Here’s a nugget of Star Wars history you never hear much about: In 1990 Canadian writer Dean Preston sued George Lucas for copyright infringement and “breach of implied contract” to the tune of $128 million, claiming Lucas swiped the idea for Return Of The Jedi’s famed ewok characters from a script Preston authored in 1978 entitled Space Pets.
Preston sent his script to Lucas the year he completed it but heard nothing back. A half decade later, Preston’s “heart sank” when he spotted a car on a Northern California highway with the vanity license plate “EWOK.” Preston tailed the car until it pulled over; a pair of little people emerged, explaining their plate was a reference to recent work on a Star Wars film.
In addition to claiming invention of the term “ewok” (an abbreviation, Preston said, of “he walks”), the Calgary-based scribe argued Space Pets contained “a full description of [the ewoks’] nature, characteristics, habitat…and way of life in general.” The case actually went to trial in Canadian Federal Court, where Lucas took the stand to explain no unsolicited materials sent to him were ever opened and that ewoks were in fact an offshoot of his beloved wookiee character Chewbacca.
“It’s the price of success, I guess,” Lucas told reporters outside the court house. “Anytime you have a successful movie you have a lot of lawsuits.”
Some drama erupted during George’s testimony—at first he stated that he had pulled the term “wookiee” out of thin air, but under cross examination the director admitted disc jockey Terry McGovern had first presented the word (McGovern did ADR work for Lucas’s debut, THX 1138; after flubbing a line, the dj remarked, “I think I ran over a wookiee back there!”).
A bigger bombshell, though, came via University of Calgary drama professor James Dugan, who told the court had the plaintiff and defendent been his students, with Preston submitting Space Pets as a final project prior to Lucas submitting Return Of The Jedi, he would “bring Lucas before the dean on a charge of plagiarism.” In response, Lucas’s lawyers doubled down on the “we’ve never opened strange mail” defense.
It worked—Preston ended up losing this battle of Endor, and the powers that be have done a pretty good job of shoveling dirt on the entire story. Still, you have to wonder about the actual reality. Who would go toe-to-toe with Star Wars without a shred of merit? What are the odds of two people independent of one another dreaming up roughly the same alien mythology? Wouldn’t those vanity license plates have violated a non-disclosure agreement?
All I know for sure is Dean Preston’s Space Pets script included a character named Chi Chi Gomez. Ay Carumba.
A decade ago I wrote a book about Star Wars fandom. It didn’t get published. Now, a thrilling e-book will recount that non-publishing, with large portions of the original manuscript, plus brand new essays reflecting on where you and I and Chewbacca are in this frightening day and age. If you’ve ever wondered about the mechanics of the literary world and what it feels like when you get trapped in the gears, this is the e-book for you. Also, if you’re super into lightsaber construction and ewok mating rituals and junk like that.
Arriving Hanukkah 2015.
Currently most of geekdom is wrapped up in rumors surrounding who’s gonna be key gripping Star Wars 7: The Search For More Relevance, but some of us inhabiting the furthest outposts of Yavin 4 are more concerned with what might now happen with the original original Star Wars trilogy. That is to say, the pre-1997 non-Special Editions, the unaltered versions of Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi an entire generation fell in love with in theaters and on home video, the versions George Lucas dismissed years ago as “rough drafts” he never wanted the world to see again. Will Disney finally appease the hardcore ewok jockeys with restored anamorphic releases of the OOT on DVD / Blu-Ray or will Bob Iger assume there’s no point since bootleggers have been passing rather decent despecialized versions around on the Internet for a while now and if anyone really wants to hear “Yub Nub” they can set phasers for Google?
In the words of Yoda, difficult to say. Always in motion, corporate strategies are. On the one hand, Disney’s been pretty good lately about catering to fan whims, packaging with noticeable TLC less popular properties like The Great Mouse Detective and The Black Cauldron for the new generation of Mouse stormtroopers. On the other hand, Mickey’s been pretty lazy with the Muppets in terms of video retail—seasons four and five of “The Muppet Show” still haven’t hit DVD and I can’t even begin to count the various TV one-offs from back in the day that now appear lost to history. It sure seems like a significant portion of this country loves to ride Kermit’s balls and would snap up without thinking any of his media; thus, it’s hard to understand why Disney is suppressing / ignoring stuff like “The Muppets Go Hollywood” and “John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together” (not to be confused with “Rocky Mountain Holiday,” a later Denver / Fozzie TV crossover).
Lucasfilm’s party line about restoring the original original trilogy was usually the allegedly prohibitive expense involved, which seemed dubious until we all found out they were relying on massive bank loans as early as 1980. Okay, fine, maybe Skywalker Ranch was having trouble keeping the lights on all these years, but Disney farts money. Hell, they dropped four billion alone on Star Wars like it wasn’t no thang. They operate numerous theme parks that all cost upwards of seventy or eighty dollars to enter—and once you’re inside, bottled water is like five bucks a pop. There’s no way Disney doesn’t have the cabbage to recreate the original Star Wars films the way they were before CGI Jabba showed up to Docking Bay 94. They probably have enough money to do it and put it out and be okay even if copy the first never sold. The question is do they have the motivation? Does Disney care about pleasing what feels like a rapidly shrinking part of Star Wars fandom?
Again, who knows. Disney reached a point a long time ago where they can basically do whatever they want, fans or logic be damned. Case in point: Splash Mountain, the enormous and enormously fun log flume in several of their aforementioned theme parks, oft considered the top tier attraction, an attraction that for reasons unknown was based on a film the company has refused to release and basically can’t release because of its perceived racial insensitivity. No, I’ve never seen 1946’s Academy Award-winning Song of the South in its entirety, but I trust the Mouse when they say, “Hey, this movie, uh, it might be too offensive for our culture post-Civil Rights Movement.” Alright, cool. Then why did you base a log flume around it?
Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath that Disney’s going to make every correct and/or sensible move with its newly minted Wookiees and Wampas. I guess as long as they don’t put mouse ears on the Death Star I won’t feel betrayed.
I think it’s fair to have reservations about Walt Disney spending quadruple the amount of Ireland’s annual defense budget for the complete rights to every entity in the Star Wars galaxy. I mean, this is the company that once decided an ewok dressed as Slash was a brilliant idea. To me that doesn’t exactly scream “respect for the source material.” Then again, Lucas himself had chickens wandering around those two mid-eighties ewok movies, and that makes about as much sense as Teebo putting on a top hat and playing air guitar to a Guns n’ Roses song. I guess no one really knows what to do with these characters anymore.
People crow about the success Disney’s had with the Marvel brand since swooping it up in 2009, but the truth is Paramount did most of the leg work setting up the long-gestating and now massively popular Avengers—the Mouse just kinda waltzed in later and bought the distribution rights. They haven’t proven themselves there (yet). Also, in the eight years since Disney bought the Muppets they’ve given Henson’s brood dick to do, cramming them into a Wizard of Oz remake and one original theatrical release (2011’s Muppets, an experience that must not have been amazing for human star Jason Segel as he’s already dropped out of the sequel).
Maybe I’m being overprotective of my Luke Skywalkers. It just seems like Walt Disney’s retaining stewardship of several high end brands right now (Marvel, Muppets, Pixar, now Star Wars and Indiana Jones) and I’m concerned about their juggling skills. Of course, who else could afford the Lucasfilm catalog? Wal-Mart? The catch-22 is any film / entertainment company willing to devote all their time and passion to our favorite galactic saga probably doesn’t have pockets that deep. And still, some people are saying Disney underpaid, considering they bought Pixar several years ago for $7 billion. Buzz Lightyear > jawas, obviously.
Of the explosive Episode VII announcement tacked on to the end of this news I’m even more dubious. Lucasfilm has always been resoundingly awful at keeping secrets; if they began seriously considering the start of the next live action trilogy five months ago those of us who keep our ears to the ground probably would have heard rumblings before yesterday. Let’s also note that Disney and Lucas announced their deal—arguably the biggest business news of the past five years—on a day when Wall Street was unexpectedly closed due to disastrous weather. They could have said anything and it wouldn’t have affected stocks one way or the other. Of course, only an idiot would dump their Disney shares as the company suddenly had a stake in the next Star Wars cash cow.
Smells to me like in the final hours before completing the deal Bob Iger said, “Fuck it, we’re gonna announce Episode VII in 2015, maybe for some financial insurance, but mostly for the goddamn ‘wow’ factor,” and Lucas said, “Okay, I guess I’ll start telling people there’s a treatment even though I’ve spent the past zillion years saying I had no interested in Episodes VII–IX.” I could be wrong, certainly. Maybe Lucasfilm really did decide to start hacking out the new trilogy last summer and through divine miracle managed to keep the news in-house. It doesn’t seem likely, though, considering the company’s history amongst rumormongers.
There is a perverse insanity to the fact Disney’s allotted themselves just two years to fully realize the sequel to Return of the Jedi, but I suppose The Phantom Menace proved over-thinking these movies for half a decade can be detrimental. Now we fans get to chew our fingernails off in the interrum waiting to hear plot leaks and who the director is and if Mark Hamill will reprise his role as Tatooine’s favorite son. Just when I thought I was done for good, they pull me back in. Namaste, Disney. Namaste.