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In May 2011, Iger flew to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida for the opening of Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, an upgraded Star Wars ride offering patrons the illusion of traveling through space to visit planets like Tatooine. Lucas was deeply involved in the attraction, personally reviewing its progress every two weeks for several years.
On the morning of the Star Tours opening, Iger met Lucas for breakfast at the Hollywood Brown Derby, one of Disney World’s restaurants. It was closed for the occasion so the two men could speak freely. Fresh from his daily workout, Iger ordered a yogurt parfait. Lucas treated himself to one of the Brown Derby’s larger omelets. The two exchanged pleasantries. Then Iger inquired whether Lucas would ever consider selling his company.
Lucas replied that he’d recently celebrated his 67th birthday and was starting to think seriously about retiring. So perhaps the sale of his company was inevitable. “I’m not ready to pursue that now,” he told Iger. “But when I am, I’d love to talk.”
Lucas had paid close attention to how Disney had handled Pixar, which he still refers to as “my company.” He founded it as the Lucasfilm Computer Division in 1979, and sold it to Jobs six years later. He calls Disney’s decision not to meddle with Pixar “brilliant.” If he sold Lucasfilm to Disney, he figured there might still be a way to retain some influence over his fictitious universe. Much would depend on who ran Lucasfilm after he retired.
He invited Kathleen Kennedy to lunch in New York. She was one of the founders of Amblin Entertainment, which produced a long line of hits including Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, and had been Lucas’s close friend for more than two decades. “I suppose you’ve heard that I’m moving forward fairly aggressively to retire,” Lucas told her.
“Actually, no,” she said.
Lucas asked if she was interested in taking over Lucasfilm. Kennedy may have been blindsided by the news, but she happily accepted the position. “When Kathy came on, we started talking about starting up the whole franchise again,” he says. “I was pulling away, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to build this company up so it functions without me, and we need to do something to make it attractive.’ So I said, ‘Well, let’s just do these movies.’ ”
In the five months of negotiations that followed, Lucas argued that the best people to make the next Star Wars trilogy would be his longtime Lucasfilm executives. “I had a group of very, very talented people that had worked for the company for many, many years and really knew how to market Star Wars, how to do the licensing and make the movies,” Lucas explains. “I said, ‘I think it would be wise to keep some of this intact. We need a few people to oversee the property, you know, who are just dedicated to doing that, so we’re sure we get this right.’”
Iger understood Lucas’s concerns. “George said to me once that when he dies, it’s going to say ‘Star Wars creator George Lucas,’ ” he says. Still, Iger wanted to make sure that Lucas, who was used to controlling every aspect of Star Wars, from set design to lunchboxes, understood that Disney, not Lucasfilm, would have final say over any future movies. “We needed to have an understanding that if we acquire the company, despite tons of collegial conversations and collaboration, at the end of the day, we have to be the ones who sign off on whatever the plans are,” says Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios.
Lucas agreed, in theory. The reality of giving up control weighed on him, though. At the end of every week before she flew home to Los Angeles, Kennedy says, she asked Lucas how he was feeling. Sometimes he seemed at peace. Other times, not. “I’m sure he paused periodically to question whether he was really ready to walk away,” she says.
At first Lucas wouldn’t even turn over his rough sketches of the next three Star Wars films. When Disney executives asked to see them, he assured them they would be great and said they should just trust him. “Ultimately you have to say, ‘Look, I know what I’m doing. Buying my stories is part of what the deal is.’ I’ve worked at this for 40 years, and I’ve been pretty successful,” Lucas says. “I mean, I could have said, ‘Fine, well, I’ll just sell the company to somebody else.’ ”
Once Lucas got assurances from Disney in writing about the broad outlines of the deal, he agreed to turn over the treatments—but insisted they could only be read by Iger, Horn, and Kevin Mayer, Disney’s executive vice president for corporate strategy. “We promised,” says Iger. “We had to sign an agreement.”
When Iger finally got a look at the treatments, he was elated. “We thought from a storytelling perspective they had a lot of potential,” he says.
Asked whether members of the original Star Wars cast will appear in Episode VII and if he called them before the deal closed to keep them informed, Lucas says, “We had already signed Mark and Carrie and Harrison—or we were pretty much in final stages of negotiation. So I called them to say, ‘Look, this is what’s going on.’ ” He pauses. “Maybe I’m not supposed to say that. I think they want to announce that with some big whoop-de-do, but we were negotiating with them.” Then he adds: “I won’t say whether the negotiations were successful or not.”