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Lucasfilm Acquisition: Do's and Don'ts for Disney

Friday, November 02, 2012

Dear Walt Disney Company,

Congratulations on your acquisition of Lucasfilm! All my internet feeds exploded with surprise and joy when the news broke this Wednesday. I was amazed to hear on the investors' telecon that you expect this acquisition to break even in 2013 (could I possibly have heard that right?). And that's even given that the valuation of Lucasfilm was based only on the value of the Star Wars franchise, ignoring all other property (intellectual and otherwise, I assume). Clearly this acquisition is more like a gift than a purchase. (Kudos to Lucas for planning to use most of his proceeds to fund his philanthropic endeavors.)

There's plenty to be hopeful about in your new acquisition. But there's reason for concern as well. While I hope you are able to leverage the synergies and the common strengths of the Disney and Lucasfilm brands (especially the Star Wars franchise), I fear that you could also fall prey to certain weaknesses and limitations that either or both brands have shown in the past. So, I submit for your consideration some Do's and Don'ts.

DO take full advantage of Industrial Light and Magic, as well as Skywalker Sound, not only in your film divisions but also in Parks. The implication for theme park attractions, films, and shows could be incredible. I would love to see a roller coaster themed to the battle at Death Star I, with audiovisual components created by these powerhouses of special effects.

DO develop a Star Wars collectible card game (such as Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom) for Disney's Hollywood Studios. I'll bet most of the intellectual property for this endeavor already exists. And you know the booster packs would sell like crazy. I want the t-shirt already, and the game doesn't even exist yet.

DO create Star Wars themed dining and resort experiences. A Cantina pub based on the Tatooine watering hole would be a wonderful addition to Disney's Hollywood Studios, or perhaps Downtown Disney. An Indiana Jones themed resort would have tremendous potential; just imagine the water slides and common areas you could create, and the dining experience!

DO review the lessons inherent in the Star Wars Holiday Special. Perhaps it should be requiring viewing for any Imagineers entrusted with the Star Wars brand. We know how much George Lucas regrets having allowed a cookie-cutter 1970's "holiday special" to be produced not only with his characters, but also with footage from his film; there was a time he even denied the existence of the show. Now don't get me wrong: I love the holiday special, and I keep Life Day in my heart all year 'round. But if we're talking protection of characters and consistency of branding, you've got to understand that Chewbacca's father was never meant to be pictured with Jefferson Starship or Dihann Carroll; it's entirely too anachronistic and irreverent. And along those lines. . .

DON'T extend the run of Hyperspace Hoopla, or anything like it. As much as I enjoy this irreverent, almost-satirical event at Star Wars Weekends, its anachronistic and out-of-character use of iconic Star Wars characters should be strictly limited. I never want to see Darth Maul waving to me from the Main Street Electrical Parade, or Jar Jar Binks dancing along with Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade. And hoo boy, Jar Jar is a whole other topic in and of himself! Not everything that Lucas touches turns to gold. Remember, Howard the Duck exists too (in fact, you probably own him). And speaking of knowing one's limitations . . .

DO keep Lucas out of the writer and director roles for any future films. He's announced that he wants to retire, and it's your job to help him truly do that. You've announced that he will serve as creative consultant on future Star Wars films; please don't expand that role, even if you're tempted. You've got plenty of other storytelling talent, especially from the (not so long ago) Pixar acquisition. And I love the fact that you're working with Joss Whedon on Avengers; maybe he's got a future in the Star Wars properties, too.

DO explore little-known characters from the Star Wars expanded universe. In the investor telecon, you noted that there are 17,000 characters in the expanded universe, which includes not only the films but also books, games, and television series. Many of the people, places, and plots in that expanded universe are not well-known even to those of us who have loved the Star Wars films since their inception.

DON'T continue the expansion of Star Wars (or other Lucasfilm properties) merchandise into Parks without associated attractions.  Star Wars merchandise just doesn't feel right in the Magic Kingdom. (Hat tip to my friend Jeff W. for bringing this issue to my attention.) I'm not crazy about the homogonization of Parks merchandise to begin with, and it especially irks me when attraction-specific merchandise is available all over the place, willy nilly. The potential explosion of new Star Wars products worries me.

DO carefully study Star Wars Celebration, and whether and how to bring it into the Disney fold. You mentioned in the investor telecon that you intend to better capitalize on the Star Wars brand internationally, and the Celebration participants might just be some of your best potential ambassadors (especially at their events outside the United States -- they'll be gathering in Germany next year). But to leverage the Celebration social networks, you'll need to ensure that the brand message conveyed at Celebration is consistent with your Star Wars brand strategy. Can ReedPOP provide that for you, or do you need to bring it in house?

DO learn from your experience in the Pixar merger. The response to Brave from both critics and fans, plus the increasing reliance on sequels, has me a little worried that Pixar may be losing its identity as some of its key players have taken on significant roles in other areas of the Walt Disney Company. And I'm sure there's plenty to be learned from the Marvel experience as well. Don't be afraid to look squarely at your mistakes and learn from them. It's equally important to look carefully at what you've done right, so you can do it again.

Last but not least: DO remember Han shot first. He's a smuggler and a scruffy looking nerf herder, and we like him that way. If he didn't shoot first, his return to the  battle at the first Death Star wouldn't mean so much. Let the edgier Star Wars characters keep their edge; don't forget that Han's a mercenary, that the Falcon breaks down, that Luke (however unknowingly) kissed his sister. His sister. Eww. But it matters.

Yours in Magic,

P.S. That bit in the investor telecon where you said you "never really looked at boys vs. girls in [your] positioning in the marketplace?" Hilarious! But don't quit your day job.