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On Oct. 30, 2012, Bob Iger and George Lucas revealed the $4 billion agreement that would bring the Star Wars empire to Disney and kickstart the launch of a sequel trilogy. After the deal closed, the studio chief met at Lucas’ ranch with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and director J.J. Abrams to discuss the plot for the next series of films. As Iger recounted in his memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime, the discussion veered off course.
“George immediately got upset as they began to describe the plot and it dawned on him that we weren’t using one of the stories he submitted during the negotiations,” Iger wrote. “George knew we weren’t contractually bound to anything, but he thought that our buying the story treatments was a tacit promise that we’d follow them, and he was disappointed that his story was being discarded.”
Seven years after the deal, the last entry in the sequel trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, unfurled in theaters on Dec. 20. The five Star Wars films completed during the Disney era have collectively grossed $5.3 billion globally so far, and the launch of live-action spinoff series The Mandalorian has kickstarted the conglomerate’s streaming effort on its highly prioritized Disney+ platform.
But after wrapping a nine-film storyline — “The Saga Comes to An End” was Skywalker‘s trailer tagline — Lucasfilm has yet to announce its way forward for the next Star Wars-branded theatrical film, set for release three years from now on Dec. 16, 2022, with other entries planned in Dec. 2024 and Dec. 2026. (The franchise will alternate on holiday release dates with Disney’s planned Avatar sequels in 2021, 2023 and 2027.)
A key selling point for the entire Star Wars theatrical film series has been the idea of filling in the gaps both before and after the 1977 film A New Hope. In 1999, the 20th Century Fox marketing pitch to audiences for the launch of the prequel series with The Phantom Menace was to see the rise of the character that would become Darth Vader. And for the launch of first Disney Star Wars film, 2015’s The Force Awakens, the initial promise was to see the return of original trilogy stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, unveiled in a casting announcement in late April 2014, a year and a half before the film hit theaters.
Barring a reversal of public remarks from all those involved, the next set of films may chart a different course. They could launch without established Skywalker characters or original stars like Hamill, new trilogy stars like Daisy Ridley or even sideline characters like Anthony Daniels’ droid C-3PO. And composer John Williams — whose work may arguably be the soul of the franchise — has stated that Skywalker may be his last Star Wars film.
“[D]o you go back? Do you go forward? All those questions are being asked,” Kennedy recently noted of the development considerations in a December interview with Rolling Stone. “Do we stay in this galaxy? Do we go to another? The universe is never-ending.”
Leaving aside these world-building plot decisions that could set the stage for an open-ended storyline, Disney and Lucasfilm will also need a marketing hook to sell the brand’s relaunch and answer the question, “Why should audiences rush to see this next film in theaters?” The Star Wars brand alone, as theatrical spinoff Solo‘s underwhelming $392 million global gross showed, may not be enough to ensure mega-hit status at the box office.
Without the familiar characters, actors or plotlines as a jumping off point, could Disney and Lucasfilm roll the dice and try to bring George Lucas back into the fold? Or maybe offer a story credit so the marketing materials could say, “The next Star Wars adventure from George Lucas”?
If Disney does decide to move forward with an original idea — as opposed to, say, scrolling back through the established timeline to a story in the vein of Knights of the Old Republic, already explored in games and novels — having Lucas involved in some form could be the bridge between the old and new films. Lucas has hinted that if he kept control of his company he wanted to explore how the Force actually worked in the sequels, saying to James Cameron for a 2018 book about sci-fi that, “I never got to finish. I never got to tell people about it.”
Or Lucas’ potential involvement could be as simple as approving a story arc in the same manner as the creator once operated his sprawling Expanded Universe plotlines in comics and books before the Disney acquisition. “His entire self was wrapped up in the fact that he was responsible for what was perhaps the greatest mythology of our time,” Iger noted in his book about approaching Lucas to buy his company. “That’s a hard thing to let go.”
One of the most persistent criticisms of Disney’s stewardship of the franchise has been that there’s a lack of continuity in the storytelling. The differing takes on the material offered by helmers J.J. Abrams in Force Awakens and Skywalker and Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi have proven divisive among critics. A new Lucas story template — while not a silver bullet, given the reception for the prequel series that he singularly controlled, which Abrams strategically chose to pivot away from — might at least help allay continuity issues.
And a return of Lucas to the franchise wouldn’t necessarily be incompatible with the hints already dropped by Lucasfilm about the future of the series, whether its Marvel chief Kevin Feige’s film pitch idea or Johnson’s work on any upcoming projects. Disney already can look to a stable of in-house talent to guide the directing of a new film series between Mandalorian creator Jon Favreau, Skywalker second unit director Victoria Mahoney, Clone Wars director Dave Filoni and Mandalorian and Obi Wan Disney+ series director Deborah Chow, among many other options.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons why Lucas’ potential involvement in a new movie would be unlikely, given that Lucas has already vocally criticized The Force Awakens, has stayed mostly silent on its sequels and is publicly focused on his educational and philanthropic efforts in addition to his forthcoming Los Angeles-based, 300,000-square-foot Narrative Art museum.
And Disney’s top brass may not see much upside to ceding any creative control to a mogul outside their own system, given that the studio has already developed the template for an ever-growing cinematic universe in Marvel’s continually unspooling series of films, all overseen by Feige. (It’s Marvel’s finale, Avengers: Endgame, not any single Star Wars film, that’s the top-grossing title of all time in the world, with $2.79 billion.)
While there’s not a road map to Star Wars’ future in hand, Disney has plenty to work with outside of the nine-film saga without any new Lucas creations. Kennedy, in a Dec. 11 story in The New York Times, appeared to reference the tendency to seek ever more explanation of Lucas’ outlines, saying of Star Wars’ next steps: “You don’t spend a lot of time defining what it is that George intimates in this mythology. You tell stories about people, and you take the mythology and apply it to their conflict.”
As it stands, “the Star Wars universe now has more than 17,000 characters inhabiting several thousand planets and spanning 20,000 years. And this gives Disney infinite inspiration and opportunities to continue the epic saga.” So noted Iger himself in a video when the Disney CEO first unveiled the studio’s purchase of Lucasfilm seven years ago.
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