Consolidation in the air: Disney+Lucasfilm, Random House+Penguin
So anything interesting happen yesterday? Oh, yes, that’s right. Even the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy wasn’t enough to delay the big announcement any longer: Star Wars is now the newest crown jewel of the House of Mouse. The announcement was made a day after plans were revealed to merge two of the world’s biggest book publishers, Random House and Penguin. The two events, while occurring independent of each other, have all sorts of implications both specific and more broad.
Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm started a lot of people talking, and considering the legacy of Star Wars, it’s only natural. With George Lucas out as director and Star Wars transitioning into something akin to the James Bond franchise, don’t get your hopes up for a return to the sensibilities of the original Star Wars movie. The word “family” was used six times to describe the space opera in the press release and subsequent statements, sending a strong signal that what we’ve gotten most recently is what we’ll get for the foreseeable future. Kathleen Kennedy was hand-picked by Lucas to succeed him as head of Lucasfilm and brand manager of Star Wars. Between her and Lucas’ role as creative consultant, they’ll ensure Star Wars retains something for the kids, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, except for when it manifests itself in the form of Jar Jar Binks and other cartoon aliens with vaguely racist accents. In addition to the two- to three-year cycle of Star Wars films, there are plans for a TV presence and an expanded presence at Disney theme parks.
Disney seems to be on a three-year acquisition cycle: Pixar in 2006, Marvel in 2009, now Lucasfilm in 2012. Start placing your bets on 2015 (coincidentally the same year Star Wars Episode 7 is set to open). Hint: Look for a company with internationally recognized characters and brands that are on track to generate about $215 million in consumer products for the year, just as both Marvel and Lucasfilm were at the time of their acquisitions.
On the comics side, Dark Horse will continue their Star Wars comics “for the near future” according to Publisher Mike Richardson. But if BOOM! Studios’ licenses for classic Disney and Pixar comics are any indication, Disney will probably push to move production of Star Wars comics in-house to Marvel once the current agreement expires. BOOM! lost both licenses in 2011 following the 2009 Marvel acquisition but the duration of Dark Horse’s agreement with Lucasfilm is unknown. It’s also possible that Kennedy or someone else within Lucasfilm could fight to keep the license at Dark Horse. Disney has shown a willingness to let their acquired companies continue to do their own thing. If not, this would be a big loss and significant blow to Dark Horse, which has benefited from an ever-growing Star Wars line since 1991. In fact, before IDW Publishing and Dynamite Entertainment, Dark Horse became the largest publisher of licensed comics thanks to brands like Star Wars, Aliens and Predator. That brand caché fed into Dark Horse’s creator-owned properties, much as it does today but with Star Wars joined by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Conan the Barbarian. Even so, BOOM! has proved with its KaBOOM! line that there’s life after Disney.
Meanwhile, Penguin and Random House, two of the largest book publishers in the world, are planning to merge. Random House owns graphic novel publisher Pantheon Books (Building Stories, Habibi) and Del Rey Books, which publishes Star Wars novels, among other imprints. Penguin just last month announced InkLit, a graphic novel imprint set to launch next year. Whether Pantheon Books will move its graphic novel line to InkLit remains to be seen, but my guess is they’ll remain separate.
More broadly, this kind of consolidation of entertainment companies can be dangerous not just for comics and the “geek culture” entertainment that has formed around comics and Hollywood, but in all mass media.
As this info graphic from November 2011 shows, six media companies control 90 percent of all mass-media content, as opposed to 50 media companies in 1983. This is because of significant deregulation and revisions to broadcast rules in the ’90s and ’00s. Looking at Diamond Comic Distributors’ monthly charts, two of those same media companies (Disney and Time Warner) control the content of about 75 percent of the North American comic book industry. More and more these consolidations are at least in part driven by a strategy to compete with online retail and distribution models like Amazon.com or digital content in general (YouTube and, well, a lot of the Internet). Comics have a similar problem with the consolidation of distribution/retail models: Diamond for print and comiXology for digital. If either or both start taking similar tactics as Amazon.com on pricing, might we see comics publishers begin to merge? It’s possible, but probably not an immediate threat. Diamond probably missed that window of opportunity, and fortunately comiXology has so far been pretty vocal about leaving pricing up to the content owners. But even so, a diversity of voices and perspectives is better not only for readers but for the creators themselves. So let’s hope comics increase that more diverse piece of the pie beyond 25 percent.