This is another story that starts with the late Steve Jobs.
Disney (NYSE:DIS) was able to get George Lucas to sell it his Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion, half in cash and half in stock, because Lucas trusted what would happen to his "Star Wars" franchise after the sale. It's a journey he started by spinning out Pixar over 25 years ago, and getting Steve Jobs to put $5 million into a fledgling animation studio.
In movie terms, the ultimate happy ending.
Jobs shepherded Pixar through its glory days of "Toy Story" and "Monsters, Inc." before selling it to Disney and becoming that company's largest shareholder. But it was Jobs' willingness to nurture new talent, especially "Toy Story" director John Lasseter, that made Pixar such a success.
Since taking over Pixar, meanwhile, Disney has given it control of its own animation destiny, as well as its crown jewel, the theme parks. Pixar has not screwed things up, and these are some of the same people Lucas once had working for him.
Deals like this are always more about people than raw financial power. When you're talking about a creative business, you have to understand that it's the creatives driving the train -- who has ambition, who's ready to retire, who needs autonomy, and how tight the leash is there. Movie people have always known they needed money, and the 100-year dance between money and talent in Hollywood has always been about getting the right talent in place and getting financing for that, rather than the mere acquisition of assets and franchises.
This is the kind of business model that Michael Ovitz and, now, Bob Iger have perfected. Many people forget that when Walt Disney died, his was among the smallest of the big Hollywood studios -- perhaps the least likely to still be intact 50 years on. But the company is stronger than ever because its leaders understand, like the agents they were, that deals are about people and that money follows.
Lucasfilm is now going to be run by Pixar, by Lasseter. That's what George Lucas believes. He's watched Pixar's relationship to Disney evolve since its acquisition and he trusts that team. He launched that team. Lucas will hold 2.2% of Disney common with the deal, close to what State Farm owns, while the Jobs estate will hold 7.7%. That puts about 10% of Disney in the hands of two families that did a $5 million survival deal together in 1986.
Steven Spielberg is no longer the most powerful creative in Hollywood. That title goes to Pixar's Lasseter. And with this deal, the center of gravity of Hollywood moves even more decisively to Northern California.
This will pay off for Disney in the long run, but it may take some time for that to become obvious. Let the dust settle, then put it on your buy list.