Bob Iger’s ‘The Ride of a Lifetime’: Forget the social justice, just tell the story

I am not an anti-Bob Iger guy. As the head of Disney, I have been willing to forgive that he’s a liberal because I think he has done a pretty good job as a CEO in making that company one of the most powerful media companies in the world—arguably the biggest. Personally, I love Disney, but my interests often dwell in the challenges that corporations have in creative endeavors which obviously is a challenge the bigger a company gets. In that regard, Disney has been an interesting study and its not easy. After all, media is changing and its hard to get out in front of that change, and Iger has tried to do his best, and most of the time, he’s been right. However, with Star Wars he did blow it which I have talked about many different ways and I was very interested this week in reading his new book, ‘The Ride of a Lifetime’ that he admitted as best he could that he had some regrets about not following George Lucas’ story treatment for the latest trilogy. Clearly if Disney had handled that situation better, the Star Wars brand would not be as fractured as it is now. Iger took this opportunity in writing this book to throw the fans a bone and offer an apology which should take the edge off the activism for the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker film coming in December.

Iger’s book was good and insightful providing several examples of learning as he went along especially handling characters of great talent, like Steve Jobs and George Lucas in painting a picture of that very fine line in using massive corporate power to tell a story, when the best of what a story is comes from individual experience. Personally, after The Force Awakens came out, I was not happy and it took me a long time to give Star Wars a chance again. Largely for me it was that I had grandchildren who could use the stories the way I had shared them with my own kids. I raised my family on Star Wars so it seemed like a shame to throw everything out the window just because Bob Iger thought he needed to corporatize Star Wars to protect the brand. After all, from his point of view, Lucas was selling off the Star Wars property to let Disney take all the risk of making the next trilogy even if they might not be big billion dollar sellers at the box office the way that the market is lined up these days. Lucas thought he was selling Star Wars to a friend who would protect the brand for the long view. And the fans split along those lines. Now before the next film Bob Iger is doing just that, he’s reaching something of a compromise in getting back to the original Lucas vision, but it may be too late. Or maybe not. I’m willing to give it a chance for the reasons I mentioned. Because the upside is far too valuable.

I often talk about Star Wars as being more than just an entertainment franchise. Mythologically Star Wars is one of the hottest modes of storytelling that we have seen in all our human lifetimes. Even screwing up the canon storyline which takes place over thousands of years, Star Wars and the power of Disney and Lucasfilm before it, produces an enormous amount of cultural content, from books, television, video games, to of course the movies. The amount of material that there is from Star Wars has more of an impact on our culture than most religions and has far more power than governments over the minds of a population. And Star Wars is truly a global endeavor, no matter where in the world that you go, people know the brand and something about the stories. There are very few entertainment options that have that kind of power, so managing all that power is tricky business under even the best conditions. But at the heart of the Star Wars debate is the long desired human trait to understand free will, immortality, and the nature of spirituality. Even though the stories are kid’s stories, the questions they ask are quite large and have the tools to put minds on a higher place, exhibiting the best attributes of science fiction as a platform.

Iger’s mistake was that the very same skills that have made him a great CEO, that certain ruthlessness that you have to have to trust your own instincts are the same problems that caused him to second guess the Lucas story treatments which have now alienated fans. The Lucas story was set to take the characters that had been built through many decades of novels right into a philosophical story that might have been more like The Empire Strikes Back and less like a Star Wars greatest hits like The Force Awakens was. Iger had doubts that people would spend a billion dollars at the box office to explore the nature of the Whills and the concept of immortality within the universe. But in the end, because he held everything too tight, Disney killed the property anyway.

For me the interesting thing that Star Wars explores, that isn’t covered anywhere else in all earthly cultures is the very different approaches between oriental philosophies and the occident. Oriental obviously being collectivist in nature and the occident, focused on individual free will. The parts of Star Wars that works is the occidental part. The parts that people often don’t like even if they don’t consciously understand why is the oriental portions. However, the oriental aspects are important to the story telling so not every Star Wars story can be a billion-dollar grosser which is hard for a corporate spreadsheet to show to investors. But the study of the philosophy does drive merchandise sales for decades if done properly, and now ultimately Iger appears to understand that the Lucas vision should have been followed without his tampering.

Even for those not too interested in entertainment and pop culture aspects, the Bob Iger book is a good read and well worth the time. The selling of ideas is a tricky business after all. Speaking for myself my dealing with some of the people mentioned in Iger’s book left me wanting to live in exile just as Luke decided to do in both versions of the cannon, the extended universe and these Disney stories. And that is a challenge explored in the great book of philosophy called Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The problem remains and this is true of both Lucas and Steve Jobs who merged with Disney while he knew he was dying of cancer so that their companies could live—no matter how much liberal Hollywood types and creative geniuses want to talk about the independence of their craft and the superiority of ownership over corporate rule, ultimately the temptation to use big corporate engines to assume risk is where they always go wrong. Or is it really wrong? If Iger does make things right with fans I would argue that there are many more Star Wars story telling options for the future because of Disney ownership than without it. Many more books, more theme park tie ins, and many, many more visual mediums than if George Lucas had held onto the Star Wars brand. And with something with as much story to tell as Star Wars can tell Lucas was right to sell it to Disney. The mythology can explode so long as everyone understands the objective. And after reading the Iger book, I am sure he does. The question is, is it already too late? I certainly hope not. I’m rooting for him; I’d like to see everyone come out well in the end.

Rich Hoffman
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