Disney's $4 billion purchase of Lucasfilm has given Star Wars fans the ultimate reason to bust out their wookie costumes. EW investigates what the next three films will entail, who will steer them, and what the surprise deal means for the moviegoing galaxy.
The Force moves in mysterious ways, and so does its creator, George Lucas, who relinquished a galaxy Oct. 30 when he sold Lucasfilm — and with it the Star Wars franchise — to the Walt Disney Co. for $4.05 billion, most of which is going to charity. It was the biggest Jedi shocker since Luke Skywalker found a father and lost a hand back on Bespin in 1980. Fans’ reactions across the globe were as passionate, conflicted, and complicated as their views on Lucas and his mythology, which for 35 years has possessed modern geeks the way Olympus owned the ancient Greeks. There was one clear, chiming sound amid the planetary talk: a new hope.
Lucasfilm’s co-chairman and soon-to-be president, Kathleen Kennedy, has told employees she wants the company to produce two or three films a year (it’s averaged fewer than four per decade), and first up is Star Wars: Episode VII for 2015, which will pick up sometime after Darth Vader gave his life to overthrow (figuratively and literally) the Emperor and save Luke in 1983’s Episode VI — Return of the Jedi. Yes, the plan is to return to the characters in the first trilogy (1977-83). Whether the original actors will have significant roles or merely be on hand to pass the baton to a new generation of actors — something Lucasfilm tried with mixed success with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Disney with TRON: Legacy — is unclear. But the reintroduction of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo is a jolting concept that will inspire a lot of goose bumps and at least a few groans from anyone old enough to remember, say, Polaroid pictures or the star-spangled polyester of the Bicentennial. George Nolfi, a Star Wars buff as well as the writer-director of The Adjustment Bureau, says the horizon will need to be bigger to handle the colossal project taking shape. ”I can’t imagine,” Nolfi says, ”a larger event film for our generation than a sequel to Return of the Jedi.”
Many fans, though, worry about an Imperial Walker stomping on their childhood memories. One of those fans is Star Trek reboot director J.J. Abrams, who was so conflicted in his feelings about the news that he veered into something close to Shatnerian syntax: ”Part of me? Thrilled. Part of me? Terrified. Most of me? Thrillified.”
No one was more surprised than Mark Hamill, now 61, who portrayed Luke Skywalker in three movies but stopped hoping a long, long time ago that he’d ever have another chance to feel the Force of a global spotlight. Hamill learned the good news in August when he and Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia, were summoned to lunch with Lucas, who confided that another trilogy would soon be ramping up. Hamill says he was thunderstruck — and is now bracing for cynical backlash. ”When [Lucas] said, ‘We decided we’re going to do Episodes VII, VIII, and IX,’ I was just gobsmacked,” Hamill says. ”’What? Are you nuts?’ I can see both sides of it. Because in a way, there was a beginning, a middle, and an end, and we all lived happily ever after and that’s the way it should be. And it’s great that people have fond memories — if they do have fond memories. But on the other hand, there’s this ravenous desire on the part of the true believers to have more and more and more material.”
That kind of enthusiasm has long eluded Harrison Ford, the third star of the original trilogy. ”I don’t know that I understood it very well,” a wearied Ford said when asked in 2010 about the near-religious zeal of fans. ”I’m not sure I understand it yet.” Ford was a 34-year-old relative unknown when the 1977 film introduced Han Solo, the rakish space smuggler who becomes an unlikely freedom fighter. The character is beloved by fans, but Ford (the only cast member of Episode IV — A New Hope who went on to true superstardom) has long described the antihero as a flimsy and limited character who would have benefited from the death scene planned for him at one point. Apparently, though, the 70-year-old’s carbonite-cold view of the Jedi universe is thawing. ”Harrison is open to the idea of doing the movie and he’s upbeat about it; all three of them are,” says one highly placed source, referring to the original trio. The source adds: ”Things look good and people want to make this happen, so it will probably move forward when there’s a script to read.” That script is now the mission of Michael Arndt, who earned Oscar nominations for his first two screenplays: 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, which also won, and 2010’s Toy Story 3.
If Ford is indeed willing to suit up, however, it may have less to do with the screenwriter and more to do with the cosmic shift toward Kennedy. The seven-time Oscar nominee produced E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Jurassic Park and cofounded Amblin Entertainment (along with producer Frank Marshall, whom she later married, and Steven Spielberg). She arrived at Lucasfilm in June, and as the Disney era begins she will assume the role of company president and executive producer of the new Star Wars trilogy. Kennedy’s ties to Ford and to Lucasfilm stretch back to when she was an associate producer on 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. She was executive producer when the fedora franchise returned with 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That film finished third in domestic box office that year behind The Dark Knight and Iron Man. (Disney has, so far, expressed far less interest in the Lucas-created adventure hero; the brand has a much narrower bandwidth at retail and limited traction with today’s youngest moviegoers.)
Kennedy’s trickiest challenge may be how best to handle Lucas, who has talked about returning to making experimental hobby movies but could grow restless with the limited role of ”creative consultant” once the lightsabers and X-wing fighters are actually fired up. (A spokeswoman for Lucas says the tycoon will ”donate the majority of the proceeds to his philanthropic endeavors,” and insiders say that the money’s most likely destination is the George Lucas Educational Foundation.) Lucas has stepped back before. In the 1980s, he brought in journeyman filmmakers Irwin Kershner and Richard Marquand to direct Empire and Jedi, respectively, so he could focus on the corporate and technological pursuits of his empire. Lucas, it turned out, was not a hands-off sort of guy — and his achievements cast a long shadow, in any case. ”It’s like doing King Lear,” Marquand said at the time, ”with Shakespeare in the next room.”
Lucas returned to the director’s chair for the prequel trilogy that began with Episode I — The Phantom Menace, the top-grossing movie of 1999. The films shifted back in time to the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, the father to Luke (and, of course, Leia) and the man who would eventually wear the black armor of Darth Vader. The reviews weren’t as good as the box office receipts. Many fans missed the characters they already knew, which exasperated Lucas. The prequel-trilogy characters moved over to animation with a hit series on Cartoon Network and a 2008 feature film. Lucas pointed to that and to toy sales as proof that the new characters had another generation feeling the Force.
And as recently as four years ago, he was balking at the notion of adding any cinematic chapters to Star Wars that would take place after the death of Anakin Skywalker, a.k.a. Darth Vader. ”I get asked all the time, ‘What happens after Return of the Jedi?’ and there really is no answer for that,” he told this reporter in 2008. ”The movies were the story of Anakin Skywalker and Luke Skywalker, and when Luke saves the galaxy and redeems his father, that’s where that story ends…. There really isn’t any story to tell there.” Was that all a Jedi mind trick? Perhaps, because last week Lucas told Disney shareholders in a taped message that he’s handing over ”a large group of ideas and characters and books and all kinds of things — we could go on making Star Wars for the next hundred years.”
For Disney, that’s cause for an Ewok celebration. The company has been expanding its holdings through acquisitions (Marvel, Pixar, the Muppets) and positioning itself to sell toys and build theme-park attractions in the years ahead as home entertainment options erode theatrical ticket sales and the digital realities of the marketplace hit Hollywood the way they did the recorded-music industry.
Future film projects have dominated press coverage, but Disney insiders say the retail shelf was the key to the deal. In fact, the corporate announcement video made it seem as if Lucasfilm had just been sold on QVC, with Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger pointing out that there are more than 17,000 characters in the Star Wars universe — and hence a lot of profit to be made from action figures.
But Kennedy first must find someone who can build a better Death Star. A 40-page treatment was sent to three big-name directors, suggesting that the short list is already pretty short: Brad Bird, Steven Spielberg, and J.J. Abrams. Bird is the only realistic candidate of the three. He’s coming off the strong success of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and has won two Oscars (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) for his work at Pixar. More to the point, Spielberg and Abrams have already taken themselves out of the running for the gig. Spielberg is an icon of the highest order and calls Lucas his best friend, but he still isn’t the most natural choice to take on a secondhand mythology. And Abrams is a power brand in television (Lost, Revolution) with an awful lot on his plate. ”I have some original stuff I’m working on next,” Abrams tells EW.
That’s an answer that Lucas would have understood completely in the early 1970s. In a way, every movie that Abrams and his generation make is a sequel to Lucas’ A New Hope. ”It galvanized for me not what was exciting about how movies were made,” Abrams says, ”but rather what movies were capable of.”
”When [Lucas] said, ‘We decided we’re going to do Episodes VII, VIII, and IX,’ I was just gobsmacked.” —Mark Hamill
”The idea of another trilogy that further shrouds the Force in mystery as its secrets are lost to time?that’s extremely compelling. I want so bad for it to be good. Can you imagine?” —Jon Favreau
”Part of me? Thrilled. Part of me? Terrified. Most of me? Thrillified.” —J.J. Abrams
”What an amazing world and legacy George Lucas has created?and it needs to continue in capable hands. I do think Disney is the best studio for the job, and the fact that they brought in Kathleen Kennedy? I can’t imagine a better scenario. And 2015 can’t get here fast enough.” —Robert Rodríguez
”All I can say is my heart literally started racing when I heard.” —Damon Lindelof
”I could so care less. Especially if Disney’s going to do it. I’m not interested in the Simon West version of Star Wars.” —Quentin Tarantino
”The Star Wars franchise is nothing short of a generational touchstone…. I literally can’t think of any comparable cultural phenom that has so pervasively shaped and galvanized viewers to the extent that Star Wars has. It’s embedded in my?and our?cultural DNA in a unique way, and these are enduring strands.” —Shawn Levy
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The Muppets 2004
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(Additional reporting by Carrie Bell, Josh Rottenberg, and Adam B. Vary)