In negotiation, your best source of power is typically your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA. When you are aware that you have an appealing alternative deal to the one you’re working on, you will be less tempted to accept an agreement that doesn’t meet your minimum requirements. A strong BATNA gives you the freedom to walk away from the table with no (or few) regrets.
Interestingly, by strengthening your BATNA, you can sometimes improve the deal on the table. Filmmaker George Lucas likely did just that back in 2012 during his negotiations to sell Lucasfilm—the film-production company behind the spectacularly successful Star Wars film franchise—to the Walt Disney Company.
Lucas had considered making a new trilogy of Star Wars films through Lucasfilm but, he told Nick Romano of website CinemaBlend, he was concerned about making such a significant time commitment—an estimated 10 years to make three films. As he contemplated selling his company and entering retirement, Lucas, who is now 70, grappled with the consequences of losing control of the fictional universe he had created.
So, as he prepared to negotiate with Disney CEO Robert A. Iger, Lucas worked on shaping his company’s future. He appointed his close friend Kathleen Kennedy to head Lucasfilm, and they began laying the groundwork for a new Star Wars trilogy, hiring a respected screenwriter for the next installment, Episode VII, and talking to the stars of the original Star Wars cast, including Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, about possibly reprising their roles.
Lucas likely understood that these moves would not only enhance the value of Star Wars for Disney, but also for other potential buyers. For Lucas, the moves were a win-win that served to enhance his value at the table as well as his BATNA. It’s a valuable lesson for negotiators: by strengthening your BATNA, you can also enhance your value in the eyes of your counterpart.
As the deal was being finalized, Lucas reportedly refused to hand over his story treatments for the next trilogy of films until the last possible minute. Ultimately, Lucas agreed to sell his company for $4.05 billion, an amount split roughly evenly between stock and cash. Disney planned to release new feature films in the franchise every couple years. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was released in December 2015 and a side story, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opened in December 2016.
Interestingly, in a January 2015 interview, Lucas revealed to Nick Romano of website CinemaBlend that Disney decided not to work with his treatments for the film. “[T]hey made up their own,” Lucas said. Disney also replaced the writer handpicked by Lucas, handing over script duties to Episode VII director J.J. Abrams and screenwriting veteran Lawrence Kasdan.
Does Lucas feel burned by Disney? If he does, he probably shouldn’t. Although Iger negotiated for Lucas’s story treatments and secured his commitment to serve as a story consultant for future Star Wars films, Iger reportedly stressed to Lucas during the bargaining process that Disney would be the ultimate decision maker about the films in the franchise.
If Lucas had a hard time letting go of Lucasfilm, it was likely because he knew there was a good chance he would play a marginal role in its future. The moves he made to enhance his BATNA—and his strength at the table—may have been psychologically reassuring, to the point that they served as smart negotiating tactics allowed him to sell his company.
When it comes to your own bargaining strategies, remember that your BATNA is only relevant and powerful during your negotiation. Once the deal on the table is signed, even the best BATNA enters the world of “what might have been.”
Share an experience where your BATNA has come in handy.