The Walt Disney Company seemingly owns everything now, but much of that happened during the reign of CEO Bob Iger, whose new book The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company details his time at the top of the Matterhorn.
Among the most interesting and impactful moments in Iger's rule was the purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012 for 4 billion dollars. With the purchase came some outlines for the extension and completion of the Star Wars saga, penned by George Lucas himself:
"At some point in the process, George told me that he had completed outlines for three new movies. He agreed to send us three copies of the outlines: one for me; one for Alan Braverman; and one for Alan Horn, who’d just been hired to run our studio. Alan Horn and I read George’s outlines and decided we needed to buy them, though we made clear in the purchase agreement that we would not be contractually obligated to adhere to the plot lines he’d laid out."
One wonders if the importance of buying these was in part that nobody would ever read them regardless of what Iger and Disney would eventually do with the all-powerful Star Wars IP. Or if there was ever any genuine intent to use them.
Either way, many people already knew this part of the story. What comes next was known to far fewer:
"Early on, Kathy brought J.J. and Michael Arndt up to Northern California to meet with George at his ranch and talk about their ideas for the film. 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.
The truth was, Kathy, J.J., Alan, and I had discussed the direction in which the saga should go, and we all agreed that it wasn’t what George had outlined. 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. I’d been so careful since our first conversation not to mislead him in any way, and I didn’t think I had now, but I could have handled it better. I should have prepared him for the meeting with J.J. and Michael and told him about our conversations, that we felt it was better to go in another direction. I could have talked through this with him and possibly avoided angering him by not surprising him. Now, in the first meeting with him about the future of Star Wars, George felt betrayed, and while this whole process would never have been easy for him, we’d gotten off to an unnecessarily rocky start."
Michael Arndt is the screenwriter behind Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 who was initially brought in to write the first new Star Wars movie, Episode 7. And if you haven't watched his video about endings as they pertain to screenwriting, it's excellent. In it, he analyzes how Star Wars (1977) had such a perfect ending.
Finally, Reddit quotes Iger as describing Lucas' reaction to seeing The Force Awakens for the first time:
"Just prior to the global release, Kathy screened The Force Awakens for George. He didn’t hide his disappointment. “There’s nothing new,” he said. In each of the films in the original trilogy, it was important to him to present new worlds, new stories, new characters, and new technologies. In this one, he said, “There weren’t enough visual or technical leaps forward.” He wasn’t wrong, but he also wasn’t appreciating the pressure we were under to give ardent fans a film that felt quintessentially Star Wars. We’d intentionally created a world that was visually and tonally connected to the earlier films, to not stray too far from what people loved and expected, and George was criticizing us for the very thing we were trying to do. Looking back with the perspective of several years and a few more Star Wars films, I believe J.J. achieved the near-impossible, creating a perfect bridge between what had been and what was to come."
We only have Iger's word to go on here, and he wasn't in some of these exchanges. He's reporting to us, in his book, about interactions mainly between Kathleen Kennedy and George Lucas. So take it with a grain of salt. Let's also keep in mind that Lucas review of The Force Awakens was surely colored by Disney's choice to ignore his outlines.
“There’s nothing new”
All that said... I agree with Lucas. I agreed with him when I walked out of The Force Awakens in 2015. Sounds like Iger agrees with him too, explaining nothing new was almost exactly what they were going for.
"In each of the films in the original trilogy, it was important to him [Lucas] to present new worlds, new stories, new characters, and new technologies. In this one, he said, “There weren’t enough visual or technical leaps forward.” He wasn’t wrong
The danger of "nothing new" is that things can get stale, and audiences can grow disinterested. In the years since all this happened Disney's Star Wars started to falter a bit... maybe in tiny ways, but falter nonetheless. The Han Solo spinoff movie didn't go quite as planned (to put it mildly). The Last Jedi was met with all sorts of backlash. Iger and Kennedy expressed concerns that they needed to slow the release schedule after recognizing that they'd oversaturated the market.
The Rise of Skywalker has had reshoots, and some reports say Lucas was asked to lend some input and advice in this, the 11th hour.
Disney and Iger bet big when they spent 4 billion on Lucasfilm and the Star Wars IP. But they played it safe when they relaunched the franchise specifically to avoid ruffling fan feathers prequel-style. In the end, they ruffled fan feathers anyway (those are the easiest feathers to ruffle, after all) and in the process, they may have started to sterilize the golden goose.
Who are we kidding? Disney + is around the corner with new Star Wars shows to boot. They just opened the wing of a theme park! Star Wars isn't going anywhere in more ways than one. But as Yoda himself might say, "that... is why you fail."