100 years ago today, two brothers formally established an animation studio in Hollywood. One had failed in his last filmmaking venture and the other had no filmmaking experience at all. What they did have was a commitment to quality storytelling. In spite of continual struggle, Walt and Roy Disney built a company that has influenced world culture through its stories for an entire century.
Near the halfway mark of Disney’s first 100 years – after Walt Disney had already passed away – a young filmmaker named George Lucas established his own company, Lucasfilm, in Northern California. In many ways, the circumstances were different from that of the Disney brothers in 1923. Though the respective enterprises had different trajectories, both were driven by storytelling, and both relied on the independence of its storytellers in order to succeed. Both the Disneys and George Lucas were committed to telling their own stories in their own way.
George Lucas had grown up in the 1940s and ‘50s as part of a generation of children deeply influenced by Walt Disney. The animated smash-hit Cinderella was released the year Lucas turned six, and just four years later, Disney premiered one of its earliest live action adventures, the special effects epic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Soon other mediums were bringing Disney stories to audiences in new ways.
Lucas has stated repeatedly the importance of television to his generation. Among the most recognizable faces on the small screen was Walt Disney’s, who, beginning in 1954, hosted his weekly anthology series that included the documentary True-Life Adventures, animated classics, and live action historical tales like Davy Crockett. These stories soon coalesced into a physical space that introduced a new concept in entertainment: Disneyland.
As a native Californian, George Lucas visited Disneyland the month it opened in 1955. He had just turned 11-years-old. There he discovered, along with thousands of other guests, a world of adventure, history, fantasy, and the future. Disneyland was like a film that you could step into and assume the role of a character. Amongst its many delights were the forward-looking, science-inspired attractions of Tomorrowland, reflecting the country’s increasing attention on space travel.
As Lucas grew up and considered his future, art and illustration became a possible career path. As a 17-year-old in 1961, he toured the Disney Studios lot (thanks to a connection through an old family friend). It was his first time glimpsing a movie studio, and it was during the era when Walt Disney was at the peak of his creative powers. Later, as the direction of his life changed, Lucas entered the cinema program at the University of Southern California. Walt Disney died in 1966, the year Lucas finished his bachelor’s degree.
Lucas entered a Hollywood film industry that was anything but inspiring. Studios were changing ownership, and fewer movies were being made. When they were, it was difficult for newcomers to find work. Lucas and his contemporaries were committed to making their own films independently, outside of the control and influence of studio executives. Not unlike Walt and Roy Disney setting out to make their own stories with their own characters in the 1920s, Lucas was among those to establish an independent operation in the early 1970s.
As the Disneys struggled repeatedly in their early business dealings with motion picture distributors, Lucas endured similarly grueling experiences with his first two features, THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973). In both cases, the respective studios seized the films and recut them. A resentful Lucas then had to search yet again for support on his next project, a space fantasy that seemed right out of Tomorrowland called Star Wars. As more than one studio rejected his visionary concept, he reflected, “I think Disney would have accepted this movie if Walt Disney were still alive. Walt Disney not only had vision, but he was also an extremely adventurous person. He wasn’t afraid.”
Neither was Lucas. His odyssey in the creation of Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) rivaled Disney’s making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which had been released 40 years earlier. Both films were all-out gambles that many doubted, but were led by the dogged perseverance and commitment to quality of their makers. For both Lucas and Disney, the facilitation of creative talent was an essential component. As Snow White defined the intrepid culture of the Disney Studios, Star Wars built up Lucasfilm, which beforehand had only been a very small company. Both films met their moments, sparking cultural phenomenons that are difficult to imagine for those of us who were not there to experience them. These were movies made for people, of all ages and backgrounds.
With its continued success into the 1980s, Lucasfilm was among the new enterprises reenergizing the American film industry. It seemed natural that it would soon begin collaborating with Disney. Back in the late ‘70s, the company had already negotiated licensing deals with Disneyland Records for Star Wars story albums for children. In 1984, as Disney was busily reinventing itself with new leadership and plans, Lucasfilm partnered with the studio to create theme park attractions. Captain EO arrived at Disneyland in 1986, followed by Star Tours the next year. Many more would follow.
By the time Lucasfilm was acquired by Disney in 2012, the two companies had maintained various partnerships for 35 years. Another major component of Disney’s organization, Pixar Animation Studios, had been an outgrowth of Lucasfilm in the mid-1980s. It seemed poignant that Lucasfilm’s stories, which had been made in the audacious spirit of earlier filmmakers like Walt Disney, would now officially join Disney’s family of storytelling.
Now more than a decade into this new partnership, all of us at Lucasfilm salute the Walt Disney Company on reaching the century mark. Here’s to the next 100 years, and countless more stories to tell.
Lucasfilm | Timeless stories. Innovative storytelling.