The business of Star Wars

Star Wars

Bloomberg Businessweek was out Thursday with an excellent profile of Disney and the acquisition of Lucasfilm and Star Wars. The big takeaway for nerds everywhere is that key members of the original cast are likely to return (maybe):

Here’s creator George Lucas’s slip up:

Asked whether members of the original Star Wars cast will appear in Episode VIIand 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.”

Besides the revelation, business reporters should take note of the profile. It’s a well-written analysis of the deal and Disney’s recent success at acquiring iconic businesses and integrating them. The lead anecdote chronicled talks between Lucas and Disney CEO Robert Iger. Here’s Iger’s strategy in a nutshell:

The clandestine talks eventually led to the announcement last October that Disney would pay $4 billion for Lucasfilm, thus putting the Star Wars heroes and villains into the same trove of iconic characters as Iron Man, Buzz Lightyear, and Mickey Mouse. Disney sent excitable Star Wars fans into a frenzy by unveiling a plan to release the long-promised final trilogy starting in 2015. Their enthusiasm reached a crescendo in January when J.J. Abrams, director of the acclaimed 2009 rebooting ofStar Trek, signed on to oversee the first film. “It’s like a dream come true,” gushes Jason Swank, co-host of RebelForce Radio, a weekly podcast.

The deal fit perfectly into Iger’s plan for Disney. He wants to secure the company’s creative and competitive future at a time when consumers are inundated with choices, thanks to a proliferation of cable television networks and the ubiquity of the Internet. “It’s a less forgiving world than it’s ever been,” he says. “Things have to be really great to do well.” Part of Iger’s strategy is to acquire companies that could be described as mini-Disneys such as Pixar and Marvel—reservoirs of franchise-worthy characters that can drive all of Disney’s businesses, from movies and television shows to theme parks, toys, and beyond. Lucas’s needs were more emotional. At 68, he was ready to retire and escape from the imaginary world he created—but he didn’t want anybody to desecrate it.

And it’s Iger’s vision of keeping other acquisitions intact, but expanding their characters and other intellectual property within Disney’s empire that have made him such a success at the helm of Disney.

Iger, however, proved to have a very clear vision. He understood that Disney’s success rested on developing enduring characters. This was a strategy Walt Disney pioneered with Mickey Mouse and Grimm’s Fairy Tales heroines Snow White and Cinderella. More recently, Disney translated The Lion King, a hit animated movie, into a long-running Broadway show. Pirates of the Caribbean, a theme park ride, became a movie series and drove sales of related books and video games.

Iger accelerated that process by making acquisitions. The first was the $7.4 billion purchase of Pixar Animation Studios in 2006. Iger personally negotiated the deal with Steve Jobs, who was then Pixar’s CEO. As part of the deal, Iger kept the creative team, led by John Lasseter, in place and allowed them to continue to operate with a minimum of interference in their headquarters near San Francisco. “Steve and I spent more time negotiating the social issues than we did the economic issues,” Iger says. “He thought maintaining the culture of Pixar was a major ingredient of their creative success. He was right.”

The transaction gave Disney a new source of hit movies. Jobs also became a Disney board member and its largest shareholder. Periodically he would call Iger to say, “Hey, Bob, I saw the movie you just released last night, and it sucked,” Iger recalls. Nevertheless, the Disney CEO says that having Jobs as a friend and adviser was “additive rather than the other way around.”

In 2009, Iger negotiated a similar deal for Disney to buy Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion. Once again, Iger kept the leadership intact: Marvel CEO Isaac Perlmutter and Marvel studio chief Kevin Feige. He thought Disney would profit from their deep knowledge of the superhero movie genre. While the Marvel acquisition didn’t involve a celebrity like Jobs or Lucas, it’s paid off handsomely. Last year, Disney releasedThe Avengers, the first Marvel film it distributed and marketed. The movie grossed $1.5 billion globally, making it the third-most lucrative movie in history. “It was successful beyond belief,” says Jessica Reif Cohen, a media analyst at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAC).

The piece is an interesting read full of great stories and details. It’s a great example of a company profile pegged to the latest industry news. Kudos.