Disney CEO Bob Iger has told the true story behind Disney's purchase of Star Wars. Bob Iger took over as Disney CEO in 2005, and he's led the House of Mouse through a period of dramatic growth and unprecedented success. He's a born optimist, and a natural risk-taker.
Under Iger, Disney has become known for a series of dramatic purchases. It began with the acquisition of Pixar in 2006, continued with the Marvel deal in 2010, on to Lucasfilm in 2012, and most recently Disney bought the bulk of Fox's film and TV empire. In the case of Lucasfilm, the deal's had mixed results. Iger has admitted they pushed the Star Wars franchise too fast, and the fanbase has become bitterly divided. The movies have now officially been put on an indefinite hiatus, with Star Wars moving to the small screen for the foreseeable future.
Bob Iger's tell-all biography, The Ride of a Lifetime, shines a unique and unprecedented light behind the scenes. This increasingly stormy context makes his reflections all the more intriguing - and worth examining in detail.
How Bob Iger Persuaded George Lucas To Sell Star Wars
The Pixar acquisition in 2006 was the first step in Disney's growth strategy. Disney execs drew up a list of further "acquisition targets" they believed could help the House of Mouse continue to grow, and two companies were at the top of the list; Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm. They initially prioritized Marvel, in large part because they believed it would be hard to convince George Lucas to relinquish control of his Star Wars legacy. In 2011, Steve Jobs - who was in the late stages of cancer by then - decided to intervene and encourage Iger to give Lucas a call.
Iger was determined to handle negotiations in as respectful a manner as possible, so he didn't push the issue. An opportunity finally arrived in May 2011, when Disney reopened the Star Tours attractions in Disney World and Disneyland after a year long refurbishment. He arranged to have breakfast with Lucas, and fired the question to him straight. According to Iger, it went something like this:
"I don't want to be fatalistic, George, and please stop me if you would rather not have this conversation, but I think it's worth putting this on the table. What happens down the road? You don't have any heirs who are going to run the company for you. They may control it, but they're not going to run it. Shouldn't you determine who protects or carries on your legacy?"
Lucas agreed with the argument, and he noted that Disney was the only company he'd consider selling to. It turned out he'd been talking to Steve Jobs, who'd told him all about the way Disney handled Pixar. But that breakfast turned out to be just the beginning of a long, drawn-out process. Lucas was indecisive and conflicted about selling his company, and Iger refused to push him. About seven months later, Lucas finally arranged a lunch with Iger, and agreed to start discussing the sale.
George Lucas Over-Estimated The Importance Of Star Wars
There was just one problem; Lucas wanted what he called "the Pixar deal." He believed in the Star Wars franchise, and initially couldn't see why he shouldn't get the same kind of money Disney offered for Pixar; $7.4 billion. But, frankly, he was overestimating the value of Star Wars. As Iger explains it:
"When we were pursuing Pixar, there were six movies already in varying stages of production, and a general sense of when they would be released. That meant they would generate revenue and profits quickly. Pixar also came with a big group of world-class engineers, seasoned directors, artists and writers, and a real production infrastructure. Lucas had many talented employees, particularly on the tech side, but no directors other than George, and no film development or production pipeline, as far as we knew."
Lucas allowed Disney to conduct a confidential audit of his company in order to estimate its true value. He seems to have taken Iger's response to heart, because accounts from Lucasfilm have suggested that Lucas' own Sequel Trilogy suddenly popped up on the radar again; Lucas himself began to work on scripts, presumably feeling these would be a valuable part of the deal. Ultimately, though, Disney offered $4.05 billion, slightly over what they paid for Marvel, and Lucas agreed.
The Hiring of Kathleen Kennedy
The most difficult part of the negotiations involved figuring out George Lucas' creative involvement with the Star Wars franchise post-acquisition. Star Wars was Lucas' baby, and he cared passionately about it, but Disney wouldn't allow him to remain in charge. For several months, the discussion went back and forth; Lucas saying he couldn't just hand over his legacy, Iger asking what the point of the purchase was if Disney couldn't control it. Twice negotiations broke down, but both parties kept coming back to the table. It was an upcoming change in capital gains laws that sealed the deal.
But Lucas still wanted to choose his heir apparent, and he picked Kathleen Kennedy, hiring her as producer to run Lucasfilm. The appointment came as a surprise to Disney, but they understood that Kennedy was an accomplished filmmaker, with an impressive catalog of films behind her including the likes of E.T. and the Jurassic Park franchise. Kennedy, in turn, was surprised to learn that she'd been hired just before the company was sold off, but she settled down quickly. As Iger reflects, "This was one last way for George to put someone in whom he trusted to be the steward of his legacy."
The First Star Wars Mistakes
Unfortunately, the relationship between Lucas and Disney became quite a strained one. Disney had purchased Lucas' Sequel Trilogy scripts as a mark of respect, and the contracts had been pretty clear that they didn't intend to follow through on them. But Lucas hadn't grasped that, and he thought buying the story treatments was a tacit commitment. That led to what seems to have been a very difficult meeting, in which Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt presented their plans for the Sequel Trilogy to Lucas. "George immediately got upset as they began to describe the plot," Iger observes, "and it dawned on him that we weren’t using one of the stories he submitted during the negotiations." Iger is surprisingly candid in his book, admitting that he views his handling of Lucas as a matter of some regret.
Matters only got worse when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released. Lucasfilm put on a special screening for the man behind Star Wars, but Lucas walked away disappointed. "There's nothing new," he said. "There weren't enough visual or technical leaps forward." Lucas did an interview with Charlie Rose, and he spontaneously talked about his frustrations, going so far as to say he felt like he'd sold his children to "white slavers." He seems to have immediately realized he'd gone too far, and he swiftly contacted Iger with an apology. "I was out of line," he said. "I shouldn't have said it like that. I was trying to explain how hard it is to let this thing go." While Lucas had signed up to a non-disparagement clause, that didn't trouble Iger at all. He understood Lucas as a person, and got that it was hard for him to let go.
Has Star Wars Been A Success For Disney?
Iger may be candid about his own decisions in The Ride of a Lifetime, but he's silent as to whether he considers Disney's Star Wars to have been a success. He defends Star Wars: The Force Awakens against Lucas' criticisms, insisting that J.J. Abrams did a solid job. "Looking back with the perspective of several years and a few more Star Wars films," he notes, "I believe J.J. achieved the near-impossible, creating a perfect bridge between what was and what was to come." But it's interesting to note that the chapter on Star Wars ends with The Force Awakens, and that Iger avoids any discussion of the last couple of years' worth of controversy. There's no mention of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which was a box office success but seems to have created lasting damage to the fanbase, and the disastrous Solo: A Star Wars Story isn't discussed either.
What's more, there's an interesting contrast between how Bob Iger discusses Lucasfilm and Marvel. With Marvel, he rhapsodizes about their success, and he heaps praise upon Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. With Lucasfilm, while he honors Kennedy for her skills and dedication, his praise seems much more measured and far less effusive. The contrast is even more striking when you consider that the chapter on Marvel moves on to discuss 2018's Black Panther and 2019's Avengers: Endgame, albeit in a cursory fashion for the latter. These references unintentionally serve to underline Iger's silence on Star Wars films released after 2015.
It's hard not to conclude that, of all Disney's acquisitions, Star Wars has been the most disappointing for the House of Mouse. Iger has admitted that they made mistakes; in an interview with The New York Times, he confessed that "we might’ve put a little bit too much in the marketplace too fast." For all that's the case, though, Iger is an expert at restoring a company or franchise's fortunes; he did that with Disney Animation through Pixar, and there can be no doubt that he has plans to help Star Wars get back on its feet as well.