So here it is, May 4, Star Wars Day. And if you figured a day that combines celebrating Star Wars fandom with a pun would be right up my alley, you’ve stayed on target. My daughter and I are both wearing Star Wars T-shirts today, and later on we might watch one of the movies, or play the X-Wing Miniatures Game, or maybe a few rounds of Lego Star Wars on the Wii. One thing I won’t be doing, though, is getting hyped up for the start of production on Episode VII. Ever since George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, my interest in the future of Star Wars has waned. It appears that as much as I have been a fan of Star Wars, I was more of a fan of George Lucas and what he accomplished with the franchise.
That’s not to say I’ve liked everything that’s come down the pike since 1977. I could go on at great lengths about the special editions, the flat acting that Lucas apparently asked for and received in the prequels, and the unconvincing Anakin/Padme romance. I think that he made some unfortunate decisions that hurt members of his audience, like the Neimoidian accents in Episode I that sounded way too much like Asian caricatures of the past or the sidelining of Padme in Episode III. But a lot of his choices I did like, and more than that I was happy with the fact that he had the opportunity to make them.
For me, the story of George Lucas and Star Wars is the story of someone who was stubborn enough to bet on himself time after time, and in the process did something incredible. Now, I admit that I picked up a lot of the history from official, Lucas-sanctioned sources, but I have read other sources as well and I haven’t seen anything that contradicts the overall story. Lucas used the money he had earned from American Graffiti to continue preproduction on Star Wars even while 20th Century Fox was delaying on signing the final contracts. With those delays and the success of Graffiti, Lucas could have negotiated a higher salary for himself. Instead, he negotiated for the sequel and merchandising rights. When Star Wars was a huge hit, he decided to finance the sequel himself rather than sell the rights back to Fox. The Empire Strikes Back and the four movies that followed were independent blockbuster tentpole films, a vategory that I think they have all to themselves.
And with the money that came from Star Wars, Lucas built a number of companies that helped to innovate the technical side of making movies and telling stories, such as Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound, and THX. Some of the things he launched didn’t become successful until after they left Lucas, such as Pixar and the EditDroid system. Some, like the LucasArts gaming company, flourished for a while and then faltered. But I think it’s an admirable track record, and one that I don’t think any of Lucas’ peers from the 1970s filmmaking scene have emulated. And that’s no knock on them – maybe Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese never wanted to be entrepreneurs. But I admire Lucas a lot for forging his own path, which he kept doing right up until he sold Lucasfilm. The last film he produced, Red Tails, was a film he spent two decades trying to make happen, until he decided to put up the money himself. That’s a special kind of stubborn right there.
So my admiration for Lucas mixed with my enjoyment of the Star Wars movies and universe, and each enhanced the other. As a speculative fiction fan, I’m surrounded by creations I love whose creators were ill-treated by the corporations that owned the work. While I know that Lucas was helped by a legion of artists whose work he then owned, he was the creator and the investor, and thus he avoided the fate of Siegel and Shuster or Jack Kirby or Bill Finger or even Gene Roddenberry or J. Michael Straczynski. He didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to tell the story he wanted to tell the way he wanted to tell it. So even if I didn’t like the story all the time, I respected the storyteller.
Now, Episode VII and any future movies aren’t being made because George Lucas has a story he wants to tell. They’re being made because Disney wants to make a profit. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy plenty of stories that are told from that motivation. But the unique magic of Star Wars is gone now. If I want a Disney-owned media-spanning fictional universe, I already have Marvel. If I want J.J. Abrams to combine old and new actors to revive a space-based adventure series, I already have Star Trek. With George Lucas, Star Wars gave me something I couldn’t find anywhere else. Without him, it’s just another corporate entertainment franchise, and that’s not enough to thrill me.