LOS ANGELES – Naysayers would have you believe Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm can only mean one thing: Bambi and Mickey Mouse are sure to appear in future “Star Wars” movies taking up lightsabers against the dark side of the Force.
Not so, say experts who’ve watched Disney’s recent acquisition strategy closely. If anything, The Walt Disney Co. has earned credibility with diehard fans by keeping its fingerprints off important film franchises like those produced by its Marvel Entertainment and Pixar divisions.
“They’ve been pretty clearly hands-off in terms of letting the creative minds of those companies do what they do best,” says Todd Juenger, an analyst with Bernstein Research. “Universally, people think they pulled it off.”
Though the Walt Disney Co. built its reputation on squeaky clean family entertainment, its brand today is multifaceted. Disney, of course, started as an animation studio in 1923 with characters such as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Steamboat Willie and Mickey Mouse. Over the years, the company ventured into live-action movies, opened theme parks, launched a fleet of cruise ships and debuted shows on television.
By way of acquisitions over the last few decades, it has ballooned into a company with $40.9 billion in annual revenue and a market value of $88 billion. Disney bought Capital Cities/ABC in 1995 for $19 billion, Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006, Marvel for $4.2 billion in 2009, and this week it said it will purchase Lucasfilm and the “Star Wars” franchise for $4.05 billion.
Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment in 2009 offers the best example of how it might treat Lucasfilm and the “Star Wars” universe.
Marvel was in the midst of a huge story arc following the smash hit success of its first self-produced movie, “Iron Man,” in 2008. When Disney bought it a year later, it continued reading from the comic book giant’s playbook, releasing in subsequent years “Iron Man 2,” “Thor,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” and then this year, “The Avengers,” which brought heroes from those movies together in one giant film that grossed $1.5 billion at the box office.
Rick Marshall, a journalist and blogger who writes about the comic book and movie industries, was skeptical when Disney bought Marvel. But his doubts quickly melted when it was clear Disney wouldn’t taint the Marvel universe by getting too involved.
“I was the first one to say there’s going to be a Goofy-Wolverine crossover,” Marshall said. “We haven’t seen that ... Disney was able to step away.”
The “Star Wars” franchise fills a hole in Disney’s live-action portfolio, which suffered an embarrassing $200 million loss on the sci-fi flick “John Carter” earlier this year.
It’s in Disney’s best interest to maintain the integrity of film franchises that come with a built-in fan base. Disney chief Robert A. Iger has said the plan is for “Star Wars” live-action movies to replace others that may be in development and to keep its production slate at a modest seven to 10 movies per year.
In a conference call Wednesday explaining the acquisition, Iger said, “Disney respects and understands, probably better than just about anyone else, the importance of iconic characters and what it takes to protect and leverage them effectively.”