Monday, August 24, 2015

How George Lucas LOST Star Wars

OK, season seven of TvFILM is now in the books.  Stay tuned for news on our next call for entries and maybe a special edition this fall.  Please excuse me as I take a late summer vacation of sorts, from independent film, for this blog post only.  In just a few short months “Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens,” will be released.  This much anticipated film will feature the return of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo.  It will be the first Star Wars film to be released by Disney after they purchased Lucasfilm Ltd. from George Lucas, for a mere four billion dollars!  

When the deal was announced, I was not a fan.  For Mr. Lucas to tell us that he was selling his company to this sort of corporation to somehow protect the legacy of Star Wars for future generations is ridiculous.  Maybe it was just for the money, but Star Wars and Indiana Jones are cash cows!  George Lucas met with Jim Henson as he prepared to sell his company and the Muppets to Disney (which by the way went spectacularly awful).  Read “Jim Henson: The Biography” by Brian Jay Jones for all the gory details.   I’m guessing this is where the seed was planted.  It is also well documented that Lucas’ love for Disney goes back to when he was a child and visited Disneyland when it first opened.  Later, he had successful collaborations with Disney including the Star Tours ride and “Captain EO” 3-D film.  Maybe it was some misguided nostalgia and the few billion dollars that sealed the deal?

So, George sold his company and along with it a galaxy far, far away!  He’s getting older and has said he wants to retire, makes sense right?  And the new Star Wars film, directed by J.J. Abrams, looks really good and more like the Star Wars we all love.  As I write this there are even grumblings of a new Indiana Jones film in the works.  Everybody’s happy, right?

Well, hold it right there. I think that George actually lost Star Wars, kinda like that part in “Goodfellas,” when they have no choice but to burn the mob-run restaurant down because they ran up the credit they didn’t pay.  I know it was his choice to sell his company but I think he had backed himself into a corner by alienating the very fans that helped create his film empire and things ended, not exactly how he planned.

Nowadays he’s not that popular, especially among fanboys (and girls), but to look back on his career, one must concede his genius both on the silver screen and off with genre defining films like “American Graffiti,” “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Behind the camera he was a special effects pioneer with his company Industrial Light and Magic.  I could go on and on but just look it up and all you haters out there- stop rolling your eyes.  You might not like Michael Jordan but you have to admit he is one of the greatest basketball players, same situation here.  Ok, he did create some not so nice things like film merchandising.  Nobody’s perfect.  The more I look at his life and career arc, the more I think he’s a Howard Hughes figure for Generation X.  But that’s a whole other blog post…

At his zenith, Lucas had created the Star Wars universe with all its films and spin-offs.  These helped to solidify his company and sprawling production facility, Skywalker Ranch.   His other film franchise, Indiana Jones, was almost as successful and all of Hollywood was now anxious to use his special effects company.  The skinny kid from Modesto, California had made good.  Fast forward to a costly divorce, some film flops and a twenty-year, self-imposed exodus from directing and we find ourselves on the doorstep of the Star Wars prequel films and the first cracks in the dam.

The Star Wars prequel trilogy was a successful failure.  If you think about it, George accomplished everything he set out to do.  He created a new Star Wars trilogy that explained the origin of Darth Vader.  He used pioneering CGI technology, even going completely digital with Episode 2!  The films were huge successes at the box office and the merchandise machine was spitting green.  He even created a successful spin-off cartoon series, “The Clone Wars.”  Lucas also re-branded the most popular trilogy of all time into a six-part series, Episodes 1-6.  He made the new films more like the old school Saturday matinee serials with a target of a much younger demographic.  And if you ask this demo (basically anyone under thirty) what their favorite Star Wars films is – dollars to donuts, it’s from the prequel trilogy.  In fact, after hearing that my nine year old son’s best friend watched all six Star Wars films in chronological order for the first time (come on, parents!) I asked what his favorite film is.  His answer was “The Phantom Menace.”  I can’t even get my son to watch “The Empire Strikes Back.”  

However, to everyone who grew up watching the original trilogy these new films were mostly not popular.  At first, I could not admit that my life long favorite filmmaker had created these films –it took years.  This is not about what did not work with the prequels; I think that is well documented.  Honestly, I’m not going to burn him at the stake for that – pretty much everything I have ever made with the exception of TvFILM has been utter….well, you get the point.  

A few years before the prequels Lucas began to tinker with the original films.  This started with the re-release of the original trilogy in movie theaters with some added footage mainly consisting of CGI enhancements.  These films were billed as “Special Editions,” and Lucas claimed he was just giving audiences something new for their price of admission.  I have to admit at first it was fun.  I remember spending all day at the Madison Theater in Albany for their “Evening with the Empire” event.  They played all three “Special Edition” films back-to-back with all you can eat popcorn and soda.  To say this was an amazing day of cinema would be an understatement.  Anyway, after the initial release of these “Special Editions” on home video (I got’em on laserdisc), George dropped the “Special Edition” and now these became the only original trilogy films available.  Then he proceeded to make more changes.  Most of the changes were small and puzzling but hey, he’s the creator.  Even though the fans were clamoring for the original films he refused to release them without the changes on DVD or Blu-Ray.  There was a DVD release of the films separately and one of the extras was the original films on a second DVD with no restoration.   So, they looked as bad as a VHS copy but on DVD.  This really angered the fans, me included.  Right around this time is when you started to see “Han Shot First” t-shirts.   So for the one person who is still reading this, the combination of the prequels, changes to the original trilogy and his insistence of not releasing the original films with no changes, caused the fans to turn their back on him!  I’m really dreading the Episode 7 press drooling about how Star Wars is back.  I’m looking forward to Episode 7 but I’m not sure you can have Star Wars without George Lucas.  I feel he wanted to part ways with that universe that existed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away with a little more reverence.  

I’m not asking you to feel sorry for him; after all he is a billionaire!  And, Mr. Lucas has a tremendous opportunity now!  Who says there are no second acts in life, Fitzgerald?   Well, George could have a second act if he wanted it!  I’m positive the more Star Wars films Disney makes the worse they’ll get.  Disney is going to pimp the Star Wars brand out until the wheels come off and then they’ll just re-boot it.  This will make his decision of getting out from under the Star Wars franchise a smart move.  He’s now free to do what he’s been saying he was going to do and that is to make a new original film.  He says he wants to make “small art films.”  That sounds good to me.  I’m not talking about an “executive producer” credit or “story by” credit!  I’m talking about a new, original film directed by Mr. George Walton Lucas!  You never know and until then I can’t wait to check out Episode 7!

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