The momentous, multi-billion dollar sale of Lucasfilm to Disney at the end of last month did more than split fan loyalties and guarantee, it seems, at least episodes VII to IX of the decades-spanning Star Wars franchise. In a business deal which appeared suddenly out of hyper-space yet felt like the most natural, obvious merger possible, the Hollywood machine let two of its most iconic masks slip. That machine has become little more than a toy factory. Once (arguably) the pinnacle of cinema, the mainstream American movie industry has turned films in to 90 minute adverts for money-spinning merchandise, repeated to the point of nausea year upon year.
I don’t believe that continuing Star Wars is necessarily a terrible idea in itself. The main problem has long been George Lucas himself, not just for his post-release meddling and greed: even a cursory glance at the development history of Star Wars reveals his shambolic lack of direction and conviction. Lucas’ removal from the front-lines of production allows for an important refocus and return to roots. The original trilogy paid homage to the likes of Akira Kurosawa and the Western; the prequels merely got in line with modern action films. With the right person at the helm, with a proper script and the right balance of tradition and innovation, Episode VII could be a real return to form.
That is, of course, if Disney does it right; not something it has a great track-record in across the last few years, particularly in live action cinema. Think Pirates of the Caribbean 2-4. Think John Carter, which lost hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as jobs. Crucially, think of the Cars series, the first of which is in places woefully bad, but generated over $5 billion in merchandise alone, and so commissioned an even worse sequel.
Star Wars, along with Lucasfilm’s other jewel Indiana Jones, offers Disney the possibility of near-limitless financial gain, not only through box office returns every second year, but through the procession of DVDs, toys, video games, bedspreads, clothing, books, comics, sweets, aprons, fridge magnets, toasters, pet costumes etc. which accompany every release. This is intensified by the suggestion that Disney might want to ‘Bond’ Star Wars, releasing a new movie every year or two, endlessly.
Chuck in their co-productions with Pixar and Marvel, from whom The Avengers and its multi-character, multi-film build up stands-out as the most thorough attempt at film-as-commercial, and the real focus of cinematic output becomes ever clearer. Disney has assembled a stable of the most repeatable, high-grossing franchises in modern cinema.
Disney isn’t the only one at it. Michael Bay’s Transformers series may seem an obvious film to make in this golden age of CGI-laden superhero flicks. Of course, that concept evolved from a line of toys… that are now in a seemingly constant crisis of bickering and resignations. Transfomers rumbles towards its fourth instalment, having all but shed the entire original principle cast. The brand, and not the film, is what matters.
On the back of Transformers success, an unholy alliance was struck between Universal and toy-makers Hasbro. That’s why we have recently been insulted by Battleship, a film based on a simple lo-fi tactical board game, yet rendered on screen as an intergalactic war at sea. The collapse of this deal has not spared us: in the pipeline from various studios are films based on Monopoly, Stretch Armstrong and (believe it) Hungry, Hungry Hippos. Hollywood as a creatively barren, market driven force has long been a cliché and an easy target for lazy or snobbish journalism. But we truly are scraping the barrel now.
Cinema is not dead, nor even dying: look across the page and online to read about some of the most interesting, original and powerful films to be made this year. And while ‘Disney presents Star Wars 7‘ might sound like flogging a dead tauntaun, it could move in a fascinating new direction, both in narrative and style. But this culture of remakes and spin-offs from spin-offs, of toys from films of toys, has got to cease for the good of the industry and the mainstream viewer. It doesn’t take a Jedi mind-trick to realise these aren’t the films we’re looking for.