaking Lucas has championed and inspired has made almost anything possible from a visual perspective. Spaceships soar, men fly, alien Jedi masters spring to life thanks to computers, not puppetry. Yet the storytelling handicaps potentially associated with that freedom were readily apparent in the most recent “Star Wars” trilogy, which Lucas insisted on writing as well as directing, and which, despite its visual flair and action, often disappointed in its garbled plots about trade policy, indifferent dialogue and irritating characters.

That another “Star Wars” movie will be part of the deal will no doubt warm the hearts of financial analysts. The prospect that Lucas may loosen his grasp enough to let somebody else write it is surely welcome news to many fans of the property, assuming they aren’t so blinded by their admiration for what Lucas created as to be unable to separate that from the “Star Wars” universe’s clunkier incarnations.

Lucas has already been affiliated with Disney through the “Star Tours” and “Indiana Jones” rides at the Disney parks, which probably made the skeptical mogul more comfortable about ceding control of his creation while offering fans a tantalizing preview of what may be to come. As a footnote, Lucas also produced “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” for ABC back when Disney CEO Robert Iger was running the network’s entertainment division. (Full disclosure: My wife works for Walt Disney Imagineering, a unit of the studio.)

Ultimately, the primary impediment to more aggressively exploiting “Star Wars” has been Lucas’ own reticence. Preoccupied with control, he has insisted on developing and sometimes producing properties internally, offering them to networks (see “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”) only once they were fully formed.

As he stated in the release announcing the deal, the enduring nature of “Star Wars” — with those dazzled by the movies as youths now sharing them with children and grandchildren — meant it would survive long past anyone associated with its birth. Unfettered by that mantle, Lucas will be free to pursue other interests, including his contributions to grooming future generations of filmmakers through his generosity to the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

As for the prospects of “Star Wars” under Disney’s stewardship, to paraphrase a line familiar to fans, even the usually reserved Lucas ought to have a good feeling about this.

Related:
Disney acquires Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion
Industrial Light & Magic goes to Disney
Disney chief’s internal memo to staff
VIDEO: Lucas, Iger discuss acquisition

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