There’s been a disturbance in the Force.
Former Lucasfilm writer J.W. Rinzler, author of many Star Wars “Making of” books, once had a blog talking about the behind-the-scenes drama at Lucasfilm during the Disney acquisition.
That blog was titled “The Rise and Fall of Star Wars.”
That blog has since been taken down by request (demand?) of Disney, and Rinzler had a “Making of” book canceled by the Mouse — The Making of The Force Awakens.
The book was apparently cancelled because the various conflicts in making the movie wasn’t “magical” enough for Disney.
Rinzler spent quite a good deal of time around George Lucas himself and muses about how different the company has become under Disney’s corporate ownership.
“I was kind of cautiously optimistic, that Disney could be a really interesting place to work,” said Rinzler. “But it was basically… I felt very sad. We went to this big meeting, the whole company, and George was on the stage, and it was clearly the end of an era.”
Rinzler goes on to talk about how Lucasfilm was slowly worked into the Disney machine, and alluded that the the Disney Star Wars Sequel Trilogy was designed by committee and suffered for it. He said he’d only watched The Force Awakens and Rogue One, but had no interest in watching any more because it clearly wasn’t George’s story anymore.
Star Wars had become part of the Hollywood machine that George Lucas despised so much.
Itchy Bacca, webmaster of Disney Star Wars is Dumb, has more on the current situation here.
He’s also archived Rinzler’s original blog posts that Disney pulled down, and we’ll repost them below…
June 21, 2017
I came back from lunch to find that George Lucas had sold his company.
An email addressed to “LUCAS-USA,” myself included, read, “I wanted to let you know that today Bob Iger and I have signed an agreement for The Walt Disney Company to acquire Lucasfilm. I wanted to be there to tell you in person, however Disney asked that I be at a press event with Bob in L.A. this afternoon. As soon as it is over I will be boarding a plane so that Kathy and I can meet with you for a more in-depth discussion…. George.”
In the hallways and passageways between offices and cubicles, people skittered about, shouting out who was going with whom, and what it all might mean. I piled into a friend’s car with others, and we were among the first to arrive on the windswept headland by the bay, not far from where Pixar Animation used to be housed. …we, his former employees, were potentially to be moved south.
Readers of this blog may know that I’d worked closely with George Lucas on many book projects, while studying and writing about the history of Lucasfilm for over a decade, but they won’t know that I’d always thought that Lucas would sell his company to Disney. I’d pegged the date to around 2022, however, so I was as surprised as anyone by his sudden move.
But it was too soon for many. The atmosphere in the lofty space, as more of the two-thousand-plus employees swarmed through the doors, was a mixture of sadness for the past and anxiety for the future. Though no one at Lucasfilm restrained from criticism of Lucasfilm, ever—indeed, it was a way of life for some people—George was liked and admired by most.
Please note: This blog is about my time at Lucasfilm, from October 1, 2001, to December 31, 2015. As such, though I’ll try to be objective, my observations are no doubt my subjective views of these years, not any clinical “truth.”
What I saw convinced me that Lucasfilm was really the place to be: all kinds of artists in a vast workshop setting were doing a variety of creative jobs. Perhaps because my frame of reference was the Renaissance, I saw ILM as a modern-day guild environment—but on an even grander scale, using the latest techniques, down to inventing their own tools, even grinding lenses for revolutionary cameras. Taking a few steps back, I saw parallels between Lucas and the Florentine patrons. As the founder of ILM, LucasArts, THX, Skywalker Sound, the director of American Graffiti, and the creator of the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises, he was spawning a similar revolution in the arts. From what I could tell, he had a similar love for the Humanities, combined with a knowledge of composition, a similar interest in the past, in the Classics, a love of rhythm which came through in the editing, in the music, and in the forms going across the two-dimensional surface of his films—a spirit was shared by this kid from Modesto and those earlier patrons of that glorious City State.
Not only did he have a forward-thinking company, a whole freakin’ all-star roster of artists and groundbreaking technicians, Lucas was back making movies—Episode I: The Phantom Menace had just come out and I’d really liked it, as had my older daughter, who was about 11 at the time.
Roffman was reforming the department because by 1986, licensing and publishing were moribund, having fizzled out in 1983 with the last published Star Wars spin-off novel. Star Wars was so dead—despite the Ewok movies and cartoons—that licensing sought out other properties, even doing Grateful Dead tie-in comic books. In an attempt to revive at least the book business, Wilson convinced Roffman to ask Lucas on her behalf if he’d agree to her seeking out a publisher to do a new Star Wars novel, to create a new Star Wars story. “George said okay,” Wilson says, “with the caveat that we could only develop the period after Return of the Jedi. I don’t think he thought it would amount to much. Nor did anyone else, or they wouldn’t have let me do it.”
With Wilson driving it, and published by Bantam, author Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire hit and stayed at #1 in 1991. Not only did it jump-start LucasBooks, helped along by Dark Horse Comics’ Dark Empire series, it ignited a Star Wars renaissance. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Lucas and others at Lucasfilm were surprised. Lucas took notice of his creation’s uninterrupted popularity. He may have started thinking seriously about making more Star Wars movies. ILM’s digital effects for Jurassic Park, two years later, provided the final push.
By the time I arrived for my interview, Lucas and Lucasfilm were in the middle of making Episode II: Attack of the Clones—licensing had exploded and publishing was thriving. The book division was doing so well in fact that Wilson was looking to expand into nonfiction more seriously. That day in her office, which looked onto a shady porch, I sat opposite my potential boss. Poised, she had sandy hair and glasses, and asked, “What do you think of the Expanded Universe?”
This was the sort of right answer. The “Expanded Universe” referred to spinoff Star Wars material—books, comic books, videogames, roleplaying games, toys, etc.—things that would have excited the average fan, but which meant nothing to me. I was interested only in the films, which was fortunate, because Wilson had learned that diehard fans were often not dispassionate enough to do effective work.
Over the years I’d come to the conclusion that Skywalker Ranch and its ancillary works were Lucas’s most grandiose project, his equivalent to Disney’s studio, Disneyland, or “Hearst Castle,” possibly his most beautiful, cherished composition, a multi-vista painting in four dimensions—and, while at its peak, the creative hub for hundreds, something he’d imagined for years and spent decades and a sizable fortune making a reality.
Into this thriving, bustling community, I arrived and somehow managed to keep my job for the first few weeks. Except for the orientation tour, there was no other training or explanations on how things were done. I was given a workload of about 15 books to edit—DK’s Visual Dictionary and Cross-Section books; the last of the Random House Star Wars kids books; Scholastic’s Boba Fett series; etc.—and expected to perform.
It didn’t help that, in my enthusiasm to sign up for everything offered at the ranch, I wound up playing intramural softball, which I’d never played before, and dislocated my knee. In the second game I had to be rescued by the Fire Department and bandaged up. I was on crutches for the next few weeks, hobbling up and down the Carriage House staircase.
It was in this sorry condition that I made a discovery: As the newly hired nonfiction editor, I was in charge of behind-the-scenes books—and my first “mission” was to discuss a recently submitted manuscript with Prequel Trilogy Producer Rick McCallum, which was the equivalent of drawing the short straw. McCallum was widely feared, for he was volatile. In some quarters, he was … not liked. Former assistants had hidden beneath their desks when he was on one of his rampages.
Apart from his reputation, I had another problem. Upon reading the manuscript, although it was a solid piece of journalism, it wasn’t my cup of tea. Its author, however, was a friend of McCallum’s. This last fact was related to me by someone who hastened to add that I was, “screwed.”
I sent the pages over to Rick with a note asking him to let me know when he was ready to talk. About a week later I was summoned by his assistant, Ardees Rabang, who, like Radar on M.A.S.H., often knew what Rick wanted before he did (and wasn’t intimidated by him either). Rabang always made three copies of every document: one for Rick, one for the files, and one for when Rick lost the first one.
Years later George would tell me that you either “Rule by fear or by love.” With his mid-sized company of 2,000 souls, he was at least attempting to do the latter, though really it was a mixture of the two. Like anyplace, there were those who “didn’t feel the love,” those with their own hang-ups and fears, and “love” is a tricky word. Lucas rarely went out of his way to talk to his employees. It wasn’t his style, and he was occupied by more pressing matters. On the other hand, he was rarely dismissive or disrespectful (I never saw it, though some have complained to me about this or that slight. Any new hire was told not to bother Lucas, or risk being fired, but that seemed to me like common sense).
His “love” was exhibited in broad strokes, in the institutions, policies, and traditions of Lucasfilm begun by himself and Marcia Lucas, though I can’t vouch for LucasArts or ILM, where things might have been different (they had their own presidents and managers, and the visual effects facility was unionized, which distanced them).
I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture, as there were always tensions and problems behind the scenes, but the effort to create a good place to work was evident. Things would change, yet during my first few years, and long before, Lucasfilm was operating at a very high level of benign Mom-and-Pop corporatism.
Looking back and knowing more now, I can say that I was viewing the tail-end of a long tradition in which ideas were relatively free to flow. The atmosphere in 2001–02 was more uptight than in 1976, but still functional. Knoll or Muren or nearly anyone in the theater could offer up ideas or critiques. If it was going to slow down the process, or cost more money, they’d be at risk from McCallum, but people weren’t overly shy, and Lucas listened. At least, that’s the way it seemed to me.
At first I shared an office with Leland Chee. Not long before I started, if an editor had wanted to know, say, what planet was the homeworld of an obscure alien species, they’d have to consult their mini-library of Star Wars reference books, which took time. So Lucy had decided to create a gigantic digital database for everything Star Wars, mostly in-world, but also containing a fair amount of real-world info. Leland was in charge of populating that Filemaker program. Consequently, every novel, short story, comic book, videogame plot, and roleplaying game went through his hands to make sure it fit continuity and so he could log its contents into his growing database.
Lucas had paid for Big Rock Ranch (BRR) out of his own pocket and we were his beneficiaries. As at Skywalker Ranch, every amenity was supplied and more, from an underground parking lot to a sophisticated heating and cooling system made of enormous pipes plunging deep into the earth, which kept the compound’s interior cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
There were further changes. In 2003 Lucas replaced Radley with Mich Chau, the former CFO. From Singapore, educated at Wellesley and Stanford Business School, Chau was profiled in Variety and quoted as saying that one of her career mantras was, “Have a clear moral compass.”
Back in 1978, while prepping the first sequel, Lucas hadn’t gone back to the studio for financing. Instead, he shocked Fox by announcing that he would pay for The Empire Strikes Back himself. Thus began the real rise of Lucas and his franchise. Until then he’d been a glorified work-for-hire. By bankrolling his own film, Lucas took a calculated risk in a bid for real independence. Also, because he could go to any studio to distribute Empire, Fox had to give up an additional 40 percent of the licensing rights to Lucasfilm in order to remain the franchise distributor. (Fox still managed to keep 10 percent, though eventually Lucas would buy that back.)
Empire turned out to be a hit, too, and Lucasfilm profited accordingly. The inevitable consequence was that Lucas decided to move his corporate HQ north to further consolidate his businesses (he’d already moved ILM up north in 1978). He also felt that Weber and others at the Egg Company were becoming tainted by the Hollywood life style; too many executives were driving Porsches, the story went. Lucas laid off Weber, and a few people were found offices at ILM or in scattered offices throughout Marin County. Most of the Egg Company was let go, and Lucas, reportedly, felt terrible about it. In fact, the Egg Company layoff prefigured the Big Rock layoff 20 years later in that people were given severance packages and six months to find another job. Lucas had also begun a pattern with Weber, his first president. Lucas had wanted to change things for a long while before finally acting, and hadn’t been overly communicative.
Rinzler discusses more about the inexplicable cancellation of his The Making of the Force Awakens book in this episode of The Resistance Broadcast podcast.
“I knew I couldn’t tell George’s version of the story in there. There was no way that could be published. That was not in there. There was nothing in the book that was any way sensational,” Rinzler says.
So will the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the transition of Lucasfilm into Disney’s hands ever come to light?
Maybe. Someday. But not without good ol’ Mickey putting up a fierce fight.
[Hat Tip: Itchy Bacca]