The Rise and Fall of Star Wars, Blog #1
I came back from lunch to find that George Lucas had sold his company.
An email addressed to “LUCAS-USA,” myself included, read, “I wanted to let you know that today Bob Iger and I have signed an agreement for The Walt Disney Company to acquire Lucasfilm. I wanted to be there to tell you in person, however Disney asked that I be at a press event with Bob in L.A. this afternoon. As soon as it is over I will be boarding a plane so that Kathy and I can meet with you for a more in-depth discussion…. George.”
His sale of Lucasfilm to Disney included the intellectual copyrights to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. A follow-up email from a staffer explained where to find the shuttle buses that were waiting to take those without cars from our San Francisco offices to Point Richmond, where a large, empty warehouse big enough for the whole company to congregate in had been reserved. It was a sunny Tuesday. October 30, 2012.
In the hallways and passageways between offices and cubicles, people skittered about, shouting out who was going with whom, and what it all might mean. I piled into a friend’s car with others, and we were among the first to arrive on the windswept headland by the bay, not far from where Pixar Animation used to be housed. In fact, Bay Area filmmaking was all around us: Tippett Studio was about 20 miles to the south, as was producer Saul Zaentz’s company Fantasy Film; Pixar had moved to Emeryville, another few exits down Highway 80, while Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope was back in San Francisco. Lucas had championed this filmmaking community, often referred to as “Hollywood North” (a misnomer), throughout his career — even bankrolling a book and documentary about it, Cinema by the Bay (which is another story) — but now, we, his former employees, were potentially to be moved south. As I entered the warehouse, I couldn’t help imagining a forced march to Burbank, to Hollywood.
Readers of this blog may know that I’d worked closely with George Lucas on many book projects, while studying and writing about the history of Lucasfilm for over a decade, but they won’t know that I’d always thought that Lucas would sell his company to Disney. I’d pegged the date to around 2022, however, so I was as surprised as anyone by his sudden move. I’d also thought Sony might be a contender. The Japanese were and are crazy about Star Wars. But when I spoke to George a few weeks later, he told me that Sony didn’t have deep enough pockets. He’d considered Comcast briefly. He’d taken a look at a few of the Internet giants, too. But Disney had always been the frontrunner.
I’d figured George had to sell — his three adult kids weren’t interested, it seemed — and Disney was his best bet to keep his characters and franchise alive. Disney and its chairman Bob Iger were also hell-bent on the acquisition of intellectual properties, having gobbled up Winnie-the-Pooh and The Muppets, Marvel and Pixar. Besides, Lucas had been in business with “The Mouse” since the first Star Tours ride opened in Disneyland several decades before. You didn’t have to be smart to know a sale was in the cards.
But it was too soon for many. The atmosphere in the lofty space, as more of the two-thousand-plus employees swarmed through the doors, was a mixture of sadness for the past and anxiety for the future. Though no one at Lucasfilm restrained from criticism of Lucasfilm, ever — indeed, it was a way of life for some people — George was liked and admired by most. He’d created various waking dreams, solace and inspiration to millions, first in American Graffiti, then Star Wars, then Indiana Jones. The spinoff toys, books, comic books, and videogames — but mostly the toys — had been a big part of childhood’s fabric for many people in the U.S. and abroad. Quite a few of those strolling in to find a good spot from which to view the elevated stage had grown up with those plastic X-wings, Millennium Falcons, and action figures.
Although there were plenty of non-fans at Lucasfilm, hundreds of people had chosen to come, as artists, technicians, craftspeople, or support staff, to the safe-haven of the creative companies Lucas had founded: visual effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic, state-of-the-art postproduction facility Skywalker Sound, or pioneering videogame maker LucasArts. Taking their seats around me in plastic folding chairs were newbies and those who’d been with George from the beginning, such as tall, wispy haired ILM legend Dennis Muren and even taller Paul Huston, another multitalented visual effects veteran. Over the past few years, I’d been lucky enough to get to know them both.
Others had started in one of Lucas’s various San Anselmo offices in the late 1970s, at Skywalker in the late 1980s or at Big Rock Ranch and his latest campus on the Presidio in the aughts. Not many of them had much if any contact with George, but he was still their boss, their distant and quirky leader. I’d been fortunate enough to get to know him, too, and this was going to be his goodbye.
How did he get to this point? How did we end up in those seats to ask him questions about the future of Lucasfilm?
The rest of this blog The Rise and Fall of Star Wars will answer those questions and more. If that interests you, then read on… (Friday. I’m going to try and post new material Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays).
Please note: This blog is about my time at Lucasfilm, from October 1, 2001, to December 31, 2015. As such, though I’ll try to be objective, my observations are no doubt my subjective views of these years, not any clinical “truth.”
Next: Two Sides of the Bay, the 1970s. on jwrinzler.com