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Published: Friday, 11/2/2012

Disney amasses an Empire

BY KIRK BAIRD
CULTURE SHOCK

In the Star Wars films, a small but fiercely determined army of rebels wages a successful war to topple the galaxy-spanning Empire.

That's film fiction. In reality, it is corporate empires that swallow up rebel outfits.

And so it goes for Lucasfilm. The boutique studio founded and run by George Lucas, the creator and fierce protector of the Star Wars franchise, has been sold to Disney for $4.05 billion.

Beyond Star Wars, Lucasfilm has one additional property of any use to its new owner, Indiana Jones. Perhaps foreshadowing this merger, both film series already have rides in Disney theme parks. Expect more Star Wars and Indiana Jones amusements to follow, along with new films in each series.

The House of Mouse didn't cough up so much cash and stock options simply to make money from Star Wars: The Clone Wars, an animated series on Cartoon Network. This is about doubling and tripling its investment in Lucasfilm, and the only way to do that is to keep Star Wars and Indiana Jones films relevant (read: money makers) with new and old generations by making new installments.

Disney already announced it will expand the Star Wars mythology in 2015 with Episode VII — the launch of a new trilogy — and is considering the box-office potential of further Indiana Jones adventures.

As a Star Wars fan, I suppose I should be happy there will be an Episode VII, VIII, and IX, and that Lucas will only be around in an advisory position, offering a story line and letting someone else write and direct.

Yet I have a bad feeling about Disney asserting itself as the primary owner — and now provider — of so many of Hollywood's greatest mythologies.

In 2006, Disney paid $7.4 billion to buy Pixar, after partnering with the animation studio on all of its films. You know, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monster's, Inc., The Incredibles — instant childhood classics such as Disney once upon a time made.

And in 2009 Disney paid $4.24 billion for Marvel Entertainment Inc. The only Marvel property released since that investment, The Avengers, also happens to be the year's biggest film so far, earning more than $1.5 billion worldwide. The announced sequels, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and The Avengers 2, should all pay off handsomely as well.

And while we know it's all about the money, does it really have to be all about the money?

Where is that point when the push for commercial viability becomes a cash grab by studio executives concerned more about personal bonuses and shareholders than great filmmaking?

In defense of Disney, The Avengers is a terrific piece of popcorn entertainment, an unashamed blockbuster that won the hearts of audiences and jaded critics. But The Avengers is also the first in the new partnership.

Rather, if you look at Disney proper you see a bottom-of-the-lineup batting average that consists of several failed live-action films: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time; The Sorcerer's Apprentice; Tron: Legacy, and perhaps the biggest bomb of the year, John Carter. Outside of its Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Disney hasn't done so well with Disney.

Which is why the studio needs Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It needs more hits, specifically reliable franchises that bring in audiences no matter how much screen time is wasted on Jar-Jar Binks or Shia LaBeouf. And so the studio rightfully saw the opportunity to solidify its own empire by resurrecting another one.

In PR speak, it's a win-win … but in the parlance of Star Wars, I'd call it "a trap."

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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