It’s old news now, but given that it happened in the midst of my James Bond countdown and then the holidays and a bunch of other things hit at once, I never took the opportunity to comment on the revelation that sent Star Wars fans into a Force-induced tizzy – that George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm Ltd. to The Walt Disney Company for $4.05 billion, and accompanying this massive corporate transaction was the equally hefty revelation that Star Wars Episode VII will be released in 2015. Ever since Revenge of the Sith in 2005, Lucas has been insisting up and down that Star Wars as a cinematic enterprise is finished, done, or, as Emperor Palpatine would put it succinctly, “complete.” Yet the Mouse House confirmed in the same press release that there would be many further trips to that galaxy far, far away. Star Trek has been going strong in multiplexes, despite a few missteps, for eleven movies now with a twelfth on the way, so shouldn’t la guerre des étoiles be able to blaze across our screens for as long as the medium is viable? Clearly Disney thinks so and has immediately begun soliciting creative talent to assemble the next voyage. J.J. Abrams turned down an offer to direct, citing loyalty to the other space franchise he helped relaunch. Michael Arndt, a screenwriter whose credits include Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, has been chosen to pen the next instalment, with Lawrence Kasdan – who wrote the masterful The Empire Strikes Back and co-wrote the not bad Return of the Jedi before opting to sit the prequel trilogy out – in the wings to script further adventures. It’s safe to say that these titanic moves were not on anyone’s radar, and that Star Wars fandom, which has struggled in recent years to reconcile their love of Lucas’ creation with their hatred of his incessant (and yet perfectly legitimate, as far as I’m concerned) tinkering with it, has seen its universe upended, with resignation about the quality of the prequels now sprinkled with optimism about what the future might hold. What I’m not sure about is how Disney intends to treat them – as much as some fans like to dump on George Lucas for the reason of the moment, I don’t know if the fans recognize how good they’ve had it under the amiable real-life Galactic Emperor, and how things may change for the worse. And I say this as an admitted lover of Disney!
It’s not necessary to rehash the cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars – the marriage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth with science fiction to craft an enduring story that inspires little boys to wave flashlights around against an imaginary Darth Vader. In the real world the bad guys win much too often; in the world of Star Wars, good always triumphs over evil, and the nobility of sacrifice for one’s fellow human being (or Wookiee) is the greatest cause to which one can aspire. We still talk about Greek myths over two thousand years on, and so this trilogy of movies from the late 70’s and early 80’s is a relative zygote in terms of how long it’s had to inspire its audience. Yet its reach is unparalleled – movies, TV and literature across every genre can get an immediate laugh by dropping in a quote from Star Wars, and everyone can smile and feel like they’re part of the world’s biggest and most inclusive club – one that stretches across all cultural and regional divides. One of the most enduring traits of Star Wars is its ability to be passed on, down through generations now as the kids whose eyes opened wide at the scratchy print in the rickety old movie house alongside their parents now watch the same adventures with their own children in the comfort of a surround sound-equipped home theatre. And many who touch the flame of Star Wars use it to fire their own creative candles, as those who first heard the stories of the Greek gods offered their own interpretation of those tales to new audiences. Star Wars likely holds the record – if indeed, it were possible to count – for the sheer volume of unofficial derivative works, written, sketched, painted, sewn, sculpted and filmed parodies, homages, tributes and other acknowledgements of what has become a shared universe. (A quick search for “star wars” on YouTube yields 1.4 million hits, ranging from remixes of John Williams’ iconic theme song, Lego recreations of famous Star Wars scenes, animations of dancing stormtroopers, girls in Princess Leia’s metal bikini and Zeus knows what else). That universe, the most remarkable example of remix culture, has been, until now, watched over in silent guardianship by George Lucas, who has permitted these myriads of creations so long as they are not for profit. What then do we make of the stewardship of Star Wars and all it represents being entrusted to the company that famously sued a daycare for painting Mickey Mouse on its walls?
The world has changed tremendously since that notorious incident, which predated the Internet and the lingering question of copyright in the digital era. Progressive media companies and celebrity brands like J.K. Rowling understand the tremendous value to be found in allowing fans to play in their sandbox, realizing that it’s about building a community (and receiving free advertising), and that ultimately, the vast majority don’t mind paying for officially licensed offshoots, be they yet another Blu-Ray boxed set or endless waves of toys. For decades however, Disney has been the most trigger happy of the lot, ready to unleash their armies of attorneys at whosoever dareth trespass against them. I’m just saying there’s a reason why you won’t find a lot of Donald Duck stories at fanfiction.net, nor will you find Walt Disney in Love on YouTube. As someone who has created his own fictional universe and wonders idly about the future day an aspiring scribe decides to pen their own fan fiction trilogy using my characters and settings, it would be tremendously flattering to know I’d inspired someone like that – and truthfully, why else are we writing except to inspire – but if another someone decided to reap financial gain from my work without my by-your-leave I’d be Scanners-head-exploding livid. I’d be equally as upset if someone produced a derivative work that was pornographic, excessively violent or simply insulting to the spirit of my original. The trouble is you can’t seem to have one without the other, that either all copyright is enforced to the limit of the law, thus creating the perception that you’re a grouchy Lars Ulrich type and hate your fans, or you go for George Lucas’ approach and accept a certain percentage of the bad stuff (what a retail outlet would call “shrink”) with the understanding that most will be positive and done out of love and only help your brand reach new heights.
The lingering grey area for Star Wars fans is whether Disney will continue what Lucas started, if they will accept that Star Wars is its own entity and deserves a freer hand than what has typically been Disney copyright policy in the past. After Return of the Jedi in 1983, Star Wars entered a long dry period where nothing save a few crude cartoons and made-for-TV Ewok movies was forthcoming from the Lucasfilm vaults, and instead the creations of the fans, whose interest never waned, kept blowing oxygen on that dwindling spark, until Lucas was finally ready to go back to the well, knowing that he had legions out there who remained loyal to him and to his universe because they felt like they owned a piece of it – an emotional piece that could not be quantified in financial or percentage terms. Once described by Campbell as his single best student, Lucas always understood that a myth cannot thrive in the care of a single person, and in commenting on selling his baby to Disney he spoke about needing Star Wars to go on without him. In many ways it already has, and the nightmare scenario of Disney being Disney and starting to remove the likes of Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager and Troops and Eddie Izzard’s “Death Star Canteen” routine from YouTube will be the beginning of the end of Star Wars as the force – yeah, I went there – for uniting people and unleashing their imagination and creativity that it has become. The hope is that Disney too has evolved since the daycare incident and understands just what they’ve managed to acquire; a property that has become the unofficial property of millions of people the world over. People may wear Mickey Mouse ears, but they don’t go around pretending to be Mickey Mouse in the way kids want to be Luke and Han and Leia. Fingers crossed that the lawyers of the Walt Disney Company don’t cease-and-desist them out of their dreams.