Nerd Rant: Darth Vader Goes to Disneyland, while Terminator Remains Lost in Time
Everyone knows by now that George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm and all of its creative properties, such as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, to Disney for over $4 billion. This is big news for both Star Wars fans and sci-fi and fantasy fans in general, so I thought that I would contribute a few of my own thoughts as to what this means for the future of Star Wars and sci-fi/fantasy film franchises in general, as well as how it compares to the current status of the floundering Terminator franchise. Read on ...
I'm kind of torn about Lucas selling Star Wars to Disney. It's not much of a surprise that he would do this, since he's worked closely with Disney before on other Star Wars projects. In fact, the last time I visited Disney back in 2007, it was during one of the "Star Wars Celebration" weekends at the park (events that were held to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first Star Wars) and people were getting their photos taken with actors dressed as various characters from the Star Wars universe. This was before the recent renovation of the Star Tours ride at the Disney parks, a renovation that completed in 2011.
The rationale I've heard Lucas provide in interviews is that Disney will provide a safe environment for the future of his creative properties. I can't argue with that logic, because I think that Star Wars will do better under the ownership of Disney than, say, Star Trek has done under the ownership of Paramount. The same could be said about the relationship between Marvel and Disney in comparison to the relationship between DC Comics and Time Warner; in other words, given its creative roots in fantasy storytelling, Disney will be a safer, more supportive environment for fantasy franchises such as Marvel and Star Wars than a less niche-focused media company such as Paramount or Time Warner.
For example: Two of the four Star Trek spin-offs, Voyager and Enterprise, were put into production for the sake of attracting the Trek fan base to provide a steady supply of ratings for Paramount's fledgling--and later cancelled--United Paramount Network (UPN). This was a revival of Paramount's original plan to launch its own TV network back in the 70s and use a new Trek TV series, Star Trek: Phase II, as the new network's flagship show. That plan fell through and the Phase II pilot script later became the script for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but that didn't stop Paramount from using the Trek franchise (twice, no less) to help establish and sustain the non-Trek project that was UPN. Given Disney's long-established system of media production and distribution, I doubt that Disney will put the Star Wars franchise into the same kind of awkward and ill-conceived situations.
All that has been determined so far for the immediate future of Star Wars under Disney is that a new trilogy is in the works, the long-rumored Episodes 7, 8 and 9 of the saga. Episode 7 is currently in pre-production and is scheduled for release in 2015, with the sequels following every two or three subsequent years. The Star Wars: 1313 video game is still scheduled for completion and release. As far as I can tell, everything else about the franchise has yet to be determined. I still don't know how many more episodes of The Clone Wars series will be produced and how long it will remain on Cartoon Network, a network that's owned by Time Warner. I suspect that Cartoon Network's recent rescheduling of The Clone Wars from its successful Friday night slot to a Saturday morning slot was probably based on the pending sale of Lucasfilm to Disney--in other words, Cartoon Network's relocation of The Clone Wars to a less successful time slot could be a signal of its near cancellation--but this is only speculation on my part.
Where I feel uncertain about Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm is in light of how much else Disney owns right now--it's currently the largest media conglomerate in the US--and how much more it will go on to own after the profits from Star Wars are added to its collective revenue. In addition to Lucasfilm, Disney also owns Pixar, Marvel, and The Muppets Studio; the combination of these companies' creative licenses amounts to an enormous piece of pop culture real estate, along with all of the creative licenses that Disney already has by itself. This doesn't even include the other assets that Disney owns, such as ESPN, ABC, Touchstone Pictures and Hyperion Books. Sure, the creative side of the Disney media empire may do wonderful things for the Star Wars franchise, but I'm not very comfortable with the corporate side of the Disney media empire using Star Wars revenue to gobble up even more chunks of domestic and international media--something that is inevitably going to happen, unfortunately. How future sci-fi and fantasy film franchises can achieve success in a media landscape that's dominated by Disney remains to be seen.
Bringing things back to a more geek-centric level, I'm also hoping that Disney's ownership of the Star Wars franchise will not prompt it to abandon its own Tron franchise. The Tron Uprising series is a fantastic show and the franchise as a whole has a lot of potential, so I would hate to see Disney completely ditch their cult fan favorite in exchange for the more well-known and much more lucrative property.
Concerns aside, the transition of Star Wars from Lucas to Disney is a good example of a well-maintained franchise that will see more success under new and proven ownership. Say what you will about what Lucas has done with his franchise since its inception, at least he made sure that there was always someone at the helm to manage the Star Wars universe. The same cannot be said for the Terminator franchise, which is currently struggling to break free of its current state of limbo. For as much as I love the Terminator franchise, I'm still shocked that it has made it as far as it has without a consistent leadership figure such as James Cameron--or anyone else.
As of now, the Terminator franchise is currently owned by Megan Ellison and her production company Annapurna Films, but the rights to the franchise will revert back to Cameron if a new movie is not made by 2018. Some rumors suggest another sequel, while others hint at a complete reboot. Personally, I think that the franchise made its worst mistake when it associated its success with the bankability of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a mistake from which the franchise may never recover.
Terminator 2 was a big hit in 1991 and the most profitable film in the franchise, but I think that most of its success was due to Schwarzenegger's peaking popularity during the late 80s and early 90s. (Then again, T2 is the most positive and optimistic movie in the series, which might also have something to do with its appeal to a larger, blockbuster-sized audience. As film critic Sean French observed, the violence and anti-social nature of The Terminator were sanitized by Cameron himself in T2, essentially transforming the franchise that started as a gritty, violent, grindhouse-style low-budget sci-fi movie into a sleek, high-tech summer blockbuster movie with a then-popular leading actor.) Utilizing Schwarzenegger to produce a successful sequel was a shrewd decision on Cameron's part, since T2 salvaged his own career after The Abyss tanked at the box office in 1989 (without T2, there never would have been True Lies, Dark Angel, Titanic or Avatar), even though this decision would ultimately cripple the Terminator franchise.
T2 led many to regard the Terminator franchise as strictly a Schwarzenegger vehicle, even though his creative input to the movies is negligible and his character was the most disposable one in terms of the franchise's overarching narrative logic. The Schwarzenegger connection was further reinforced by the T2 3-D: Battle Across Time ride in the Universal Studio theme parks--in a story which depicts Schwarzenegger's T-800 character as the triumphant vanquisher of Skynet and recasts humanity's post-nuclear savior, John Connor, in a secondary and superfluous role--and by Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003. Schwarzenegger appeared in T3 under the direction of Jonathan Mostow, after years of saying that he'd only do another Terminator movie if Cameron directed it. Schwarzenegger hoped that T3 would do for his career what T2 did for Cameron's; it didn't, and I don't think a Terminator 5 would either.
As any devoted Terminator fan knows, there are plenty of Schwarzenegger-free, universe-expanding Terminator stories to be told through the narrative rules established in the movies. For example, the Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series explored the Terminator universe in entertaining and character-driven ways that the movies never had time to do, all without involving a cyborg that looked and sounded like an Austrian bodybuilder.
I enjoy Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation for what they are (as well as the Terminator novels connected to those sequels), but I think that Josh Friedman's involvement in the franchise through his creation of the Sarah Connor Chronicles series was the last real chance to get the franchise back on stable creative ground. This chance was lost between the writer's strike during the show's first season and the Fox network's dwindling support of the series during the second. Alas, the association with a faded campy action star, the lack of behind-the-scenes leadership, shifting ownership of creative rights, and an unstable production schedule and distribution venue for its TV series have all combined to terminate the Terminator's chances of significant continuation into the future.
The Schwarzenegger-Terminator link is inescapable by now, and how his future, post-political film career fares will determine what the Terminator franchise will do next. If the poor sales of his recent tell-all book and his god-awful Governator cartoon series proposal are any indication, Schwarzenegger's blockbuster days are long over and the Terminator franchise will move on without him--that is, if it ever moves again at all.