Now that it’s the third highest grossing movie of all time and in some circles regarded as better than Return of the Jedi, it’s easy to forget just how much of a gamble Star Wars: The Force Awakens was. It had been ten years since the last proper Star Wars film (The Clone Wars feature pilot barely counts) and that release meant the story of the saga, which had slowly evolved to centre on Darth Vader, had been told in its entirety – there was no necessary reason to tell more. Add to that the distaste many older fans had with the prequels, and the pressure to get it right (and the cost of getting it wrong) was immesurable.
They had to tell an interesting new story that got people excited for the future while also scratching a massive nostalgia itch and winning back those burned by some of the franchise’s more iffy turns. That Disney and Lucasfilm knocked it out of the galaxy is no mean feat, and is ultimately testament to the skills of many creatives involved, but none less than director J.J. Abrams and Disney CEO Bob Iger.
While interviewing Iger for Variety, Abrams touched on the pressures of the movie and how the amount of money Disney had put down for the property loomed large. Here’s a transcript of the conversation:
Abrams: When we worked on the movie, it was a terrific collaboration. It was incredible fun.
Iger: That’s very nice of you.
Abrams: No no. It’s true – we’re on camera. What is your role and the normal operating system for you?
Iger: In my particular case, and I remember you and I having dinner, around the time you had decided you were doing this, or you were just considering it. (Laughs) I reminded you that it was a $4 billion dollar acquisition, I think it was $4 billion and 50 million.
Abrams: You said, “This is a $4 billion movie.” I remember when you said that, I thought, “Oh dear God…”
Iger: I think I was trying to say, “Listen kid, this isn’t just any movie…”
Abrams: Loud and clear.
Iger: Big responsibility, but that’s maybe the father in me. I was trying to say that to you, but I was also trying to telegraph, I don’t know if I was particularly subtle about it, but because of the size of the acquisition and what this first film represented in terms of importance, it’s not going to be treated like any old Disney film.
Back in 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm from founder George Lucas for $4.05 billion and immediately started development on an Episode VII, so calling The Force Awakens a $4 billion movie isn’t that extreme a suggestion: while Disney will have plenty of time to recoup the cost over many Star Wars (and Indiana Jones) movies, the long term viability of the franchise hinged almost entirely on how well people connected with their first new entry. Both parties here joke about the pressures, but they can do so knowing that the film was a success: the fear that’s referenced will have been painfully real for over two years of these mens’ lives.
Iger is widely regarded as the man who turned around Disney’s fortunes – in addition to the Lucasfilm purchase, he also oversaw the acquistion of Marvel and Pixar, as well as instigating a major shift in the company’s wider approach to its film output – so while he’s a gambler, he’s got a very good track record.