Paul Sarker Interview: Star Wars & Lucasfilm

Star Wars is one of the biggest franchises in the world, and licensing and merchandise are key to its success. In part, that's because of the genius of George Lucas; he negotiated to keep the merchandise rights back in the 1970s, and was initially thought eccentric for doing so. Instead, he proved to have remarkable foresight.

The movies may appear to be on hiatus right now - Rogue Squadron is expected to be delayed - but the franchise is bigger than ever. In large part, that's because Lucasfilm has continued to expand into new mediums, most notably through the Disney+ streaming service. First, The Mandalorian season 1 launched alongside the platform's release, and now Obi-Wan Kenobi has proved to be a massive hit. Meanwhile, this has coincided with a push towards transmedia storytelling, with the immersive Star Wars: The High Republic initiative weaving in multiple mediums in a single seamless narrative.


Related: Star Wars May Have Fixed a Huge Return of the Jedi Plot Hole

Screen Rant had the opportunity to speak to Paul Sarker, an entertainment lawyer who runs the Just Call Paul podcast, to discuss how Lucasfilm identify opportunities for expansion. He was able to shine a light on the Disney model, and how he believes Lucasfilm develop their franchises.

Ewan McGregor in Obi-Wan Kenobi Series

Screen Rant: We were hoping you'd be able to talk to us a little about your perspective on Lucasfilm, speaking as an entertainment lawyer. Star Wars is probably the biggest transmedia franchise of all time. How do you think that's coordinated from a legal viewpoint, in terms of figuring out which companies to license and how to work with them?

Paul Sarker: I never really worked directly with Lucasfilm, but Lucasfilm was acquired by Disney while I was there. Maybe I can give you a bit of Disney's approach to franchises, because I think this is important. When I was at Marvel, and I believe I discussed this on the podcast, we found different business units get integrated at different speeds. For example, Consumer Products and Merchandise Licensing integrated very quickly, so Disney Consumer Products basically began controlling the Marvel and Lucasfilm IP - T-shirt licenses, other merchandise licenses, that's coordinated together.

However, on the creative side, with respect to Marvel studios was run relatively independently - at least theatrically, and television is now under Kevin [Feige]. So the idea is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. If there's an opportunity to create synergies and efficiencies, we'll certainly look at that, and that was the case with Consumer Products. Things like parks, Marvel didn't really have theme parks, so it slid into what Disney was doing. But Marvel had a very successful slate, as long as they hit their numbers they were able to maintain autonomy from the studio side.

With Lucasfilm, from a Consumer Products perspective, I think it's similar. There is a desire to do licenses broadly, and do as many licenses as possible without compromising your brand. Everything has to be high-quality, everything has to be to a certain standard, but beyond that it's the more, the merrier. These are not exclusive licenses, they want to sell as much product as they can. So from a licensing perspective, once you have the quality and brand guidelines, it's just a matter of doing more deals - as long as they're not exclusive.

On the film/streaming side, I think it's a little different. I can't really speak to it from firsthand knowledge, but I think you have to look at it from story-arcs, and what makes sense from theatrical, and what makes sense from streaming. Streaming's typically lower-budget, and you can tell a longer story - six to eight, ten episodes as opposed to one movie, where you're gonna have a concentrated marketing push for six to ten weeks. So think of it as, like, a very expensive volume, and then streaming would be more launching new characters, telling more in-depth stories that aren't necessarily well known.

Grogu Mandalorian Luke Skywalker

Screen Rant: Merchandising has always been massive with Star Wars. What sort of issues do you think Lucasfilm sometimes has to deal with in that area?

Paul Sarker: So, the standard issues that come up when you're licensing merchandise would be that you own the IP for Star Wars, so there could be things within the IP - music, actor license issues, where you need to get approval or share a royalty payment with actors for their likenesses, and then on the licensee side the issues would be around approval, scope and term of the license, distribution channels, the types of products they can make, what the economic relationship is.

Screen Rant: It's been interesting to see Star Wars expand into other mediums over the last few years, such as manga. How do you think Lucasfilm identify the mediums they want to operate in?

Paul Sarker: As I said, I haven't worked for Lucasfilm. But generally speaking, you have a combination of fans, creative executives, and business executives that are constantly discussing, collaborating, and thinking about where there is growth. And this isn't unique to Disney, this is every company - whether geographical growth, or franchises like emerging characters that could potentially resonate, or business areas like NFTs, or crypto, or manga, whatever. What we see as fans is the end result of a very long process of collaboration.

For example, when I started my career, I grew up watching animation, that led to theatrical movies, streaming wasn't a thing. Now, on television, there's so many streaming shows - a result of the market changing, and Disney and others wanting to control the distribution channel, get data, don't need advertising. It's a whole different revenue model, and it's grown, and things like that happen very quickly.

Publishing is still a thing, comics are still a thing, the future is dictated by the market. There's always people at the junior level, who are fans, saying 'This could be really huge,' and they're pitching those ideas. They then take a wait-and-see approach, assess whether it's worth the investment and what the competition looks like. So they assess the barriers, but you have to experiment as well.

Sarker was also able to shed light on how Disney handles their Marvel movies and the infamous deal with Sony in a previous interview, which can be found here.